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Bayreuth Festival: Katharina, the Last
Is Katharina Wagner's position up for discussion in 2025 ?
Author : Georg Etscheit
For the most part, this year's Bayreuth Festival was not well received by audiences or critics. Interest in tickets has been declining for years. This is probably also due to the management by Katharina Wagner.
This Thursday, the Bayreuth Festival 2022 will come to an end. The results have been mixed, to say the least, some say disastrous. The new production of Richard Wagner's opera cycle "The Ring of the Nibelung" failed with large parts of the audience and the majority of professional critics, although there were admittedly also praising assessments, not least on Achgut.com. The predominantly negative criticism (for example, also by me) concerned not only the interpretational and technical side of the performances, but also the musical.
It remains to be seen whether the production of the young Austrian Valentin Schwarz is an irreparable disaster or whether the worst blunders can be ironed out in the "Bayreuth workshop", where every new production is considered a "work in progress". Patrice Chereau's "Ring of the Century" from 1976, conducted by Pierre Boulez, was also controversial at first, until it went down in the festival annals as a masterpiece of the art of directing, whereby Chereau, in contrast to the radical banalizer Schwarz, still took the pieces seriously as a drama of mankind and the gods, and took Wagner at his word.
This year's festival was also not a success in terms of audience appeal, at least compared to former peaks. According to insiders, tickets were still available at the box office for all performances, even the première of "Tristan und Isolde," mainly in higher price categories - unthinkable in the past. In 1991, for example, according to the festival management at the time, 357,513 orders were received in the ticket office for around 57,500 seats in 30 performances, and the contingent was overbooked almost six times.
Considerable part of the former core audience is lost
But since the audacious stage experiments have been on the rise - remember, for example, Christoph Schlingensief's "garbage mountain "-"Parsifal" (2004), considered scandalous by traditional Wagnerians, or Sebastian Baumgarten's " biogas plant "-"Tannhäuser" (2011) - the booking numbers have been going steadily downward. Visitors are apparently voting with their feet. And the result of this vote can only be seen as a vote of no confidence in the festival since Wolfgang Wagner's death.
Long waiting lists as they once were are a thing of the past, although the Festival's website carries the following message: "The approximately 30 events of the internationally important Festival are overbooked several times and interested parties have to wait several years for tickets to be allocated." A knowledgeable member of the Richard Wagner Society, on the other hand, reports that tickets are regularly offered on the organization's network like "sour beer." Asked about tickets available at short notice, the Festival's press office speaks of "returns" that are immediately offered again via the online instant sale. In contrast to earlier times, when Bayreuth tickets were sometimes traded at astronomical prices on the black market, one can get tickets without difficulty, that much is certain.
One might object that, compared to the glory days of the past, the range of cultural offerings has broadened, that Bayreuth ticket prices have been raised sharply and in the highest categories have reached about the level of the Salzburg Easter Festival, that many old Wagnerians have died or are too old to make the pilgrimage to Bayreuth, that the corona pandemic and the existing fear of contagion with whatever may have diminished audience interest in cultural events in the long run. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the Bayreuth Festival has lost a considerable part of its former core audience.
On the whole, a successful synthesis of tradition and renewal
A comprehensive dossier on the decline of the Bayreuth Festival, written by a former employee of the festival, is currently circulating within the Wagner societies and in the public media. It may be that the author has not penetrated the very last branches of the Bayreuth capillary system, and one may not share all his judgments of taste regarding past Festival productions. But the facts the author gathers in his memorandum are impressive and do not cast a good light on the current festival director Katharina Wagner, great-granddaughter of the composer, on the institutions responsible for the festival and the care of Wagner's legacy, and on the politicians involved.
For the author of the memorandum, the trouble on the Green Hill began with several years of illness and Wolfgang Wagner's withdrawal from his lifetime position as sole festival director in 2008. The second son of Richard and Cosima Wagner's only offspring Siegfried had taken over the scepter from his brother Wieland, who had died in 1966. After the disaster of the Nazi regime and the Wagner clan's involvement in it, Wieland re-founded the festival as "New Bayreuth" and helped it achieve worldwide fame with his symbolically charged, minimalist productions and top-class artists.
Wolfgang, too, was considered a solid craftsman, at times a remarkable director and a good organizer, who succeeded in keeping the Hill up to date musically as well as with regard to the selection of suitable directors, conductors and singers, without touching or even betraying his grandfather's legacy at its core. Under Wieland and Wolfgang, Bayreuth was supported not least by a team of highly competent and motivated employees behind the scenes, who often remained loyal to the festival for many years, as well as by the worldwide activities of the Society of Friends of Bayreuth and the Richard Wagner societies.
From today's perspective, these were happy years of an overall successful synthesis of tradition and renewal, not excluding occasional provocations. All of this was embedded in a family atmosphere in which the descendants of the great composer and lyricist were able to do as they pleased in the manner of classical impresarios. Basically, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus was a private theater at the time, to which one was admitted at (still) moderate prices, if one was lucky or had connections - the founder of the festival himself attached importance to the fact that, in principle, all classes of the people could participate in his works. "A bit like the Augsburg Puppet Theatre," says an intimate connoisseur and admirer of this tradition with friendly derision. Since 1973, the fate of the Festival and the Festspielhaus has been the responsibility of the Richard Wagner Foundation Bayreuth, founded by the various branches of the family, joined in 1985 by the Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH and later by a media marketing company.
