Barenboim turns his guns on Bayreuth

Barenboim turns his guns on Bayreuth


norman lebrecht

June 09, 2015

The Berlin state opera chief, who conducted at Bayreuth from 1981 to 1999, has launched a rocket attack on festival director Katharina Wagner after her lawyers removed her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier from this summer’s festival. Eva, 70, is due to retire in August.

Daniel Barenboim said in a statement: ‘Gibt es in einem freien demokratischen Land für ein solches Verfahren eine rechtliche Grundlage? Ich dachte, man kann den Menschen ihre Bewegungsfreiheit nicht nehmen – außer sie wären Kriminelle. Dieser Umgang ist menschenunwürdig. (Is there any legal basis for such a move in a free, democratic country? I thought you can’t take away people’s freedom of movement – unless they are criminals. This action is the opposite of humane.)’



What Barenboim fails to distinguish is that Bayreuth is not part of a free and democratic country. It is a hereditary autocracy run by members of the Wagner family, none of whom answers to the rules of common decency.

The conductor Kirill Petrenko is threatening, on similar grounds, to withdraw from this summer’s Ring. The only happy maestro at Bayreuth is Christian Thielemann (pictured below with Katie and advisors).

katharina wagner thielemann


  • Simon S. says:

    It wouldn’t be worth mentioning if this hereditary autocracy relied on their private funds only. The scandal is that ist recieves huge grants of taxpayers’ money and is nonetheless governed like a private property.

    • william osborne says:

      Sooner or later the state of Bavaria will take over Bayreuth.

      • Simon S. says:

        So far, it has been a loyal ally of Kathy & Co.

        • william osborne says:

          True. At first the government was making a lot of noise about taking over the festival, then they suddenly became oddly quiet. I think it is because of her relationship with Thielemann.

  • Petros LInardos says:

    So how are Alain Altinoglou and Axel Kober unhappy?

  • william osborne says:

    The restraining order placed on Eva that bars her from the grounds of Bayreuth is indeed grotesque. In German it’s called a Hausverbot. For some reason, the practice isn’t uncommon in Germany’s cultural institutions. It’s something like a shunning, a total form of exclusion. Some even associate it with high artistic ideals.

    Wolfgang Wagner, the great, great grandson of Wagner, did two things that set in motion the destruction of the Wagner family’s legacy of ruling Bayreuth. The first was the divorce of his first wife, Ellen Drexel, to marry Gudrun Mack, who was a secretary in the festival’s press department. This deeply alienated his daughter Eva and their relations never recovered. The second problem was Wolfgang’s bitter and unrelenting opposition to the progressive ideals of his son Gottfried who was to be the heir of the festival. Wolfgang was eventually banished from the family, leaving the festival without its next generation of leadership.

    Gottfried received a Ph.D. in theater studies, with a special focus on the work of Brecht and Weil. This could not have been more anathema to Wolfgang’s far right views. In his autobiography, Gottfried quotes his father as saying, “Hitler cured unemployment and restored worldwide respect for the German economy. He freed our people from a moral crisis and united all decent forces. We Wagners have him to thank for the idealistic rescue of the Bayreuth festival.”

    After blacklisting by HUAC, Brecht had settled in East Germany in 1949 and collaborated with the government. As with most people with Nazi sympathies, Wolfgang possessed a deep hatred of anything as “Bolshevist”. Gottfried also studied Jewish history, founded a post holocaust discussion group, and worked in Israel. Wolfgang banned Gottfried from the family villa (which is on the grounds of Bayreuth) in 1975. The family continued to enforce Gottfried’s banishment after Wolfgang’s death. Gottfried was not even allowed to attend his father’s funeral.

