Wolfgang Wagner, longtime Bayreuth director, dies

  • Mon Mar 22nd, 2010 10:57am
  • News

By Melissa Eddy Associated Press

MUNICH — Wolfgang Wagner, 90, the grandson of composer Richard Wagner and the leader of the Bayreuth opera festival for more than half a century, has died.

Wagner died on Sunday, the festival said in a brief statement on its Web site. It did not give further details.

“Wolfgang Wagner dedicated his whole life to the legacy of his grandfather,” the festival said — adding that his long service as the event’s leader means that he “goes into history as the longest-serving director in the world.”

Wagner stepped down after the 2008 festival following a lengthy power struggle in which the patriarch long resisted efforts to dislodge him.

He had led the festival dedicated to his grandfather’s works since 1951, first with his brother, Wieland, and then as the sole director — with a lifetime contract.

His insistence on serving out that contract led in his later years to clashes with officials who oversee the event — held every summer in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth in the small brick theater built by Richard Wagner in the 1870s.

It also triggered a spat within the Wagner family that itself was worthy of opera.

For years, Wolfgang Wagner insisted that only his second wife, Gudrun, could replace him, although German government officials and others overseeing the festival refused to accept her.

By the time Gudrun died in November 2007, Wagner was insisting that only the couple’s daughter, Katharina, could fill his shoes — putting him at odds with two other Wagners who also sought the job.

Wolfgang finally agreed to step aside in 2008; Katharina and her half-sister, Wolfgang’s long-estranged daughter from his first marriage, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, teamed up to beat out a rival bid from their cousin. They took charge last year.

Born on Aug. 30, 1919 in Bayreuth, Wagner studied the trumpet and French horn before being sent to fight on the eastern front early in World War II. In 1939, he was severely wounded and sent back to Berlin.

He first took charge of the festival — along with his brother, Wieland — in 1951, reviving the event that had been stopped by the war.

The pair worked to restore its tarnished name, with Wolfgang Wagner concentrating on organization and finances of the festival. He founded the “Society of Friends of Bayreuth” to accept donations and won government support.

Following Wieland’s death from cancer in 1966, Wolfgang took over as sole director.

In addition to increasing the funding and establishing a separate foundation to oversee the composer’s library, Wagner also invited directors from abroad to direct individual operas.

While many of the versions sparked controversy at the time, they were often groundbreaking interpretations of Richard Wagner’s operas, in keeping with Wolfgang’s idea of broadening their meaning by emphasizing their universal human context.

His own productions, including “Lohengrin” in 1953 and his second “Parsifal” in 1989, reflected this. Wagner remarked in 1957 that the “human, the Wagnerian being” was the most important element of his own productions.

The Wagner family’s close connections to the Nazis and their ideology were a recurring theme during Wolfgang’s tenure.

In 1997 his estranged son, Gottfried, published a book on the issue accusing his father of failing to renounce the virulent anti-Semitism of Wolfgang’s mother, Winifred, a glowing admirer of Adolf Hitler who headed the Bayreuth festival under the Nazis in the 1930s. During her reign, Hitler not only helped fund the festival, but was allowed to meddle in artistic decisions.

Wolfgang Wagner denounced the book as “one-sided” and “primitive” and banned Gottfried — one of two children from his marriage to his first wife, Ellen — from the family home.

Its publication came at a time when Wagner was also under pressure from Wieland’s daughter, Nike Wagner, who criticized what she called her uncle’s “monarchic” leadership style.

In May 1999, Wagner himself initiated the process to find his replacement — but when the German government launched a public discussion over funding for the festival, the then-80-year-old director said he could not step down until the legal and financial future of the festival had been secured.

After several top artists refused to participate in the 2000 festival, festival board members named Eva Wagner-Pasquier as the new director, but Wagner refused to step down, insisting on the life term in his contract. He held on to power for a further eight years.

Wagner “stamped his mark on the festival like no other,” Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer said. “It is thanks particularly to Wolfgang Wagner that the Bayreuth festival is a hallmark of Bavaria and a magnet for visitors from around the world.”

Wagner is survived by his three children. There was no immediate word on funeral arrangements.