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Bayreuth After Wolfgang

This post was initially published on WETA 90.9 FM's classical column on September 1, 2008.

It seemed worthwhile unearthing this bit I wrote seven years ago, ahead of my posting reviews of this year's Ring and Katharina Wagner's new production of Tristan.

If Munich’s annual Opernfestspiele is the largest opera festival in Europe, and Salzburg the most glamorous, the Bayreuth festival (just two hours to the north of Munich and conveniently without overlapping) is the most iconic.

Munich can boast with quantity and variety (46 performances in 34 days, 20 different operas), Salzburg with location and star power. “The Green Hill” in Bayreuth meanwhile is the nexus of all things Wagner. The annual point of pilgrimage for Wagnerians around the world has even near mystical qualities… a fact to which the eight year waiting list for tickets contributes.

But Bayreuth seemed in troubled waters for the last few years with squabbles between the Festival Director “for life” Wolfgang Wagner and the Bayreuth Trust (which includes influence and funding from the Bavarian State Government) breaking out over the future leadership of the Festival. Wolfgang Wagner, the master’s grandson, wanted to anoint his daughter of second marriage (with Gudrun Wagner, née Armann) as the new director. Apart from lacking the statutory power to stipulate his successor, that daughter, Katharina Wagner, was eyed with suspicion as too young, too inexperienced. Her niece Nike Wagner – daughter of Wolfgang’s genial and more artistic brother Wieland and artistic director of her Weimar Festival – bickered loudly and very undiplomatically in all the German Feuilletons about revolutionizing post-Wolfgang Bayreuth.

Wagner might have supported revolutionary activities when in Dresden, but his successors in Bayreuth shiver at the very idea. Nike Wagner became a persona non grata at the festival. Not the least to prevent Nike Wagner from bringing her ideas to this most traditional of opera festivals, Wolfgang Wagner clung to the directorship and – given his deteriorating vitality – seemingly to life, also. Wolfgang Wagner’s daughter from his first marriage meanwhile, Eva Wagner-Pasquier,herself the seasoned artistic co-director of the Aix-en-Provence Festival, was once vetoed by her father as the potential successor by her own father – presumably to keep the chances alive for the succession of Gudrun’s daughter. The curtain-raiser for the convoluted end-game of the Bayreuth ascension was to be Kathrina Wagner’s direction of Die Meistersinger at last year’s festival – by all accounts an impressive and intelligent feat.

All in all it was a terrific plot of brothers, step-daughters and –mothers, changing alliances and broken contracts, and all in a battle over the ascendancy of the Wagnerian throne. Operatic stuff, you might say, and it has happily filled the cultural sections of newspapers for some time.

Unexpectedly and in keeping with great drama, Wolfgang Wagner’s young second wife Gudrun, who had domineered behind the scenes, died. No one would likely admit to her passing having been a relief for the many involved in the future of Bayreuth, but it certainly did hasten efforts in coming up with a workable compromise.

Step-daughters Katharina the Young (30) and Eva the Quiet (63) have made their peace for now – leaving Nike the Wily out in the rain. Not even a last-minute ‘application’ of Nike Wagner teaming up with ex-Salzburg, Paris and future New York City Opera General Director Gerard Mortier changed anything about that. If their last-hour bid was even meant to be taken seriously, it likely wasn’t seriously considered by the Bayreuth Trust’s board who made their decision for the succession of the Festival leadership today.

Wolfgang Wagner, who few trusted to have the energy necessary to effectively run the Festival, can now lean back with the future of Bayreuth securely in the hands of his branch of the family. To see him take his last bow after the last performance under his reign (Parsifal, last Thursday), became a touching affair.

Judging from the Wagner-daughters’ concept for the future of Bayreuth, a happy end might come of the tussle, after all. The happiest part of it being that is has come to an end, at all. A conservative approach to the tradition ensures that that which has made the Festival special will remain in place. Bayreuth will continue to show the 10 Wagner operas of the Bayreuth canon – and only those. For Rienzi, Das Liebesverbot, and The Fairies, Wagnerians must continue to look elsewhere. Hardly too much to ask of them.

Innovation for innovation’s sake – a common disease of many traditional institutions – is shunned. Meanwhile weaknesses are reckoned and named. The quality of the singers in Bayreuth has been less than that at the great Wagner opera houses in Berlin, Munich, New York, Vienna et al. Few of the great Wagnerian singers are willing to spend their summers only at Bayreuth when they could more profitably make shorter appearances at different festivals. Money and determination will have to aid mere reputation to improve matters here. Audiences won’t continue to give standing ovations to the well-below average vocal performances forever. The same can be said for the conductors who appear at Bayreuth who have been – Bayreuth’s future musical consultant Christian Thielemann excepted – less than inspiring. Even Daniele Gatti’s Parsifal this season was short on the mystical and long on, well, length.

More emphasis will also be placed on how the Festival markets itself. Just relying on one’s own importance combined with a rather dusty approach to press relations will eventually not suffice for keeping Bayreuth vital. Katharina Wagner is the woman for this – and has already introduced concepts like a public viewing and internet streaming of (her) Meistersinger that found nearly 40,000 viewers: more than could watch the performance live over a regular 7 year run. Marketing, however, does not mean gratuitously offending existent clientele nor breaking with traditions for the sake of breaking with them. Hopefully this will also include adjusting its 19th century-style PR division.

The rest of the Wagner/Wagner-Pasquier program emphasizes matters still or already in place – not the least the continued choice of intriguing and innovative directors who challenge the status quo, balanced with traditional productions that avoid being backward. Their rather reticent plan, devoid of revolutions or surprises, might disappoint those who hoped for creativity out of upheaval, creative destruction. It will come as a great relieve to those who believe in Bayreuth’s skill to innovate within the bounds of a strong and strict tradition. Even to those who cherish Mortier’s ability to give institutions of ‘high culture’ a shot of adrenaline (or cocaine) – I among them – it must seem unlikely that Mortier’s work would actually have advanced Bayreuth as much as he can any other institution (like the City Opera of New York or Madrid’s Teatro Real), while offering a potential of irrevocable loss of customs where customs are held so particularly dear.

Boredom won’t overcome Bayreuth if the quality of its performances is first class. And seeing that few of its productions have failed to outrage the reactionaries, hopes are high that they will continue to do so in the future.

Image of the Wagner Sisters by Johannes Simon / Getty Images

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