Wolfgang Wagner, for 57 years director of Bayreuth, has died

Gramophone24th Mar 2010
Wolfgang Wagner (photo: Bayreuther Festspiele/Arve Dinda)Wolfgang Wagner (photo: Bayreuther Festspiele/Arve Dinda)

Wolfgang Wagner, the composer's grandson and for 57 years director of the Bayreuth Festival, died last Sunday (March 21) aged 90.

He initiated what is now thought of as a watershed in Wagner production by inviting the French theatre director Patrice Chéreau to stage the Festival's centenary Ring (and to have it conducted by the equally radical Pierre Boulez) in 1976. He followed this up with invitations to a stream of cutting-edge contemporary stage directors - including Gotz Friedrich (whose 1972 Tannhäuser had already kick-started the “new” New Bayreuth), Harry Kupfer, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Werner Herzog, Heiner Müller, Keith Warner, Christoph Schlingensief, Christoph Marthaler and Stefan Herheim - not to mention his own daughter Katharina.

A list of those who got away included Ingmar Bergman, Peter Stein, Rudolf Noelte and Lars von Trier. As a continuous and enthusiastic traveller to world-wide Wagner (and other) performances, Wolfgang helped to extend Bayreuth's list of performers beyond both the deutsch und echt and the merely veteran. To take a random sampling, he gave opportunities to conductors Daniel Barenboim, James Levine, Christian Thielemann and (to take a more recent British bias for a moment) singers John Tomlinson, Graham Clark, Anne Evans, Alan Opie and Andrew Shore. On a personal and administrative level artists at the Festival have always spoken of his generous, unselfish support for their work and well-being.

The phrase of Fafner's from Act II of Wagner's Siegfried, "Ich lieg' und besitz" (a free translation might be “I'll just sit on what I've got here”) was often used in attacks on the longevity and lack of adventure of Wolfgang's Bayreuth artistic directorship. His life was entirely for and about his family's Festival.

Manfred Wolfgang Martin Wagner was born in Bayreuth on August 30, 1919, the son of Siegfried and his English wife Winifred. He first came to work there officially in 1940 when he was invalided out of the German army (he hadn't been absolved from war service like his brother Wieland). Going to Berlin to learn his trade at the Staatsoper, he met his first wife, dancer Ellen Drexel, and directed his first opera, his father's Bruder Lustig. In the last months of the war (according to his feisty 1994 autobiography Acts, now due for an annotated reprint) he was involved in rescuing family archives and treasures. In 1950 the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and the Festival’s assets were vested in Wolfgang and his brother Wieland as co-directors, and the Festival restarted on July 30, 1951.

The sheer amount of management and finance work prevented Wolfgang initially from directing shows in the Festival as was planned. Meanwhile, Wieland’s stripped-down avant-garde stage productions gained world attention for the new enterprise – although both Wolfgang and Winifred were critical. A rift about division of responsibility seems to have begun between the brothers about this time. Wolfgang did begin his own Festival productions with Lohengrin in 1953, following up with Der fliegende Holländer in 1955, Tristan und Isolde in 1957 and a Ring cycle in 1960. (“That sort of thing should not be allowed to happen at Bayreuth” was rumoured to have been Wieland’s comment on the latter, mounted at very short notice.)

By the time of Wieland’s early death from cancer in 1966, the brothers’ wives and children were supposedly not on speaking terms. The models of Wieland’s productions were destroyed and many who had worked with him at the Festival dismissed. Wolfgang was openly critical of both his brother’s reputation and his alleged Nazi past. After he took over as sole director, Wolfgang himself directed a second Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger three times, the 1970-75 Ring cycle, Tannhäuser, and Parsifal twice. He also worked elsewhere, including Die Meistersinger and Der Fliegende Hollander in Dresden, and Lohengrin in Tokyo and Taormina. His productions were generally considered conservative, effective but not exceptional.

In the first years of his stewardship, there was a spark missing. The Festival continued with the tried and trusted rather than venture new engagements of interest. The turn-around came (as noted above) with the risky appointment – for political as well as artistic reasons – of the East German Felsenstein disciple Gotz Friedrich and the French-led centenary Ring production which, after its controversial baptism, concluded its final run with a 45-minute standing ovation. Wolfgang had discovered the opera administrator’s tool of using stage directors to attract extra-musical interest. The undoubted high of the Chéreau Ring period was not, however, maintained consistently in Wolfgang’s Bayreuth – the seemingly intentional alternation of radical with traditional directors giving his seasons a decidedly bumpy feel.

As controller of the Bayreuth archive, Wolfgang was criticised for his wish that the past could be buried and forgotten, which effectively became censorship of what was written about the Festival’s past. He delayed publication of a history of the Festival’s first 100 years which documented Bayreuth’s involvement with the German radical Right and the growth of Nazism, and denied biographers of both his father and mother access to key documents.

In 1976 Wolfgang divorced his first wife and married a long-standing member of the Bayreuth press office and programme department, Gudrun Armann, who had been the wife of Dietrich Mack, joint editor of his grandmother Cosima Wagner’s diaries; Gudrun died in 2007.

Wolfgang retired from producing in 2002. His stagings had been seen more than 450 times in Bayreuth. He stepped down from running the festival in 2008 aged 89 – having resisted pressure to do so since 2002. The family feud over his succession was resolved in September 2008, when the claims of Wieland's daughter Nike, in intriguing tandem with Gerard Mortier, were rejected and the Bayreuth Festival named Wolfgang's daughters by each of his marriages, Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, to succeed him. The Festival office claims that, for 57 years of service, “he goes down in history as the longest-serving director in the world”.

Mike Ashman

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