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The battle for Bayreuth heats up

The successor to Richard Wagner's aging grandson Wolfgang is still in doubt on the eve of festival's opening.

July 24, 2007|George Jahn | Associated Press

VIENNA — A real-life drama of succession as riveting as any Richard Wagner opera is casting a shadow over this year's Bayreuth Festival, raising the anticipation level among devotees of the German master even before the first curtain rises Wednesday at the musical shrine he inaugurated 131 years ago.

No matter what the outcome, chances are good that whoever heads the famous German festival -- a traditional battleground for Wagner clan members vying for influence -- will be part of the family for some time to come.

But which Wagner will it be?

Wolfgang, the grizzled 87-year-old patriarch and Richard's grandson, who has held the reins for the last 56 years -- first with brother Wieland, then alone after Wieland's death? Wolfgang's niece, Nike? Eva, his daughter from his first marriage? Or Katharina, a daughter from his second?

The issue of who will follow Wolfgang -- or whether he even will give up his lifetime contract -- has gained special significance this year. Nike and Eva, both experienced managers of artistic or musical events, have indicated their interest, but are shunned by Wagner. So has Katharina, a comparative opera neophyte who is her father's choice.

Increasing speculation is fed by the media's suggestion that it's time for a change. The respected German weekly Die Zeit recently described Wolfgang Wagner as "an old man leaning on a cane for support who hears poorly, occasionally seems mentally absent and whose appearances from behind the wings are becoming increasingly rare." Other newspapers say the festival is losing both money and status because it refuses to clean house and start fresh.

Still other publications have bequeathed star status to Katharina -- though not necessarily the kind a future director of the festival would appreciate. The outspoken, 29-year-old blond with a preference for jeans has been labeled the "Bayreuth Barbie" and "Bayreuth Hilton" by some tabloids.

Festival organizers deny reports that Wolfgang already has been sidelined and that his second wife, Gudrun -- rejected by festival officials as her husband's first choice as successor -- is pulling the strings.

Festival spokesman Peter Emmerich declined comment about a possible leadership change, saying the issue was "highly political."

Bayreuth Mayor Michael Hohl, director of the Richard Wagner Foundation that controls succession and other major issues, said the elder Wagner "is doing fine, even if he no longer runs around like a 30-year-old." Still, he acknowledged the foundation would look at the succession question this fall because "discussions have become loud" about the issue.

Three outcomes are possible, Hohl said in an interview: the status quo, with Wolfgang Wagner insisting his lifetime contract be honored; the foundation accepting his choice of Katharina as successor; or if he surprisingly drops his insistence on his youngest daughter, a selection process that would likely include Nike Wagner and Eva Pasquier-Wagner.

Beyond the issue of who will run the show, this year's festival as always is the focus for lovers of Wagner operas and of the myths surrounding the man and his music. Predictably, the most buzz is generated by new productions of his "Ring der Niebelungen" -- 15 hours of extraordinary giants, dwarfs, gods, dragons and mortals in an epic four-part tale of love, greed, betrayal and redemption.

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