For the first time, there is no Wagner in charge at Bayreuth

For the first time, there is no Wagner in charge at Bayreuth


norman lebrecht

April 27, 2020

The longterm illness that today removed Katharina Wagner from the helm of the Bayreuth Festival leaves the event Wagner-free for the first time since the composer inaugurated it with the Ring in 1876.

The interim management of Heinz-Dieter Sense and Holger von Berg are answerable to a public trust and will not undertake radical change. But the absence of any Wagner is itself revolutionary. Katharina and her father Wolfgang removed all other members of the family from their fiefdom. She must now watch in frustration as strangers take it forward.

The hereditary leadership has not been broken, but it is damaged for the future, short term and long.

Katharina is unmarried and has no child.

Herr Sense is 81.

There is a power vacuum at Bayreuth.


  • A.L. says:

    The vacuum sadly extends beyond power over there at the Green Hill. Somewhere in that black hole too you will find a plethora of inadequate and uninteresting singers and the pseudo directors who keep them aloft. Still, we wish KW good health.

  • V.Lind says:

    Well, what did she expect to happen — that she would live forever?

    Of course, I wish her well, but as a singe, childless person, how if at all did she anticipate her succession?

    • Escamillo says:

      The appointment of someone who was interested in the works of Richard Wagner would be a start.

      • V.Lind says:

        I imagine there are a few of those whose surnames are not hers. I am only responding to the comment that she is watching in frustration as “strangers” take over. If she did not want “strangers,” she might have engaged people to groom them for eventual succession. Or not dismissed the rest of the non-strangers so summarily.

  • Are there any other Wagner descendants in the wing with skills that might plausibly align with producing operas?

  • Petros Linardos says:

    – Eva Wagner-Pasquier, half-sister of Katharina, was co-director at Bayreuth from 2008 until 2015.

    – Nike Wagner, Wieland’s daughter, also has strong credentials.

    Both are not so young: they were born in 1945.

    No point to pursue uninformed speculation on why neither of them hasn’t taken over.

    I don’t know about grandchildren of Wolfgand or Wieland.

  • Ramesh Nair says:

    I attended Bayreuth for the first time in 2018; a major undertaking in terms of time, expense and Circadian disruption, given that I reside in New Zealand ( today with almost nil community transmission of Covid-19 ). For me, Kosky’s production of ‘Meistersinger’ was fascinating, the most thought-provoking Meistersinger staging I have ever seen in person or on video. But this was the exception. Most of the productions in the new Wagner era show Regie Theater at its solipsistic and self-preening worst. The Castorp Walküre I paid 220 Euro to endure in 2018 had two live turkeys on stage for Act 1 Scenes 1 and 2. Domingo conducted flaccidly. The live turkeys went ‘gobble, gobble’ during much of the singing! After the end of act 1, I said in English to no-one in particular around me that if one of the turkeys was in the pit conducting, and the conductor had replaced one of turkeys on stage, the singing and conducting would have been rather better. Numerous ‘ja’s greeted my remark, and nobody objected.

    So the time has come for competence in terms of choosing directors for the festival. I wish the late Peter Jonas, or someone else of his calibre, had run Bayreuth for the past few years, given what I saw in person or on video. The Bayreuth orchestra is fantastic, and the acoustic is unique. But there are other equally serious problems. The theatre does not have air conditioning. With climate change, the heat stress is a current health hazard given the elderly nature of most attendees. I attended the final 8 days of 2018. Someone who was also present for an earlier performance, during the heat wave, said at least 30 audience members sought medical help for heat stress/dehydration symptoms during and after just that one performance. If the auditorium is not modernised for current climate conditions, I cannot fathom how the festival can continue within part of the peak heatwave season.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      The auditorium has a/c, or at least had one installed between 1994 and 1995. How they operate it is another matter.
      I know this because I attended performances on both of these summers, and a guide mentioned the installation in a 1995 backstage tour. The difference was dramatic. That said, it was nowhere as cool as, say, a fancy hotel. Trust me, on a hot day the auditorium was damn hot.

      • Wagnertragic says:

        I was under the impression that they did not use air-conditioning but did a fresh air exchange in the intervals, hence the locked door?

    • fflambeau says:

      “at least 30 audience members sought medical help for heat stress/dehydration symptoms during and after just that one performance.”

      Let’s face it: Most of Wagner is much, much to long.

      • Barry Guerrero says:

        No one says you have to like Wagner. Let those of us who do like it, enjoy it.

      • Brian v says:

        Are the London proms any better. It is unbearable people perspire.
        I did ask a director about this problem he said it is an old building
        And they cannot do anything about it.
        Stay at home

    • Wagnertragic says:

      I attended some of those final performances and I agree with you on Domingo’s conducting. I think the orchestra played exactly as he conducted, and there’s was sustained booing at the curtain calls.

  • Escamillo says:

    Thank goodness she’s gone. Her time at the helm has been an absolute disaster. The name ‘Wagner’ should not determine the directorship any more. A family member can be ‘patron’ or some such but nothing more.

