All Eyes on Katharina Wagner as Bayreuth Festival Opens

Classic Arts News   All Eyes on Katharina Wagner as Bayreuth Festival Opens
The opera world's closest equivalent to the annual hajj gets underway this evening, as the 2007 Bayreuth Festival opens at the Richard Wagner Festspielhaus, the theater — and now shrine — which the composer himself designed and built to house his operas.

As usual, the entire summer season is sold out, with requests for tickets exceeding available seats by a factor of 8.5.

Bayreuth's opening night each year is Germany's equivalent to the annual season opening of La Scala, with the country's famous, fabulous and wealthy in evidence (and heavily covered by the media). German federal chancellor Angela Merkel, an opera fan, will be in attendance, as will European Commission president Jos_ Manuel Barroso.

Tonight's performance also opens a new chapter in the long-running soap opera battle over who will succeed Wolfgang Wagner, the composer's frail (but famously stubborn) 87-year-old grandson and the Bayreuth Festival's artistic director for 56 years. All eyes will be on Wolfgang's 29-year-old daughter Katharina, whose staging of Die Meistersinger von N‹rnberg is this year's sole new production.

It has been widely reported for some years now that Wolfgang wants his youngest child to inherit the Bayreuth Festival, notwithstanding her relative youth and inexperience. (Meistersinger is only the fifth opera she has ever directed.) With this production, according to Agence France-Presse, Katharina becomes the youngest director ever to work at Bayreuth and the first woman ever to be solely responsible for a staging there. The widespread assumption in the press is that, if this Meistersinger is a success with critics and audiences, the Richard Wagner Foundation will approve her candidacy.

"It is a huge ambition for me" to take over the family festival, Katharina told London's Daily Telegraph. "I've been working here at Bayreuth for a decade and I'm very well qualified."

Yet her father only has one vote on the board of the Wagner Foundation, which controls the festival and will ultimately decide the succession. And Katharina has two older relatives who both have had long careers in opera, and each would like the reins at Bayreuth for herself.

Eva Wagner-Pasquier, the 62-year-old estranged daughter of Wolfgang by his first wife, has worked at the Metropolitan Opera and Covent Garden and is now on the senior artistic staff of the Aix-en-Provence Festival. In 2001, the Wagner Foundation board tried to oust Wolfgang and formally offered the festival directorship to Eva, though Wolfgang was eventually able to enforce his lifetime contract. Eva has kept a relatively low profile and does not speak publicly about the family's battles.

Nike Wagner, also 62, is the daughter of Wieland Wagner, Wolfgang's brother and a very influential stage director who co-managed the festival from 1951 until his death in 1966 (widely considered a golden age at Bayreuth). A dramaturg who is now artistic director of the Kunstfest Weimar, Nike has for several years openly campaigned for the Bayreuth job and harshly criticized her uncle's stewardship of the festival.

(While the Festspielhaus and the Bayreuth Festival are no longer privately owned by the Wagner family, there is a wide, deep and largely unquestioned assumption throughout Germany that the festival's artistic leadership should be in the hands of a direct Richard Wagner descendant. Thus, when Wieland tried in 2001 to have second wife Gudrun, his former secretary and Katharina's mother, named his successor, the idea was immediately dismissed.)

Magnifying the media attention given to Katharina's new production is the fact that Meistersinger is a somewhat sensitive property in today's Germany: the opera was Adolf Hitler's favorite, and the libretto's call for German culture to remain pure has been inescapably tainted by the Nazi regime's use of the work during World War II.

According to the Telegraph, Katharina is making a point of subverting Meistersinger's nationalist rhetoric. "[Her] idea is that the stage is filled with statues of Germany's great thinkers Goethe and Schiller carved in a monumental Third Reich style," Festival spokesperson Alexander Busche told the newspaper. "But during the finale they deform and collapse, symbols of what happens when thinkers are trapped in such an extreme ideological system."

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