Monday 24 September 2007

Introducing "The Bayreuth succession" - a new docu-soap written by mostly opera. Episode 1

Since the docu-soap, which I am now officially entitling “The Bayreuth Succession” will be running regularly for the next couple of months on this blog, here follows a short presentation of the protagonists, background and main plot (with the clear warning that new plot elements and protagonists may appear from nowhere at any time point without further notice...)


The control over the Bayreuth Festival was transferred from the Wagner Family to the Richard Wagner Foundation in 1973. The leader of the Festival is chosen by the Board of Directors of the Richard Wagner Foundation (see below). Wolfgang Wagner has been appointed Festival Director for life and has been running the Festival since 1951. A vote on the matter of Wolfgang Wagner´s successor in 2001 favored his daughter from his first marriage Eva Wagner-Pasquier over Wolfgang Wagner´s own candidate, his wife Gudrun. After this defeat, Wolfgang Wagner invoked his right to hold on to his post for life. The Board of Directors will meet on the upcoming November 6th where “the matter of succession” will be discussed. The Bayreuth Festival has been increasingly criticized in both German and International press for both musical and artistic stagnation in recent years, and it is frequently suggested that new artistic input are needed in order to uphold the Festivals´ leading position.

The main plot

On the surface: Who will succeed Wolfgang Wagner as Festival Director?

The core issue: What kind of Bayreuth Festival do we want in the future?
Obviously, one of the highest quality. The points of dispute on how to achieve this goal are among others: Traditional vs. revisionist stagings?, should works of other composers be performed in Bayreuth?, should Richard Wagner's early operas (pre-Dutchman) be shown here, should the Festival aim for more performances per year for example by extending the summer season or staging an additional winter festival?

The protagonists:

Wolfgang Wagner: Current Artistic Director, grandson of Richard Wagner. Born 1918. Brother of Wieland Wagner (who died in 1966). Has been running the Festival since 1951. Father of Eva Wagner-Pasquier (first marriage) and Katharina Wagner (second marriage). Married to his former secretary Gudrun Wagner, since 1976, who is currently employed in the Festival Management. Is appointed Festival Director for life. Is strongly supporting Katharina Wagner´s candidacy.

Katharina Wagner: 29-year old daughter of Wolfgang Wagner. Has directed a few operas, most notably the Meistersinger at this years Bayreuth Festival. Being the first modern version of the work seen in Bayreuth, it was widely criticized in both German press and public, a large part of whom had not actually seen her production (I, on the contrary did see the production and wrote an extensive review here).

Nike Wagner: Daughter of Wieland Wagner, niece of Wolfgang Wagner. Critical of the current Festival Management, and publicly quoted with such statements as “Both the institution of Bayreuth and its director are going senile,” and on Gudrun Wagner “We all know that she owes her position to her place in the marital bed, rather than any understanding of art and culture”. Expansions of both performances numbers and repertoire make part of her visions for the Festival. She has written a very critical book on the Wagner family as well. She seems to have side-lined herself in the power struggle for the above reasons. Runs the Weimar Kunst Festival.

Eva Wagner-Pasquier: Daughter of Wolfgang Wagner (first marriage) and half-sister of Katharina. Currently employed in the management of the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Has publicly declared her candidacy this July, but otherwise not spoken to the press. Estranged from her father since she sided with her mother (who died in 2002) in their divorce in 1976. Was elected Wolfgang Wagner´s successor in 2001 by the Board of Directors, but he side-stepped her choosing to remain on the post himself.

Christian Thielemann: Protagonist in the drama since September 22, where he teamed up with Katharina Wagner to make a bid for the future Festival leadership. 48 years old. Principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonics since 2004 after leaving a similar position with the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Renowned for his interpretations primarily of Wagner, Strauss and Schumann. Conducted a musically highly successful Ring this year in Bayreuth. Highly regarded by the German public as a guardian of traditional German values and seen by many (including himself) as carrying on the German conducting traditions in the footsteps of Furtwängler and Karajan. Was involved in the power struggle for new artistic leadership earlier this year at the Vienna State Opera – what exactly happened is unclear, but he apparently withdrew his candidacy at the last minute.

The International Association of Wagner Societies (IAWS): Approximately 140 Wagner Societies all over the world, with members counting “ordinary people” with interest in Wagner´s music. The Wagner Societies are currently very visible in the German press, since the President of the IAWS Josef Lienhardt publicly supported Katharina Wagner´s candidacy this July. Several very outspoken Presidents of local German Wagner Societies highly disagree with Lienhardt on K. Wagner´s candidacy, which is excessively debated in the German press at the moment. However, the Wagner Societies do not have any direct say in the matter, since they are not represented in the Board of Directors (as opposed to the Friends of Bayreuth).

The Friends of Bayreuth: Influential organization of individuals and companies contributing financially to the Bayreuth Festival. Represented in the Board of Directors. The exact influence of this organization on Festival matters is difficult to assess – but probably not negligible, since several of the members contribute with large donations to the Festival. It has been speculated why Wolfgang Wagner, for the first time this year was not present at Friends´ annual meeting which took place in Bayreuth during this years Festival.

The Board of Directors: Executive body of the Richard Wagner Foundation. Will meet on November 6th where the succession to Wolfgang Wagner will be discussed. The Board of Directors consist of 24 members representing the Republic of Germany, the State of Bavaria, the district of Upper Franconia, the city of Bayreuth, the society of the Friends of Bayreuth and members of the Wagner family.

