Wolfgang Wagner passed away on March 21, 2010 in his house in Bayreuth in southern Germany at the age of ninety. He directed the Bayreuth Festival, the legendary opera event in southern Germany, for 57 years before stepping down in 2008.
Wagner was a stroke of luck for the post-World War II development of the legendary Bayreuth Festival, according to Austrian conductor and long-time participant in the festival, Peter Schneider.
“I once observed how he looked into the pots in the cafeteria kitchen to make sure everything was running smoothly,” said Schneider.
It was Wolfgang Wagner, the last living grandson of composer Richard Wagner, who transformed the Bayreuth Festival from a private legacy into a successful cultural institution.
Bildunterschrift: The Bayreuth Festival site is known as the Green Hill
Restoring the Wagner name
But it wasn’t an easy path to success. After World War II, Wolfgang Wagner toured Germany on his motorcycle in an effort to recruit sponsors for the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival, which exclusively features operas by Richard Wagner.
“There was a lot of resentment, since my mother had been a friend of Adolf Hitler’s,” Wolfgang Wagner once said. “Without foreign sponsors, we wouldn’t have managed it.”
On July 30, 1951, six years after the end of the war, the festival reopened with a premiere of the opera “Parsifal.”
Wagner co-directed the festival with his elder brother Wieland, until his death in 1966, when Wolfgang took over sole leadership.
As a conductor, Wolfgang Wagner roused mixed opinions. He was said to be musically conservative and stood for a long time in his brother’s shadow. Still, his extensive practical experience earned him respect: He brought some of the world’s most renowned singers, directors, and conductors to Bayreuth.
But his so-called “workshop” approach to the festival didn’t go over well with everyone. Wagner’s concept was that opera productions were never finished, but would be honed to perfection year after year, sometimes with extensive changes. In other houses, productions are simply repeated wholesale over several seasons.
Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson, who frequently performed in Bayreuth, felt that Wagner’s workshop model threatened to compromise quality. “People are now talking about the Bayreuth Workshop,” she said shortly before she died in 2005. “Any beginner can sing at Bayreuth!”
In addition to his artistic direction, Wagner was closely involved in founding the Richard Wagner Foundation, which actively preserves the composer’s estate and the Festspielhaus theater. Wolfgang Wagner was also responsible for the restoration of Richard Wagner’s villa, the Wahnfriend House, which is now a museum.
Bildunterschrift: Katharina Wagner, 31, is an accomplished stage director
Changing of the guard
Family quarrels have plagued the Wagner clan since 1999, when the process for determining a successor to Wolfgang began. The impresario’s second wife Gudrun was considered a likely candidate for the position, but when she died suddenly in November 2007, the door was opened for Wagner’s two daughters Eva and Katharina to take the helm.
On September 1, 2008, the Bayreuth Festival foundation board approved the joint leadership of the two half-sisters. That marked the beginning of a new era in Bayreuth. They have begun by setting a more youthful tone in the artistic programming and placing greater emphasis on publicity and communication. But exactly where the young Wagners will take the festival is yet to be seen.
Wolfgang Wagner’s health had declined since 2007 and since then he largely withdrew from the media and from his remaining involvement in the direction of the festival. He celebrated his 90th birthday last summer quietly, surrounded by his family. For the first time since 1951, he was no longer in the limelight.
Author: Dieter David-Scholz (kjb)
Editor: Ben Knight
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