Wolfgang Wagner, 90, composer's grandson, dies in Germany

Wolfgang Wagner, at his 2008 farewell at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. Mr. Wagner led the opera event for more than 50 years.
Wolfgang Wagner, at his 2008 farewell at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. Mr. Wagner led the opera event for more than 50 years. (Eckehard Schulz/associated Press)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Wolfgang Wagner, grandson of composer Richard Wagner, who ran the annual Wagner opera festival in Bayreuth, Germany, for 57 years before stepping down in 2008, died March 21 at his home in Bayreuth. He was 90 years old. A cause of death was not reported.

Autocratic, controversial and determined, Mr. Wagner retained power at the center of a maelstrom of family dispute for more than half a century. The festival at Bayreuth was founded by Richard Wagner in 1876, remains devoted solely to the performance of Wagner's works and has only been run by members of the Wagner family.

Mr. Wagner and his older brother, Wieland, co-managed the festival from 1951 until 1966, rehabilitating and distancing it from its Nazi connections. After his brother's death, Mr. Wagner assumed sole control and continued to run it with a fierce loyalty to tradition for more than 40 years.

Mr. Wagner was responsible for significant innovations. In 1969, he invited stage directors who were not members of the Wagner family to work at the festival. This led to some impressive productions, perhaps most notably the 1976 "Ring of the Nibelung" directed by Patrice Chereau, which remains a benchmark in opera staging.

But Mr. Wagner's own stagings were less riveting. He began by emulating his older brother, whose stripped-down, abstract productions set a standard for a generation of stage direction. He gradually moved into a more subdued, obedient mode over the years with productions such as "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" in 1996.

Over time, Mr. Wagner grew increasingly possessive of the festival. He thwarted several attempts to shift control to a younger member of the Wagner family, including Wieland's youngest daughter, Nike Wagner. " 'Ich lieg' und besitz,' " ("I lie here and possess") he once told an interviewer, quoting a line from the "Ring" tetralogy, his grandfather's masterwork. It's spoken by the dragon Fafner, guarding his horde of gold.

Only in 2008, not long after the unexpected death of his second wife, Gudrun Wagner, was Mr. Wagner, elderly and increasingly frail, compelled to cede control to his two daughters: Katharina, his daughter with Gudrun, whom he had been grooming for the succession, and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, his daughter from his first marriage, from whom he had long been estranged.

Wolfgang Wagner was born Aug. 30, 1919, the third child of Richard Wagner's son Siegfried (then 50) and Winifred, an 18-year-old of English birth. His father died when Wolfgang was 11, and the Bayreuth of Wolfgang's childhood was notable for its loyalty to the burgeoning Nazi party.

His mother had boundless admiration for (and perhaps a crush on) the party leader, Adolf Hitler, a frequent visitor whom the children called "Uncle Wolf." She was later unrepentant and scornful of compatriots who denied their party allegiance, voicing her views in a documentary film in the 1970s and creating yet another family scandal.

Mr. Wagner served briefly in the German infantry at the start of World War II, and was wounded and honorably discharged on the Polish front. He allegedly did not join the Nazi party, although Wieland did. Through the war, the festival retained an odd special status: It was a favorite meeting place of the Nazi powers, and filled with soldiers, but Jewish artists continued to appear there at a time when they were proscribed everywhere else in the country.

After the war, both brothers underwent obligatory "de-Nazification" before being allowed to resume control of a festival that to many Germans even today continues to bear the stamp of its unsavory historical associations.

To the extent that the Wagner brothers were able to rehabilitate Bayreuth's legacy, it was largely because of Wieland's visionary productions, which freed Wagner's operas from their freight of baggage by placing them on nearly empty stages and allowing light, space and pure music to bear their stories. Wolfgang's skill was more administrative, although he continued to direct throughout his career.

After Wieland's death, when it was obvious that Wolfgang couldn't stage all of the season's operas alone, he didn't shy away from the radical and provocative. One of his first outside hires was the East German director Götz Friedrich, whose 1972 "Tannhaeuser" drew a storm of boos, walkouts and critical outrage after its opening night.

Demand for tickets to Bayreuth is such that people remain on the waiting list for years. Mr. Wagner's later years, however, were widely regarded as a period of artistic stagnation: the singers less stellar, productions less memorable.

Mr. Wagner's family relationships were themselves operatic. With his first wife, Ellen Drexel, he had two children, Eva and Gottfried, both of whom were estranged from him when he left their mother in 1976 to marry Gudrun, his assistant and former press secretary.

Gottfried, a sometime stage director whose field of expertise is Jewish history and culture, made public his distaste for the Wagner clan in a memoir published in English as "Twilight of the Wagners" and in German as "Who Doesn't Howl With the Wolf," a reference to Uncle Wolf.

Mr. Wagner was as dismissive of his children as they were of him. Although he and Gudrun were clearly preparing Katharina (now 32, and establishing herself as an enfant-terrible stage director in her own right) for the succession, he was known to refer to himself as "the last of the Wagners."

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