Bayreuth Festival's Family Cycle

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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Death, or catastrophic world war, has been the usual conclusion of the tenures of past directors of the opera festival that Richard Wagner founded in Bayreuth, Germany, 132 years ago. But yesterday Wolfgang Wagner, 88, the composer's grandson who has led the festival since 1951, announced that he is stepping down as of Aug. 31, when this year's festival ends.

He leaves a hereditary post from which the Bavarian government attempted, unsuccessfully, to oust him several years ago, and the succession to which has been the subject of hot debate for more than a decade.

One thing that has kept Wagner, who is reported to suffer from Alzheimer's disease, in his post for so long is the question of which family member would succeed him. Candidates for the post have included Eva Wagner-Pasquier, Wolfgang Wagner's estranged daughter from his first marriage, a consultant to the festival in Aix-en-Provence who has also worked with the Metropolitan Opera; and Nike Wagner, a daughter of Wagner's brilliant late brother Wieland, who has upheld her father's provocateur spirit with a more avant-garde take on the work of a festival impresario. (Nike went so far as to suggest the unthinkable: presenting operas at Bayreuth by other composers.)

Wolfgang himself had refused to step down unless he could be succeeded by his daughter by his second marriage, Katharina, now 29. Katharina has been groomed for the position since birth; in the past few years, she has been trying her hand as a stage director, with an intriguingly provocative "Flying Dutchman" in Wurzburg and, last summer, her first production at Bayreuth itself, a modern-dress "Die Meistersinger" that stirred up all the controversy one could wish.

Katharina's cause was aided by her mother, Gudrun, who many said had been effectively running the festival for years anyway. But in the fall Gudrun died unexpectedly after routine surgery, at 63.

In the wake of the power vacuum that this left, the half-sisters Katharina and Eva, who have hardly ever spoken to each other, have improbably joined forces. Yesterday they submitted to the Bayreuth board a joint proposal for running the festival. Unlikely as it is, the alliance makes a certain sense: Eva, 63, is a veteran administrator, while Katharina aspires to be an artist.

The succession will be officially determined by the 13 surviving members of the Wagner family, who have until the end of August to figure it out, giving many of them a chance to start speaking to one another again.

"We've been having difficult discussions about this since 2001," Thomas Goppel, the Bavarian minister for science, culture and art, told reporters in Bayreuth yesterday. "Now at last . . . we can think about the future of the house of Wagner."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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