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Bayreuth gloom as Wagner women close in on new contract

The local paper reports that Eva and Katharina Wagner have won the festival board’s (Verwaltungsrat) backing for a contract renewal beyond 2015. That’s no great surprise since the board is stuffed with family supporters.

But the Bavarian arts minister Wolfgang Heubisch has added his voice to the endorsement, saying the festival should remain in family hands – imagine, an elected politician who supports hereditary privilege and power. Looks like the half-sisters have got the politicians locked up.

And this after the silliest Ring cycle the stage has ever seen.


katharina wagner


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  1. Dennis Marks says:

    There’s an opera house somewhere in Sussex under hereditary control which operates on similar principles. They often do marvellous productions and occasionally silly ones. They even do Wagner from time to time – rather well. They don’t get state support but ACE does underwrite their touring, which is a kind of cross subsidy. Sometimes dynasties have something to offer.

  2. Oh there have been sillier Ring cycles. But indeed, why a democratically elected politician supports this feudal system is bewildering.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Even a democratically elected politician is entitled to his own opinion and to voice his opinion freely. One may disagree with his view that the Wagner ladies are the best choice to run this festival; indeed, there are many who do think they are not. But that still doesn’t have much to do with a “feudal” system.

      • In his capacity as an elected official, a politician is not free to voice his opinion. He has first of all a mandate to act and speak the will of the people who elected him. It is very much feudal if you consider how Bayreuth is run, who is hired, who is given contracts etc. as long as the leaders exclusively are chosen from a certain blood line.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          “In his capacity as an elected official, a politician is not free to voice his opinion. He has first of all a mandate to act and speak the will of the people who elected him.”

          Sure he is free to voice his opinion. That’s usually what people get elected for – because the voters like the candidate’s views on this or that. Of course, if they really stick to those views once they are elected is another thing. That is why terms are limited and people can get voted out if they don’t live up to the voters’ expectations. Just like the FDP just got voted out of the Bundestag – for the first time since the founding of the current German state.
          But that’s politics on an altogether larger scale anyway. The whole Bayreuth thing isn’t nearly as big and important.

          • You sound like you just want to be contradictory. Of course a politician is not free to speak his opinion. First is the above mentioned obligation to the demos. Then there is usually – besides the exception of the anecdotal independent – party discipline and party programs that have to be followed. Then, only then, a politician might consider what his own conscience tells him.
            Actually if one wants to find a positiva in the Bayreuth hereditary system, it enables the deciders on the top to act out more of their free will than a politician ever can. And if they are smart and artistic visionary people, then such a “benevolent dictatorship” can run a festival much more efficient than a politically compromised system. But if the leadership is not up to the task, then this backfires and a bigger political control would be better. It could be argued it the latter is the case in Bayreuth these days.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            Of course, this is what representative democracy is about. “To act and speak the will of the people who elected him” is a dangerous, “hyper-democratic” myth, but it is, first and foremost, impracticable. It would mean either that all of those who have voted for him are of the same mind on every issue, or that, before taking a stand or making a decision, he has to consult each and every one of them on each and every issue. And then what? Which brings us back to the democratic process described by Michael where the voters don’t keep the power of decision, they delegate it – until the next election.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            That has nothing to do with “wanting to be contradictory”. I just don’t think it’s such a big deal in the grander scheme of things and political issues. How to handle the Bayreuth question is not part of the party program, nor do I think that the vast majority of the electorate in Bavaria even care who is running Bayreuth. Whether or not the state of Bavaria should support the festival, and other cultural institutions, and how much subsidies they should get, those are political issues which may be part of a party program, but not who is running the Bayreuth festival, the state opera in Munich, or any other cultural institution.
            But for those few who may actually care about these detail questions enough so that these positions would influence their vote in the next election, it is good to know where the science and arts minister actually stands.
            So it is good that he has clarified his position here. If you disagree with him and you happen to be a German citizen and a resident of Bavaria, it will be your privilege to vote against him in the next election.

  3. Theodore McGuiver says:

    It’s not a silly Ring Cycle. Musically, it’s excellent; dramaturgically it’s promising but needs a firm hand.

    • Completely agree. The previous RIng by Tankred Dorst was infinitely worse. Castorf’s had its puerile moments, for sure. But I’ve seen sillier.

  4. Where is the ‘gloom’ referred to in your headline ?

  5. I share Hasbeen’s bemusement about the “gloom” unless it is the writer’s personal gloom born of antipathy to Wagner in general and the “Wagner women (sic)” in particular.

