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Former Bayreuth director Wolfgang Wagner dies aged 90

2 April 2010, [Originally posted on 26 March 2010]

Wolfgang Wagner (1919-2010)
Wolfgang Wagner (1919-2010)(Photo: Bayreuther Anzeiger / Stephan Müller)

Wolfgang Wagner, the grandson of composer Richard Wagner, has died in Germany aged 90.

Appointed as a co-director of Bayreuther Festspiele in 1951 alongside his brother, Wieland Wagner, Wolfgang became the festival’s sole director after Wieland’s death in 1966. 

Although generally considered to be a far less inspired producer than Wieland, Wolfgang was widely recognised for his skills as a business manager, ruthless in turning Bayreuth to his personal advantage, getting the festival funded and making it more famous than ever.

He held the reigns of power for four decades, but stepped down in 2008 to be succeeded by his two daughters, Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier. 

Wolfgang's desire to safeguard his own legacy when making these appointments fed into a wider agenda to perpetuate the Wagners' control of Bayreuth. According to Opera Now correspondent, Tom Sutcliffe, this could prevent the future development of the festival:

“The truth about the Wagners today is that there is no reason for them to have any hold on Bayreuth at all. Across the whole industrial and commercial world good management skills are demonstrably non-hereditary. Fairly soon Bayreuth should be taken away from Wagner’s bloodline and run by talented Intendants who can do something for the whole world of opera rather than behaving as if Wagner still needed Bayreuth.”

According to Sutcliffe, Katharina Wagner “is an even worse director than Wolfgang was himself, simply following the current intellectually decorative and predictable fashions of interpretation – and not showing any real special skills at the hands-on direction of performers and chorus. She is at best only the product of her father’s determination to produce a suitable Wagner heir in his own mould.”

Katharina’s directorial debut at the festival in 2007 – with a production of Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg – was booed loudly by the audience and denounced by some critics, but met by others as an indicator of positive change and renewal. 

“No doubt,” says Sutcliffe, “she and Eva will be able to bring in some new talents and try out new techniques for exploiting what Bayreuth has to offer by making it seem more accessible. However, the Wagners are not a royal or aristocratic family. With the death of Wolfgang, in reality their time has been and gone.”

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