    Unfortunately, there’s an even larger part of the story. After the war, Bavaria became something like the national redoubt for Germany’s Nazis. A special party called the Christian Socialist Union (CSU) was formed just for Bavaria that has exclusively ruled the state to this day. The party’s motto is often stated as, “So far right as the law allows.” With a kind of wink of the eye, the implicit assumption is made that it would go farther if not restrained. After the war, many unrepentant Nazis quickly found that the American occupational authorities were willing to discretely work with them, a practice that was continued by the CSU. The CSU continues to maintain a far right stance because any deviation to the left would allow extremist parties to come into power, causing problems similar to those faced in Austria.

    In this climate, Bayreuth continued to hold a special significance for the right and far right, so the attacks on Gottfried did not come only from his family. He was also constantly attacked and demeaned in the Bavarian press. In 1983, he left Germany and settled in Italy.

    So where has all of this led? We see reported efforts by Katharina Wagner to make Christian Thielemann the GMD of Bayreuth, a conservative nationalist who has expressed sympathies for the far right, xenophobic group Pegida. It would seem that Wolfgang is seeing the victory he long sought – something that must also please the more unfortunate side of Bavaria’s political landscape.

    I find this unfortunate because the perspectives of Gottfried would probably have been very beneficial for Bayreuth. The productions of Wagner’s work Gottfried has done for other houses have been true to the score and relatively conventional. He is somewhat eccentric as a person, but no radical as a director. Brecht created one of the most substantial and respected bodies of theatrical theory in the 20th century. Interpretations of Wagner influenced at least to some degree by Brecht’s theories would have revealed important dimensions of Wagner’s work. A synthesis and continuation of German theatrical art and concepts would have been continued. This work would have also been especially beneficial for the reconciliation and the rehabilitation of the Wagner family and Bayreuth. Through Wolfgang’s lack of repentance and the continuation of a far right political climate in Bavaria, Gottfried was banished and these opportunities lost.

    • william osborne says:

      The last sentence of the second paragraph should read that *Gottfried* was banished from the family.

    • Erich says:

      The only contradiction I would make to Mr. Osborne’s excellent analysis is that neither Wolfgang nor Wieland wanted Bayreuth to have a Music Director.
      It is only Katherina’s deeply unhealthy ‘Nibelungentreue’ to Thielemann – and his unwillingness to play second fiddle to any other conductor, hence Petrenko’s early bowing out of the Ring after three rather than the usual five years – that has caused this most unfortunate situation.

      • william osborne says:

        Very true, but in the absence of a genuine heir and leader, a GMD has become a necessity. Katharina will become only the figurative head. After she leaves or retires, the festival will be appropriated by the state of Bavaria — probably a vague extension of the National Theater in Munich. That’s not such a bad fate since they are very good a running an opera house. It’s just that the colorful aspect of the Wagner family legacy will be lost. I’m sorry to see this happen.

        • Erich says:

          Well heaven help them if the GMD is Thielemann. It was perfectly possible for the likes of Barenboim and Levine or even Thieklemann, Nelsons and Petrenko to work in tandem, when they were all equally guest conductors. If Thielemann were to be the de facto boss – with his quite appalling track record of interpersonal relationships wherever he goes – it is asking for trouble.

    • Bayerischer Freistaat says:

      what a load of hum dum about the CSU.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      It seems that Mr. Osborne does not know the difference between “far right” and “conservative”. The German conservatives (though not all of them) were the only political group opposing the Nazis after they came to power. As for the Wagner reality show, who cares? (Not me).

      • william osborne says:

        Approximately 77,000 German citizens were killed for various forms of resistance by Special Courts during the Third Reich. The victims came from many political persuasions. There were notable protests from members of both the Protestant and Catholic Church, and resistance in the military after Stalingrad. Some of these were conservative, but there were also notable protests from the left, such as with the famous White Rose group. There were also tens of thousands in concentration camps who were either suspected or actually engaged in opposition. In general, the NSDP’s main targets were the Socialists and Communists. If they resisted less after the party came to power, it was because their resistance was quickly exterminated while the conservatives received a bit more tolerance, though even that did not last for long.

