What next for Bayreuth now the last Wagner has gone?

What next for Bayreuth now the last Wagner has gone?


norman lebrecht

April 29, 2020

No-one can say that Katharina Wagner did not put up a good fight to save Wagner for the Wagners. She let herslef be groomed by her father Wolfgang to take over when he died and, while she accepted joint rule with half-sister Eva, it was only ever going to be a temporary arrangement. Wolfgang had left no doubt how the succession was to proceed.

But no-one said it would be easy for Katharina, and the past four months have probably been the worst of her life.

First came the sudden death of her confidant, the inscrutable Bayreuth press chief Peter Emmerich. Then this summer’s festival was wiped out by Coronavirus.

And finally, this week, Katharina herself was diagnosed with an unspecified ‘longterm illness’ that has removed her from the director’s job, apparently for good. Everything the Wagners stood for, everything they fought for, has gone.

So what happens now?

In a comment to Berlin’s Bild newspaper I summarised: ‘This is the end of the line. The last Wagner has left Bayreuth and the shrine is liberated. The past can be cleansed by letting independent scholars into the archives and the future can be reconstructed around principles that have nothing to do with bloodlines – only art.’

So what now?

The board will probably reach out to some of the more competent opera house managers in Germany to see if they would be interested in taking over on an interim basis. Bayreuth is not a job an opera-mad manager would readily pass by. There might also be a tendency to approach a successful recent director, someone like Barry Kosky or Tobias Kratzer, both of whom enjoyed public acclaim at Bayreuth.

There is also the possibility of an attempted putsch by other branches of the Wagner family, who have never taken their expulsion lightly. And there might also be a recall from the board on a consultancy basis for the experienced Eva.

It really is all up for grabs.



  • John Rook says:

    This is indecent. Whatever it’s fashionable to think and say about Katharina, she is a decent human being who has not had it easy: she lost both her parents in quick succession, was saddled with the weight of expectation to bring the Festspiele ‘forward’ (whatever that means), has been criticised from all quarters for whatever reason got most upticks that day and now finds herself having to publicly admit to being extremely ill.

    One request: back off.

  • Christian Elsner says:

    At last it is time for Eva Wagner-Pasquier!

  • Wagner forever says:

    Dear Norman, one thing you really shouldn’t do is quote something from the Bild newspaper (which is the worst thing you can do in Germany). The rest of the world and all music lovers are just sending Katharina our best thoughts and our warm wishes to her recovery!

  • RW2013 says:

    I’m sure Gottfried would secretly like to be asked.

    • John Borstlap says:

      That would be interesting. He is the only Wagner who does not mince his words about the unpleasant sides of the Wagner dynasty.

      • John Borstlap says:


        This is a very interesting documentary by Tony Palmer about the Wagner family where Gottfried has a major role.


        • Nick2 says:

          What an extraordinary film by Tony Palmer! I have read many of the biographies and attended performances at Bayreuth and elsewhere. But the narrative of that film is so disjointed I could not imagine anyone who did not know any of the history of the dynasty coming away from it with much idea of the various tentacles of the family – and certainly virtually nothing of the operas! As for the Parsifal commentary, no mention whatever of the many Buddhist references in the work or of Wagner’s declared interest in the religion.

      • John Rook says:

        Agreed, but would he be the right person to lead the festival?

    • Silversled says:

      I’m sure he would too, but he really does not possess the artistic credentials nor the administrative skills.

  • J Bauer says:

    How do you know that Katherina Wagner has left the festival “apparently for good”. This was nowhere in the press release.

  • Ramesh Nair says:

    The speculation about which Wagner is where in the pecking order is rather like the perceived jockeying of British royals under 70 years of age in terms of favouritism. Maybe because Germany no longer has a Kaiser, this is a substitution at least for those who hold classical music in esteem.

    As I wrote in an earlier post, the problems with Bayreuth are not principally with the quality of the productions. This is a historic theatre which cannot be drastically modernised. The current climate emergency is not standing still. ( Predictions are that 2020 will be one of the top three warmest global years on record, irrespective of El Nino/Nina effects. The unprecedented Australian bushfires were the early warning bell.)
    Placing this festival within the latter half of the European heatwave season is untenable in the long term. Recall that the original justification for a summer festival was to use orchestral players during their season breaks. Nowadays there is no shortage of top class orchestral musicians at any time of year.

    The opera audience in Bayreuth was the greyest I have seen– in large measure due to the inordinate difficulty of securing multiple tickets, unless one is prepared to gamble on returns from the box office. It’s possible the membership of Wagner societies around the world is ageing at a faster pace than that of opera audiences in general.( I have been the youngest active member in my national society, or thereabouts, for many years.) The less-than-traditional look of many Bayreuth stagings may appeal to many younger classical aficionados. Sadly, it is difficult for them to see this in person for the structural reasons noted, unless they live within easy commuting distance to Bayreuth.

    • Dennis says:

      Only in bizarro-world would someone attempt to define the future of Bayreuth in relation to a mythical “climate crisis.” Unreal.

    • engineers_unite says:

      “The current climate emergency is not standing still. ( Predictions are that 2020 will be one of the top three warmest global years on record, irrespective of El Nino/Nina effects. The unprecedented Australian bushfires were the early warning bell.”

      You like talking utter scientific BS or you are just pretending to parrot all the other guff from the Harrabins and Guardian toilet paper of the world?

