The Wagner Family Soap Opera Rolls On

‘The Wagner family has never let Bayreuth and the festival out if its grip — today it is still run by two of Richard’s great-granddaughters’

Dispatches Germany Music
Adolph Hitler and Winifred Wagner

Richard Wagner and his music mean a lot of things to a lot of people all over the world. Being a “Wagnerian” signifies belonging to an eccentric, exclusive yet cosmopolitan club. 

Take Francis Monk-Mason, for example. The gregarious seventysomething bachelor lives peacefully with two Labradors in the leafy Nairobi suburb of Karen. Come August, as he has done for many years, he will be on the plane to Germany to see the latest staging of Wagner’s masterpieces in the maestro’s very own opera house.

The classical building on top of a green hill (it is even known as Der Hügel) dominates the friendly, unhurried Bavarian town of Bayreuth. Richard Wagner himself chose the peaceful location because he wished his music to be enjoyed free from distraction. The Bavarian King Ludwig II obliged. 

Since 1876 Bayreuth has performed — with some notable interruptions — a cycle of ten “music dramas”, the most famous of which is undisputedly Wagner’s masterpiece, The Ring. Germany’s rich, aristocratic and famous as well as a tightly-knit global commune of Wagner lovers, the so-called “Friends of Wagner”, who are also generous donors, descend upon the festival, to see and be seen. 

With only a couple of weeks to go before  the premiere of this year’s Bayreuther Festspiele on July 25, the mother of all opera festivals resembled a sleeping beauty. Flowerbeds needed weeding, windows were dusty, doors locked, while a stray handyman prepared one of the seven rehearsal stages. 

The peace and quiet are deceptive. As it should be for any theatre, life behind the stage goes on in all its twists and turns. The Wagner family has never let Bayreuth and the festival out of its grip. Even after the festival’s rebirth in 1951, when the brothers Wolfgang and Wieland Wagner decided to clear away the cobwebs of Bayreuth’s close association with Hitler, who had been an ardent admirer of Wagner’s oeuvre, it was their personal fiefdom. Only their mother Winifred, a close friend of the Führer, was excluded from the hill. The Wagners’ jus soli (“right of soil”) had become inextricably  entwined with their jus sanguinis (“right of blood”). 

In 2008, the decision regarding the hotly disputed succession of the patriarch Wolfgang Wagner made headlines. The Richard Wagner Foundation appointed the half-sisters Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner as joint directors of the festival.    Because of  the acrimonious divorce of their father from his first wife, Eva and Katharina had never met or spoken before. The sisters are separated by more than 35 years in age and a huge gap in experience: Eva has worked at houses such as Covent Garden and the Opera Bastille, while Katharina had been heavily criticised for her own staging of Meistersinger from 2007-11. 

They are, however, united by a powerful name and calling. “We get along just fine,” says Katharina somewhat defensively, perhaps tired of the endless speculation about their intellectual inheritance and personal relationship. “We don’t scratch each other’s eyes out. People just have nothing to gossip about and are unhappy with that.” Just get on with it, she seems to say, yet it is clear that the joint governance can’t be an easy one. 

Their task is undoubtedly monumental. Together, and nolens volens, they had to transform the €25 million-a-year  festival into a modern theatre company in order to justify public subsidies, which amount to 40 per cent of the annual cost. Reforms started everywhere at the same time and are riddled with problems, which is not surprising given the scale of the operation. Contracts had to conform to the demands of trade unions. This means a steady increase in wages as well as regulated working hours — a nightmare for any cash-strapped artistic enterprise. The widely criticised ticket distribution system had to be made more transparent — the longest wait for tickets was 13 years and demand still exceeds supply by five to one. Since 2010 it has been possible to place orders on the internet, although which performance and on what date is still up to the festival’s discretion. In 2013, the year of Wagner’s 200th anniversary, this is to change. For the first time, tickets for one of the operas are to be sold online — first come, first served. Bayreuth wants to make itself more democratic, and that, too, isn’t easy. On August 11, the staging of Parsifal is to be streamed to cinemas throughout Europe.

The former principal sponsor, Siemens, pulled out of the public screening of the operas on Bayreuth’s Marketplace last September. A Facebook page exists, yet seems untended — it mainly reports about ongoing building work. 

Katharina Wagner concedes: “Our main problem is the building. At the moment, style reigns over substance.” The critics of the Wagner sisters devour words of such Delphic nature, especially ahead of the anniversary year of 2013 and in light of the fragile balance of power between the Richard Wagner Foundation, owner of the concert hall and the Wagner residence, Villa Wahnfried, and the wealthy Friends of Wagner. They are tapped for the most urgent renovations, which are rumoured to cost about €20 million, yet are often on the conservative side artistically. In their opinion, Bayreuth productions are often too avant-garde and detrimental to Wagner’s spiritual inheritance. Is a trade-off between the Wagner sisters and the Friends imaginable — funds for the renovation in exchange for a less brave new Wagner world? In public, the Wagners insist that their artistic freedom is untouchable, as are the ideas of their chosen directors and conductors. 

Bayreuth is proud of its close co-operation with Christian Thielemann, who conducts The Flying Dutchman at this year’s opening. Many people, especially the Friends, want an even closer co-operation with him. The Wagners have cast Lance Ryan as Siegfried in 2013 and Eva Maria Westbroek as Isolde in 2015. These are big names. However, it took an extensive search before the anniversary Ring in 2013 was assigned to Frank Castorf, artistic director of the Berliner Volksbühne, who is relatively inexperienced for such a  production, which is nothing short of colossal. Wim Wenders turned them down, while other candidates, such as the film director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (of The Lives of Others fame), were far-fetched. Furthermore, there are still a lot of gaps to be filled for 2013 as far as casting is concerned. 

Not surprisingly, Eva Wagner-Pasquier has been criticised for her very speciality, the choice of artists, and here, too, her inheritance and the unwritten rules of Bayreuth take their toll. Artistic directors and conductors have to arrive for their five or six weeks of rehearsals well prepared and with a concept already in mind. There is little or no room for learning by doing or much creative licence and inspiration once work has started. One Tannhäuser conductor called the circumstances during the run-up to the opening a “suicide mission”. The changing line-up of the orchestra is a further burden: the musicians turning up for rehearsals are not necessarily the ones who perform in the late afternoon.

The Wagner sisters brush off all such criticism and speculation about their future and that of the festival after 2013, when talks about a renewal of their contracts are due. Officially they end in 2015, which invites all sorts of speculation, both friendly and hostile. Will the young, ambitious Katharina try to outmanoeuvre her half-sister and even  banish her from the hill? Or might their cousin Nike Wagner stage a third attempt to gain the Richard Wagner Foundation’s vote? Nike is currently artistic director at Weimar and has twice unsuccessfully tried to seize control of the  Bayreuth festival. Or, shock horror, is the festival  imaginable without a Wagner family member at its helm? Is Wagner without Wagner still Wagner? You have to earn your inheritance in order to own it, as Goethe wrote. 

Wagner is never easy, either for insiders or outsiders. The seats in the concert hall are famously uncomfortable and demand extraordinary steadfastness on the part of his admirers. For Katharina Wagner, Bayreuth lives, despite all its problems. As long as her great-grandfather’s operas are staged here, from the more accessible productions right through to the heavyweight Ring, and as long as his audience feels his compositions as much as it hears them, the show will go on. 

Meanwhile, Francis Monk-Mason has just booked his tickets for 2013 with a Nairobi travel agent. To Wagner or not to Wagner, is never the question for Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, as well as for the master’s countless admirers around the globe.