      • Peter says:

        That’s very wrong. Main opposition against Nazis was from the communists.
        Conservatives only started to resent and oppose Hitler, when it was becoming clear he was going to lose the war.

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      Wolfgang was Wagner’s grandson, not his great-great. It’s maybe worth contemplating that since CT started conducting in Bayreuth, the only other one to have been invited back for a second production is Andris Nelsons…

    • Prewartreasure says:

      Not wishing to be picky, Mr Osborne, but Wolfgang Wagner was Richard Wagner’s grandson.

  • Peter says:

    Who owns the real estate in Bayreuth, the opera house and auxiliary buildings itself? I was under the impression that it was the state of Bavaria, and that it was only them who could enforce such a restraining order?

    • DESR says:

      Thielemann to be made GMD of Bayreuth AND Berlin in the same year?

      Even Herbie K. would have been jealous of that.

      Still, for those who don’t like him and/or his work, with that load he really won’t have much time to travel outside Greater Germania…

      • erich says:

        Then the lesser evil would be Bayreuth. In any case, the two might not be compatible, since rehearsals for the main BPO season start in mid August, when Bayreuth is still in full swing.

        • DESR says:

          That is why you have guest conductors… in both places!

          • Erich says:

            As boss you have to open the Berlin season…and the Bayreuth system calls for the same conductor to conduct all performances of whatever opera he is conducting. And furthermore Thielemann is notorious for having very little stamina and not commuting between engagements. Get real.

  • DESR says:

    My dear old thing, if Chancellor Merkel can say blithely of Britain’s desire to change whole European treaties “Where there is a will, there is a way!” I fancy this little local difficulty will not prove a three pipe problem.

    Perhaps she could mediate?

    • erich says:

      Not so much of the ‘old’ please…there’s life in here yet! Yes – Mutti is a big Thielemann fan (cooked him a Christmas goose once) but I suspect there are too many political minefields in the coalition for her to overtly back someone whose attitude to Pegida was, shall we say, at the very least controversial and whose politics are also, shall we say, dubious.

      • DESR says:

        Th image of Mutti (not Muti, as I first read it) stuffing a Christmas goose clad in her Bayreuth best gown – with Thielemann conducting her doing that (“Attacca!”) – is a cartoonist’s dream…!

        All it needs is a picture of Andris Nelsons and Eva Wagner in the background, with empty plates looking rather bereft, and you have Christmas spirit 2015 in a nutshell…

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    Meanwhile, the artistic level at Bayreuth keeps declining, in spite of conductors like Thielemann and Petrenko, whose respective RING-orchestral work has been widely lauded. Listening to Deutschlandfunk today (June 8), its music critic and correspondent, who has been at Bayreuth through many a season, stated that the problems there are legion and not easily solved. He added that this year’s festival is not sold out, and that Wagner audiences increasingly find greater artistic and vocal satisfaction elsewhere, at many theaters, inside and outside Germany, which are capable of producing quality that is better than Bayreuth. As I type these lines, lawyers earn a nice chunk of money by making sure the communication between the Wagners keeps afloat. Grand theatre even before the curtain rises, as usual. Katie will open with a new Tristan in late July; on opening night Angela Merkel will skip her trousers and, as always on this single occasion during the year, wear a gown in public. The latter might well be more newsworthy than Katie’s new Tristan. Who knows… May the summer weather be nice and not too hot and humid, so that the new production is not adversely by thunderstorms, or, Donner forbid, struck by lightning…:-) Hojotoho!

    • Peter says:

      Not sold out? So why one can not buy any tickets?

    • Peter says:

      The day a staging of an opera is not newsworthy is a great day in my book. Maybe we see better times ahead, where music and intrinsic musical drama gets the spotlight, and staging goes back to where it belongs, supporting the script and the music.

  • Ingrid says:

    My grandmother Frieda Weissbeck was the youngest of seven children of a marriage between Elisabetha Wagner the favourate cousin of Richard Wagner and I would like to contact Gottfried Wagner.