Merciless reckoning with her great-grandfather
The evil took its course when politics began to (re)discover Bayreuth as a means of cultural-political profiling and representation. For a long time, the Hill was considered contaminated by Adolf Hitler's festival visits and the dictator's close relationship with Siegfried Wagner's go-getting wife Winifred. But since the festival has credibly distanced itself from former brown machinations in the eyes of politics and the media, especially under the aegis of Katharina Wagner, Wolfgang's daughter from his second marriage to his former secretary Gudrun Mack, the festival apparently thinks it can score once again with a commitment to this "cultural beacon" that radiates worldwide. Following in the footsteps of permanent guest Angela Merkel, Green politicians have also been dressing up for a long time to make a bella figura at the annual celebrity parade in front of the Festspielhaus. Meanwhile, Claudia Roth, a theater studies graduate and former manager of a rock band, is even co-responsible for the (financial and legal) fate of the festival.
At the latest since Katharina Wagner's "Meistersinger" production in Bayreuth in the summer of 2007, which many critics interpreted as a merciless reckoning with her great-grandfather, and the sudden death of her influential mother Gudrun in November of the same year, as well as Wolfgang Wagner's rapidly deteriorating health, "the entire Festival enterprise, which had previously been so well-ordered, had begun to totter," writes the author of the memorandum. He considers August 31, 2008, to be a black day in the history of the post-war festival, when Katharina Wagner was appointed by the Foundation Board as the new head of the Green Hill, initially alongside her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier, who in turn pulled the plug in 2015.
On this memorable day, Nike Wagner, daughter of Wieland Wagner, who in contrast to Katharina was much more experienced in theater and a visionary in her thinking, did not make the cut, having joined forces with Gerard Mortier, the cultural manager who was praised everywhere for his all-embracing competence. In the opinion of the author, the "dream team" Nike Wagner/Mortier was sacrificed by politics in a Machiavellian manner in favor of the stopgap solution, Katharina Wagner/Eva Wagner-Pasquier, which, if at all, was only dynastically justified.
He who pays, decides!
The then chairman of the foundation board, the Bavarian Minister of Culture Toni Schmid, may have played a key role as an accomplice to the wishes of the ailing patriarch Wolfgang Wagner as well as an administrator of his own power ambitions. Ever since the establishment of the Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH, with which Wolfgang Wagner wanted to consolidate his claims to power over the foundation and competing or even hostile branches of the family, the foundation had already suffered a steady decline in importance, especially as far as its two most important powers were concerned: the appointment of a "festival manager," including the leasing of the Festspielhaus to the respective chosen boss.
De facto, however, the right to determine the executive position already lies with the Festspiele GmbH, on whose board of directors the federal government and the Free State of Bavaria call the shots. If, in addition, plans were to become reality for the Festspielhaus to fall to the public domain in the future within the framework of a 99-year hereditary lease agreement, the foundation would be limited, loosely based on former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, only to "stuff" like the Wagner Archive (albeit a highly significant one) and the museum in the Villa Wahnfried. Leverage for the leasehold plan are the funds for the ongoing renovation of the Festspielhaus, which are to be provided by the politicians: He who pays, decides!
The author of the dossier considers Katharina Wagner intellectually and character-wise unsuitable to lead the Festspiele into a prosperous future. She is not only failing in the organizational and artistic fields, but is also driving away a number of competent employees, including the Bayreuth music director Christian Thielemann, who was dismissed in 2020 and is one of the most important Wagner conductors of the present day. According to "ZEIT," a good two dozen positions were vacant at the festival in the spring. The greatest fluctuation was among the important technical directors. The paper writes that this cannot be explained by a lack of specialists and corona alone.
A chance for a fresh start
A fundamental reform and revitalization of the foundation board and a new appointment of the festival management after the expiration of Katharina Wagner's contract in 2025 is inevitable, the author of the memorandum urges. However, that would then in all probability be the end of the dynasty at the head of the Festival, because apart from the incumbent there is no member of the family in sight who would be willing or able to take on responsibility in Bayreuth. Then, for the first time, an external cultural manager would be in charge. Assuming a careful selection of suitable candidates, this could mean a chance for a new beginning for the Festival.
But things will probably turn out differently, because hardly anyone thinks it is possible that the responsible politicians will put the chair in front of the door of "Katharina, the last one". At least in the external perception, there seems to be no alternative, because the active involvement of the founder's family - in addition to the unique architecture of the Festspielhaus and the exclusive canon of works - represents an important unique selling point of the Festival. Seen in the light of day, this would be an exceptionally sympathetic matter, if only the appropriate personnel were available.
Katharina Wagner will therefore continue to hold office on the Green Hill. And she will primarily do what politics and the media expect of her: she will continue to pay homage to the spirit of the times, focus on genderism and diversity, produce one or two scandals that will have an impact on the public, not slacken in "coming to terms" with the past, ensure international marketing (lighthouse!) and offer politicians a parade ground for their vanities. It cannot be ruled out that she might succeed in one or the other of these endeavors. But the bold thought of being able to revive Bayreuth as a center of competence for Wagner productions that are reasonably true to the works, with respect for the genius of one of the greatest opera composers of all time - that will probably remain a dream of old, white men.