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Last Updated: Friday, 20 July 2007, 17:44 GMT 18:44 UK
Wagner's guardian
Katharina and Wolfgang Wagner
Present and past?

By Tom Service
BBC Radio 3

Bayreuth is the epicentre of Wagner worship, a heaven for opera lovers and the scene for a battle over who is to control the legacy of the controversial German composer.

With an 87-year-old desperately clinging on to power, a horde of ambitious Valkyries waiting for him to give up his claim to authority, and a tumultuous battle for succession, Bayreuth has it all.

The annual festival of Richard Wagner's music has been run by his grandson Wolfgang for 56 years. It's curtain up next Wednesday on what could be Wolfgang's last festival and it's proving the hottest ticket in the operatic world.

The mentality that you're just going to enjoy the music and it has no relevance to the political is absolutely absurd
Gottfried Wagner

Even if the next generation of Wagners are positioning themselves to take over from Wolfgang - the Wagners have always kept it in the family, since Bayreuth opened in 1876 - the old man isn't gone yet.

What's amazing is how much he looks like Richard; as if his grandfather's own spirit was somehow standing in front of me.

"He has snowy white hair and he wears this hair so long that no other man of his age would wear it like that. And you can see something of the old Richard twinkling in his eyes," explains Marcus Veullner, Bayreuth resident and writer.

Parent's footsteps

Maybe the strangest thing about Bayreuth when you go there is that for a centre of world culture, it's really pretty small. Wagner and the festival take over the town completely in summer - the population swells by 10,000.

Wolfgang is following in his parents' footsteps. After Richard's widow died, his son, Siegfried took over. After his death, Wolfgang's mother, Winifred, was the mistress of Bayreuth. She finally gave up her leadership in 1951 to her sons, Wieland and Wolfgang.

He may know the place like no-one else, but Wolfgang's own career as a director and designer at Bayreuth has been problematic.

Production of Das Rheingold in New York
Wagner is performed all over the world

The first thing I ever saw at Bayreuth was Wolfgang's production of Parsifal. Admittedly, this was a show that was already decades old when I saw it in 2000, but you couldn't imagine a more turgid, insipid staging.

But controversies over Wolfgang's production style fade into insignificance next to the big issue at Bayreuth, the reason many people won't go there, and that many can't tolerate Richard Wagner's music at all; his anti-semitism, and Bayreuth's indebtedness to the Nazis. And no piece of music embodies the problems more than Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, with its hymn to the purity of German art.

Philosopher and opera critic Michael Tanner explains: "Wolfgang Wagner's always been in a very difficult position because he and Wieland, the older brother, were the sons of one of Hitler's' earliest and most passionate disciples, their mother Winifred Wagner.

"She adored Hitler. She and the family provided Hitler with what family life he had really, he used to go and tuck them up and read them stories in bed and they called him Uncle Wolf.

Anti-semitic legacy

"And Wieland it turned out was a passionate Nazi, Wolfgang never was a passionate Nazi, in fact he regarded the whole thing as rather silly and embarrassing. But there's no question about it, that Bayreuth was tarred with the brush of having been a Nazi showcase."

Whoever succeeds Wolfgang, those questions aren't going to go away and they will require answers rather than evasion. But it's not just the legacy of anti-semitism that's the problem. The feuding in the Wagner clan trumps anything a scriptwriter could come up with - sons and daughters banned from setting foot on the hallowed Bayreuth turf, distant claims to the Wagnerian throne, all of it conducted in the glare of publicity.

The festival hall in Bayreuth
Bayreuth remains a major cultural event in Germany

Wolfgang's son Gottfried explained the crux of the problem to the BBC in 2006.

"When you're talking about Richard Wagner you cannot split up his ideas either - his anti-semitic, racist attitudes and anti-feministic tendencies too - so the mentality that you're just going to enjoy the music and it has no relevance to the political is absolutely absurd."

Nike Wagner, Wolfgang's niece, could be described as having undertaken a lifelong audition for the post of running Bayreuth. Others are no less ambitious. Eva, Wolfgang's first daughter - somebody else who was excommunicated - and 29-year-old Katharina, whose staging of Die Meistersinger opens this years festival.

It's all turning into a high culture soap opera. But the stakes couldn't be higher. What will happen to Bayreuth and its theatre, the holy grail of the Wagner cult? When will Wolfgang finally step down? Will it be this year? No-one knows for sure, but he's not been seen around the Green Hill this week, and is rumoured to be very ill.

But even for the most ardent Wagner lover, there are some things at Bayreuth that aren't going to change. The waiting list for a ticket is currently around 10 years or so. Only history will judge if Wolfgang Wagner presided over a new dawn for Bayreuth, and a smooth transition to a new era - or if he unwittingly caused the twilight of the Wagners.

Profile is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturdays at 1900 BST and on Sundays at 1740.


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