  • fflambeau says:

    It is understandable as to why this is happening.

    Richard Wagner’s opera music is way overrated (especially the boring and overlong “Ring”: notice how few productions there are of it worldwide in the last decade?). He did some good work but he badly needed an editor. Also it was a mistake to consign one place to his works solely: they are not worthy of it as time shows.

    Puccini is much better. (and 2 hours shorter timewise at least). More performed as well.

    • Leporello says:

      Then you would know that Puccini said: “Nothing of Richard Wagner has died: his opera is the yeast of all contemporary music”.

      • fflambeau says:

        Yeast yes, good music, no.

        While there’s a lot of gold in Wagner, there’s also a huge amount of dross.

    • sycorax says:

      You know, I often find Wagner operas too long too, but I actually feel that’s a “failure” of mine. I’m probably lacking some understanding, I’m perhaps not developed enough for some Wagner. But the idea to blame it on Wagner … hmm … forgive me for saying it so blunt, but don’t you think that’s rather arrogant?

      • Barry Guerrero says:

        I had the same opinion for decades, but I kept chipping away at it. Now I love a good Wagner performance. The problem is that there aren’t enough really good singers to go around. We live in an age where the orchestras sound better than most of the casts that get put together, irrespective of which composer. Little wonder that some are calling for more ‘Wagner without words’.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    A Bayreuth Festival comment unrelated to Ms Wagner’s illness: time is right for HIP productions of Wagner’s operas – I want to see Wotan and the valkyrias using helms with horns or wings, and Viking armor.

    • MJA says:

      I want to give this comment the benefit of the doubt in case you are just being ironic and I’m failing to spot it.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        I’m serious about it. Just think: that would be the ultimate outrageous production.

        • Petros Linardos says:

          In all fairness, helms, horns, wings and Viking armor would be a hell of a lot of fun at first, but it would get old fast. On the other hand, what if audience members wore that kind of headgear? No joke here: life is too short to play it safe.

          Arguably it could be interesting if the orchestra experimented with gut strings or other old instruments. While I am generally a big fan of HIP, in this context I don’t know whether it would be worth the disruption. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra is extremely good, absolutely world class, arguably one of the most reliable assets of the Festival. If it works, why fix it?

          • Pianofortissimo says:

            I did not mean a HIP orchestra for Wagner’s Ring, but a HIP mise en scène. I’m sure the reactions from the “cultural establishment” would be much more intensive than to anything done by Calixto Bieito or Peter Sellars until now. AndI’m sure it would be a wonderful production.

        • Wagnertragic says:

          Think I just saw Anna Russell lurking in the wings….Oh what a hoot!!!!!

  • I suspect that sooner or later the Bavarian government will take over Bayreuth–or at least become the ruling interest. Bayreuth will be run similar to the Bavarian State Opera in Munich–in many respects a sister house. Things will continue without a hitch.

    At that point, I hope something will be done about allowing more women into the orchestra. At around 5%, the Bayreuth orchestra has the lowest ratio of women of any major orchestra in the world. There are no auditions. The good ol’ boys just invite their friends to play, so women are omitted and sexist ratios put on display for the world to see.

    • Beckmesser says:

      Wagner himself tried to hand over control of the Festival to the Bavarian government of Ludwig II but this was opposed by the king’s ministers. He also spoke of handing over management to the (Jewish) impresario Angelo Neumann who had been hugely successful in staging hundreds of performances of the Ring all over Europe, but Cosima would have none of it and eventually took over herself and directed performances – something that would have greatly surprised her husband. He had never intended that the Festival should remain in the hands of family members in perpetuity.

  • John B says:

    Bayreuth orchestra is a wonder to hear admittedly assisted by a stunning acoustic. The Festival has always experimented from the production point of view. The Herheim Parsifal is often referred to as the best opera production many have ever seen. Katherinas Tristan wasnt bad. They seem to have a problem attracting the best singers but the rehearsal time and the pay probably discourage many.
    There are plenty of Wagners in the wings if that is what is needed. What shouldn’t be in dispute is the quality of music and the seriousness of the productions. Remember the Chereau Ring was booed on its first outings.

    • fflambeau says:

      “Remember the Chereau Ring was booed on its first outings.”

      Perhaps audiences were smarter then. The Ring is really silly.

      • Barry Guerrero says:

        Of course it’s silly. It’s simultaneously a comedy and a feminist tale. Whether Wagner intended it that way or not, is really almost irrelevant. And once you really get to know it, it’s also wonderful.

  • fflambeau says:

    The shorter the Wagner, the better. Look for orchestral versions of the Ring cycle, summarizing the work in a single movement of an hour or so, have been made by Leopold Stokowski, Lorin Maazel (Der Ring ohne Worte) (1988) and Henk de Vlieger (The Ring: an Orchestral Adventure), (1991).

    The Maazel is excellent.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      Except that nearly all of them exclude the marvelous Prelude to Act II of “Siegfried”. It’s one of the orchestral moments in the entire Ring.