      Go see Michael Moore’s latest film to get a handle on the corrupt nonsense you are spouting.
      There is NO climate emergency. Temperatures in the Roman period and the medieval warm period were much warmer than today, and CO2 makes plants grow. (it made greenland green and the Vikings learn farming!)

      Seeing such constant twaddle on this website is really annoying.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The trouble began with Wagner himself, who really had no idea what to do about his ‘succession’ after his death. He never envisaged his wife to take over, and simply did not know anyone who would qualify in his eyes. He had wanted Bayreuth to become a national affair, a symbol of German culture, and thus suported by the state , but he had not the slightest confidence in the Reich after his meeting with Bismarck in 1871 in Berlin, sensing that = in spite of B’s miceties – this was a Prussian politician without a real interest in ‘the German spirit’ as Wagner saw it, and more itnerested in guns and cannons Wagner never liked the Prussians with their war mongering. After his death the festival became a hotbed of chauvinistic and antisemitic paranoia, and although Wagner was quite a mixed-up character himself, the ‘dynasty’ who took the lead was much worse, until it was more or less redeemed with the two Wagner brothers after 1945. But also then, the shadows never quite disappeared. Such a festival should finally indeed become a national affair, led like any other German opera theatre – so much has been clear since the death of Wolfgang Wagner.

    Siegfried Wagner would be a nice choice, to have an anti-Wagnerian Wagner leading the festival, for a change. He might restore a production style as a museum culture, more loyal to the works than the usual cynical Regietheater.

    • Beckmesser says:

      His son Siegfried was only 14 when his father died but Richard did seriously consider Angelo Neumann as a successor before being talked out of this by Cosima. After the financial disaster of the 1876 Festival, he wanted the Bavarian government to manage it (and pay its debts). By the late 1870s he was thoroughly fed up with Germany and talked about leaving for good and settling either in the United States or Italy – to the horror of Ludwig II. The ‘dynastic’ Festival arrangement was an invention of Cosima who outlived her husband by 47 years. Its end is long overdue.

      • Edgar says:

        A real “Götterdämmerung”, with Katharina being the redeeming Brünnhilde joining her ancestors on the pyre of the burning Festspielhaus?

        Bayreuth has its other lovely theater, the World Hertiage Margravial Opera House. So why not finish off the Bayreuther Festspiele altogether?

        Unless some truly daring creative minds come together and develop a new artistic vision and foundation, thus making good use of a couple years of closure before starting Neu-Neu Ba-reuth.

        Another option is to turn the Festspielhügel into a National Park and Museum.

        • John Borstlap says:

          “Unless some truly daring creative minds come together and develop a new artistic vision and foundation…….”

          All ‘postwar truly daring creative minds’ outside Bayreuth have found ways of distorting W’s works, with directors adding a layer of their own ideas over those of the works, a fashion of Regietheater that also Bayreuth has followed after Wolfgang Wagner’s death. With hindsight, the best approach appears to be the universalist Jungian approach of Wieland Wagner, which does justice to the works, diminishing their flaws and highlighting their qualities. So, best would be to turn the festival into a museum culture, and leave the distortions to other theatres.

    • John Borstlap says:


      Sorry – I meant Gottfried Wagner, not Siegfried.


  • Escamillo says:

    Barrie Kosky or Tobias Kratzer? No thanks! We’ve had more than enough of stage directors who think that it’s all about them. Let them take the challenging path of creating their own operas – but of course they can’t. Much more fun to mess around with established masterpieces.

    • LewesBird says:

      Escamillo, who’s “we”? Who made you Pope of this dump? Your generation is dying fast, so there’s going to be no “we” left around to be outraged, in a decade or so.

    • Eric B says:

      And honestly, I rather doubt that a Kosky would be interested in taking up a “responsibility” that would drastically limit his wonderful curiosity in unearthing rare repertoires and staging them in an “unconventional manner”, sometimes for the best, sometimes for the worst (on must admit).
      Only someone whose big power trip and hunger would exceed his artistic interests could do the job… A Dorny ? But he’s barely arrived in Munich…

  • fflambeau says:

    Why is there this foolish belief that a Wagner at the helm is necessary? Recall that Richard Wagner himself was a horrible businessman and was pursued by debt collectors all over Europe. If anything, this means to me that one should keep the bad genes of the Wagner’s away, not embrace them as business saviours.

    Moreover, I suspect what this really is is a call for a public “bailout” with an element of the German government stepping in to prop up something that is failing.

    Taxpayers, get ready to open up your checkbooks to prop up another failing institution.

  • John B says:

    Bayreuth has changed quite a bit with the state now taking the lead ( and the funding). This has led to the democratisation of the box office, gone are the queues for ten years plus in order to get a ticket, and gone is the necessity to join a Wagner Society. Now on line bookings are available on registration.
    I have attended over the last years and have not noticed a greying of the audience compared to other opera houses in Europe.
    Since Wolfgang died the requirement of a “Wagner” as director of the Festival has probably diminished….but then who should run it….its a limited repertoire and as such might not appeal to the top intendants.
    Bayreuth is still sold out each year and the musical (certainly orchestral ) standards are incredibly high. They aim to be ground breaking in the productions and as such there are some failures, but despite a hate for “regietheatre” last years Tannhauser was a success and the Rings of Chereau and Kupfer are all in living memory along with the Herheim Parsifal.
    Bayreuth almost thrives on scandal and its future starting with a new director will always be newsworthy. This extraordinary theatre deserves to survive for another generation