    Dr Heubisch – who will presumably be replaced as his FDP did not win seats in the election – is known to share a widely-held view that there is a place for one or more members of the Wagner family in the running of Bayreuth. This is, in effect, enshrined in the 1973 document setting up the Richard-Wagner-Stiftung Bayreuth which for the first time formalised the transfer of the festival and its assets to a body represented by the Wagner family, the state, land, city etc.

    The Wagner family have been involved in and – until 1973 – effectively owned everything to do with the Bayreuth Festival since Richard created it. Continuing involvement by Wagner family members is no more supporting “hereditary privilege and power” than leaving your house to your children in your will. Following on Dennis Marks’ perceptive comments, can we expect an item expressing outrage that there is involvement by any member of the family of Glyndebourne’s founder in the running of their festival?

    Almost by definition, members of the board will be ardent supporters of the festival and its future. The pejorative “the board is stuffed with family supporters” and “the half-sisters have got the politicians locked up” glibly dismiss the possibility that the board consider that a Bayreuth run by Eva and Katharina Wagner, rather than say a Gerard Mortier, is in good and safe hands.

    • We must not forget, that behind all the criticism of this and that in Bayreuth is a major force, to discredit Bayreuth, mainly because of it’s relation to Hitler-Germany and because of it’s founder’s documented antisemitism. They will not rest until Bayreuth has been rendered irrelevant to the musical world.

      • Theodore McGuiver says:

        It certainly appears that way sometimes.

      • Gonout Backson says:

        Could you name this “major force”?

      • @David H. I must say I see dark undercurrents in your comment. Could you be more specific about this “major force”?

        • Maybe bad wording from my side. But can we talk rationally? Yes I see many Jewish commentators being particularly critical toward anything Bayreuth. And before you shout “antisemitism” in Pawlowian reflex, please wait a second… I sympathize with them, I do understand well, how difficult it must be for someone who identifies with Jewish culture, to accept Bayreuth as an uncompromised full member in the artistic community. But what I don’t like is the irrationality of the criticism, that sometimes even appears as a revenge driven vendetta.
          Some of the headlines and wording on this very blog by the very respected Mr.Lebrecht appear to have this irrational fervor, when it comes to Bayreuth.
          But I’m all for a rational discourse, debated in the open, about Bayreuth’s troubled past and ambiguous foundation.

          • When one says “major force” he or she implies a coordinated effort. I do not believe that there is anything of the sort when it comes to criticism of Bayreuth.

            I do see where you are coming from when you speak of “Jewish commentators” but only partially. Jewish authors that write in such a way, however, fall into two categories. The majority of them do it out of prejudice, ignorance of facts or misunderstanding of the work. There are those, however, who are clearly agenda-driven and use unacceptable methods clearly intended to mislead and deceive the reader in order to drive home their point such as deliberate misquotes, removal of context, myths presented as facts, half-truths and even outright falsehoods. Neither however are a part of some “larger effort”. They only act on behalf of themselves.

            Besides, one certainly can not say that all criticism of Bayreuth is driven by desire to make Bayreuth irrelevant. I am notoriously critical of Bayreuth here, but my intentions are directly opposite of those. I want to prevent the slide of Bayreuth into irrelevance that is gradually proceeding with each awful staging the Wagner half-sisters commission.

  6. Well, I suppose I’ll have to blindfold myself if I ever make it to Bayreuth.

  7. Dear Mr. Lebrecht,

    It is difficult to understand how you think it would be better business for there to be no living Wagner connection to the Wagner Festival. Once again, I find that you are advocating preconceived ideas about what would be proper legal or moral issues, as though if Germany doesn’t follow American laws resulting in the continuous, deliberate and systematic disenfranchisement of the generations, it is being wicked.

    A more relevant criticism would be whether the productions are any good, and are following Wagner’s instructions. Even then, if you don’t like them (and all reports are that they are awful), to complain about the family you would have to know that the family was the problem.

    It may be that the reason the directors have been such loose canons since 1975, when the Wagner family lost direct control of the productions at Bayreuth, is precisely because the family doesn’t have enough control. Such an interpretation is so simple and forthright that is ought to be addressed.

    Please consider a couple if things: First, nations are made out of families, and it is not evil for a nation to have a politics recognizing families and encouraging their involvement in its life. Second, it is not immoral for nations to have other inheritance laws than our own – which in any case have never stayed the same any three generations in a row.

    The politics of American inheritance law is a history of efforts to make sure that no one has a heritage. That another nation would not make such policies its practice does not mean it is bad. It could mean that we Americans are stupid.

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