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The Wagner-Wagner Feud

In light of recent events surrounding the incestuous clash in Bayreuth, I thought it might be interesting to reprint this article from two years ago:

An Afternoon with Wolfgang Wagner

New York
German House
21 November 1999

Dr. Cornel Metternich, Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany, hosted an interview with Wolfgang Wagner at the German House directly across from the United Nations on Sunday afternoon. The event was sponsored by the Wagner Society of New York, whose tireless president, Nathalie Wagner (no relation and pronounced like actors Robert or Lindsay) has brought so many luminaries to New York to discuss and present the great works of this most fabulous of all composers of opera. Wolfgang Wagner has a very impressive musical pedigree. Son of composer Siegfried Wagner, grandson of Richard and Cosima Wagner, and great-grandson of Franz Liszt, he has spent his entire life dedicated to the preservation of the great masterworks of his grandfather most particularly as Festspieleiter of the Bayreuth Festival which, along with his brother Wieland, he resurrected from the cultural rubble that was Germany after its crushing defeat in 1945. Sitting under a large photograph of himself that had to be at least 30 years old, the octogenarian Wagner still appeared youthful thanks in large part to his mane of silver hair and his general affability. He was presented with questions (some of which were composed by this reporter and some taken from the floor) which were translated for him into German (oddly enough although his mother was British, Herr Wagner has virtually no English) and he replied in German which was then translated for the large and adoring crowd. Since his own words were not readily available, I have chosen to simply present an encapsulation of what he had to say.

Herr Wagner visibly lit up like a Tannenbaum upon hearing the first question which was about his beloved father Siegfried. One of the neglected characters on the world musical stage, Siegfried Wagner was actually quite a talented composer (no less a personage than Mahler premiered his works at the Vienna Opera) who fell victim to the inevitable comparisons with his illustrious father. Wolfgang waxed poetic about this man who ultimately had to earn his living as a conductor, explaining that Siegfried died when Wolfgang was only eleven, but that he was a wonderful and gentle man. One of his proudest achievements, Herr Wagner stated, was his production of his father’s opera Bruder Lustig in honor of his 75th birthday in the wartorn Berlin of 1944. Even though the dome had just fallen at the Opera House, Wolfgang was able to mount a fine tribute to his father featuring legendary performers Margarita Klose, Peter Anders and Maria Mueller. A corollary question was what memories did Wolfgang have of his famous grandmother Cosima. He responded in German and all of my German friends at the society laughed with delight while I had to wait for the translator to take over. What Wagner remembers most about Cosima is that he got to play with her dentures! She was over 90 when he was a child and seemed to be living entirely within the world of her memories, but Siegfried brought Wolfgang in to have tea with Grandma on a regular basis and it was at these sessions that his father taught the lad how to play chess.

Herr Wagner was asked about the role of traditional staging at Bayreuth and why he had so radically altered the sets and costumes for his performances in the 1950’s. He responded by quoting Mahler who had said that “…tradition is the remembrance of the last bad performance” and by using a term in German which loosely translates as “getting rid of everything in your attic”. He and his brother consciously wanted to make their grandfather’s works more contemporary and free them from any taint of the recent dark past. He talked at length about the vocal friendly acoustics at Bayreuth which can sometimes be a problem for young singers who assume that they do not need to project as strongly as possible. When these singers then go out into the real world and sing at cavernous houses like the Metropolitan in New York, they may not be audible over the large, uncovered orchestral forces so common in the mature works of Wagner.

After dispensing with a question about the early works of his grandfather (even Richard banned Die Feen, Liebesverbot and Rienzi from Bayreuth), Herr Wagner talked about the many treasures available in the archives at Bayreuth. There are still 6 swords from the 1896 Ring as well as the curved spear of Hagen from 1898, which has been used in some modern productions. Wagner offered to any of us who would take it off of his hands a plastic swan from an old Lohengrin production and talked at length about a wooden device with nails embedded in it which rotated and, when the light hit it just right, the glints from the nails created a shadow impression of a swan on the stage. He is a big believer in the illusionary power of lighting and ridiculed the old costumes of his grandfather’s own staging as inappropriate.

Since most of the members of the Wagner Society are quite conservative, they asked again about “realistic” staging. Wagner’s response was that opera is in itself an unrealistic art form and so in order to preserve the mythic nature of the stories and to allow for the listener’s own fantasy to play a large role in the total artistic experience, he was more and more committed to minimal staging and innovative set and costume designs.

His generous nature came out when he discussed the current financial situation at the Festival. Recently the German government cut the subsidy of the house considerably. Wagner was passionate in stating that he would not raise ticket prices because he felt very strongly that people of modest means should be able to attend this great operatic venue and he did not want his anarchistic grandfather’s beloved theater to become “elitist”. He promised that if a deficit were thus created that he would make up the difference out of his own pocket if necessary.

Wagner sidestepped the issue of his own succession. There are three major candidates for the position and all three are close family members. His wife Gudrun, his niece Nike and his daughter Eva are all in the running while the male members of the succeeding generation, Gottfried and Wolf-Siegfried, are both personae non grata. Wagner stated that the foundation’s selection committee was ultimately in charge. What he neglected to mention was that he has ultimate veto power. In any event, it was apparent that his burning love for the art of his grandfather will guide him in his last and perhaps most important decision as the keeper of the Wagnerian magic fire.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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