Some of the relevant issues:

Can´t The Board just fire Wolfgang Wagner?
In theory yes, if it can be proven he is not de facto doing his job (e.g. if his wife Gudrun does it for him). There is no publicly available proof on this, however members of the Board of Directors have publicly insinuated this to be the case. Politically, it wouldn´t be so easy to get away with and something I´d believe they would avoid at almost all cost.

Can´t Wolfgang Wagner just chose to stay on?
Probably yes, but it seems like he is trying to push for clarification now, which makes sense, his advanced age taken into consideration. As to his health status: Only rumours exist. He was seen in public during this years Festival and looked fine.

Does the Festival have to be run by a descendant of Richard Wagner?
No. But the Foundation of the Festival states, that preference should be given to a family member, if equally suitable applicants apply for the job. Many, if not most Germans, however, feel the Festival should be managed by a descendant of Richard Wagner, if at all possible. And since most of the Board members hold public offices, this is no small consideration.

And now I´ll stick my neck out with my opinions on some of the most controversial issues:

Is Wolfgang Wagner a good Festival Director?
Basically I think he is. Or at least he has been. I find the accusations of him being artistically stagnant unfair: After all, it was he who brought both Chereau, Kupfer and Schlingensief to Bayreuth. And Barenboim, Boulez, Waltraud Meier and Placido Domingo as well. That this years Ring is relatively uninteresting is not entirely his fault, since the initially chosen director Lars von Trier pulled out of the project. Had he directed The Ring of The Century, things would have looked very different indeed.
However, in the past 5-6 years the quality of singing and conducting seems to have been dropping in Bayreuth, which together with Tankred Dorst´s uninspiring Ring has accelerated the debated on his resignation. If this singing crisis can be solved by any new administrator, remains to be seen. I am not convinced it´ll be so easy. But, of course, not impossible. After all, I´d say, he´s done a good job.

Will Nike Wagner make a good Festival Director?
Nothing indicates she will. An opinion I base on: Her wish to include more of Wagner´s work in the canon (which I disagree with, finding the proposed works of insufficient quality to be performed in Bayreuth, which Richard Wagner himself also agrees with me on), include works of other composers (which I disagree with, finding that the exclusivity of the Festival would suffer), open the Festival year around (again I disagree since I feel that the exclusivity and special atmosphere would be lost) and having read her book.

Will Eva Wagner-Pasquier make a good Festival Director?
I have no idea. I haven´t been able to find any recent statements regarding her plans for the Festival. That she avoids giving interviews at this time point and doesn´t slander other family members speaks in her favor, but other than that I´m blank.

And now I am seriously sticking my neck out giving my opinion on this:

Will Katharina Wagner/Christian Thielemann make good Festival Directors?

The short answer: I seriously don´t know.

The long answer:
My impression of Katharina Wagner is largely positive - based on interviews in German magazines, she seems a both thoughtful, modest, intelligent and courageous woman. I am a strong proponent of introducing experimental theater in Bayreuth, but I don´t share the public opinion, that Katharina Wagner´s productions represent advanced experimental theater at all. While her Meistersinger may be modern in the outlook, it is in no way shocking to audiences used to attend spoken theater performances or operatic performances elsewhere. She seems willing to continue the development of new productions in Bayreuth - and so far so good. Based on my very limited knowledge, I don´t have any serious reservations regarding Katharina Wagner´s candidacy. And, after all, Wolfgang Wagner is living proof that you don’t have to be a particularly admired stage director to run the Bayreuth Festival.

However, regarding Christian Thielemann..: I am a huge admirer of Thielemann, the conductor as I´ve written previously. However, he is a notorious opponent of advanced modern stagings and a proponent of upholding traditional musical values.
Now, are these desirable qualities to lead a modern opera house? Normally, I´d say no. However, regarding the Bayreuth Festival, I feel that some traditions are important to keep and I do agree with him on the issues of repertoire and season length and I would expect him to be a guarantor of a high musical quality. And those issues are also of major importance to me. Normally one would expect him to have the upper-hand in any partnership with Katharina Wagner, but I suspect deals have been cut here, that make the entire issue unpredictable.

So I really don´t know what to think about this, but when I find out, I will publish it here immediately (and regularly check in on AC Douglas in case he finds out before me..).

What will happen at the Board of Directors meeting in November?

Just guessing: Neither Wolfgang Wagner nor Christian Thielemann can publicly afford to be on the losing side here. So if people in the know do not expect the Katharina Wagner/Christian Thielemann constellation to succeed, I wouldn´t be too surprised if a triage including the two of them plus Eva Wagner-Pasquier would be proposed since I´d expect Wolfgang Wagner to back Eva Wagner-Pasquier if the alternative would be a candidate outside the family. But that, of course, remains to be seen…


daland said...

Excellent analysis indeed!

The future? "In Gottes Hand..."

KW-CT tandem? Certaily a sign of Kathi's credentials' weakness! But the couple is surely well-matched: age, vision and appeal!

My guess for nov. 6th? WW stubbornly holds... to give the tandem more time to gain ground. After all, time runs against Nike and Eva! And an extra-family solution is really hard to foresee.

Can I disagree with you (and the tandem) on one point? Rienzi - under Kathi's Regietheater and Christian's baton - could be a fantastic kermesse, in the Festspielhaus!

Anonymous said...

I suppose they have got to create a situation which enables them to build for a successful 2013 season, assuming that they wish 2013 to be special.

mostly opera... said...

Oh they definitely do. According to most sources 2013 will see the premiere of at least a new Ring in Bayreuth, and assuming they´d want the top names in it, they´ll have to start planning now, since I´d suspect the other venues such as Salzburg, Baden-Baden etc. will want to stage something as well.

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