“I’m told it is better than it sounds.”
-- Mark Twain, on the music of Richard Wagner
Nothing about Richard Wagner is ever really the way it first looks or sounds, and fittingly, this small town in northern Bavaria, all charming beer gardens and rosebushes on the surface, is many things--deeper and darker--to many people.
For the 19th century German composer himself, it was the ideal setting to build an opera house to the exacting specifications for staging his masterpiece, the “Ring” tetralogy. For opera lovers today, it is the sacred shrine where each summer a chosen few can hear Wagner’s music at its most sublime. You don’t just buy tickets to the Bayreuth Festival--you apply for them, and the average supplicant waits nine years.
For the socially ambitious, Bayreuth is the see-and-be-seen epicenter of the German summer, the place above all others for cultivating ambassadors, top politicos and captains of industry during the lengthy, champagne-flecked intermissions. Yet it is also a place where some of Germany’s least palatable history overshadows the present: Wagner was an outspoken anti-Semite in his time, and Adolf Hitler was lovingly cultivated by Bayreuth society in his.
And now, for the voyeur in all of us, Bayreuth has become a gothic showcase of all the miseries a culturally and socially prominent German family can be heir to as one generation ages, another one jostles for power and a few choose the moment to air new revelations of the Wagner role in the Third Reich.
Festival Director Wolfgang Wagner--Richard’s grandson--is pushing 80 and is expected to give up control soon. With a wife and daughter waiting in the wings, an ambitious niece castigating his “artistic stagnation,” an estranged son detailing the Wagner-Nazi connection on the international lecture circuit and a sister-in-law telling and selling family sexual peccadilloes from her deathbed, what should be the crowning moments of an august career is turning into an annus horribilis for Wolfgang and the Wagner shrine itself.
“Murder and manslaughter,” great-granddaughter Nike Wagner says of what would happen if all the composer’s warring descendants were corralled into Villa Wahnfried, the Wagner ancestral home in Bayreuth, and told to get along with each other.
“If Wagner hadn’t had Bayreuth,” she suggests, meaning the Wagner cult, not just the town, “then this family wouldn’t fight. We would be a normal, peaceful family.”
No chance of that.
Bayreuth Villa Used as U.S. Officers’ Mess
Up until now, direction of the Bayreuth Festival has remained firmly in the hands of male Wagner descendants and their widows, with younger generations breathing new life into the festival after the devastation of World War I, the Nazi years and the postwar occupation of Bayreuth by U.S. forces, which used Wagner’s bombed-out villa as an officers’ mess and played boogie-woogie on his concert grand.
Now, however, the rage of the descendants is so powerful that it threatens to break the long-standing dynastic grip.
Yet at the same time, the pushing and pulling over Bayreuth may bring about a new openness about the grimmest aspects of Bayreuth’s history: its anti-Semitic past. Hitler melted over Wagner and was a frequent guest of honor here, and even today, neo-Nazis love to belt out “The Ride of the Valkyries” as they rev up their motorcycles.
But this summer, the festival establishment is trying to address the past head-on, with an unprecedented academic symposium in Bayreuth on Wagner and the Jews. Co-sponsored by the University of Tel Aviv, it is to take place simultaneously with the sold-out opera festival, which opened Saturday.
“Of course the Bayreuth Festival has a history,” says festival spokesman Peter Emmerich. “It’s located in Germany, and it’s grounded in German history, with all that is great and bad that that implies. The best thing for us to do is to put that history into the hands of independent experts.”
Alas, just in time for this notable effort, and the festival itself, Wolfgang’s sister-in-law Gertrud--married to his brother, Wieland--completed her memoirs. They are an uninhibited account of sexual escapades--particularly, her late husband’s alleged affairs with famous divas--and power plays in the ancestral home of the composer who gave the Western world its most famous wedding march.
The book, ghostwritten by a respected German arts correspondent, also claims that Gertrud, a choreographer, came up with many of the stage innovations that have brought such luster to the Bayreuth Festival but was never given credit for any of them.
“I was not allowed to exist,” Gertrud said in the book, adding that after she was widowed, Wolfgang warned her: “If you ever talk, stage or write, I will cut off your money.”
Gertrud died just as her book was going to press this summer, and other Wagner descendants and personalities named in it are now fighting to have parts of it suppressed.
An Autobiography Causes a Sensation
More fortunate, perhaps, has been Gottfried Wagner, 51, the composer’s great-grandson and an accomplished musicologist. He has lived to see his autobiography published in its entirety and cause a sensation in Germany. “He Who Does Not Howl With the Wolf,” a painful account of life in Villa Wahnfried in the postwar years, will be released in English in the United States in 1999. The title is a play on words, “The Wolf” being both Hitler’s nickname and a reference to Gottfried’s father, Wolfgang.
The core message of “He Who Does Not Howl,” that Germany’s greatest composer of the Romantic era was also an industrious hater of Jews, will come as no surprise to knowledgeable music lovers. When he wasn’t setting ancient Norse legends to music, scholars agree, Richard Wagner was writing political tracts, including the notorious “The Jews in Music,” which ends with the baleful and all-too-prophetic warning to European Jewry: “Bear in mind that one thing alone can redeem you from the curse that weighs upon you. . . . Destruction!”
Not for nothing is Wagner’s music boycotted in Israel.
What is new and provocative about Gottfried’s J’accuse is the intimacy of his account of life within the Wagner compound--an intimacy that is particularly searing in Germany, where half a century after the Holocaust, people are still struggling to make sense of their fathers’ and grandfathers’ incomprehensible deeds.
Gottfried claims that his father and uncle Wieland were virtual Hitler godsons who called the dictator “Uncle Wolf.”
He claims that Hitler proposed marriage to his grandmother, Winifred Wagner, who was an early and enthusiastic member of the Nazi Party and who, according to Gottfried and other historians, supplied Hitler with the paper on which he wrote “Mein Kampf.” Winifred ruled the festival during its flagrantly pro-Nazi years, 1933 to 1944.
He also writes that his father once reminisced that after a performance of “Gotterdammerung,” Hitler sat him and his brother down by the fireplace and gushed, “Once we have rid the world of the Bolshevik-Jewish conspirators, then you, Wieland, will run the theater of the West and you, Wolfgang, the theater of the East.”
Damning stuff, and no sooner was it in print than Wolfgang rushed a statement to all of Europe’s leading newspapers: The book was “a slander and a fabrication,” “fundamentally damaging to the international reputation of the Bayreuth Festival.”
The elder Wagner, who was unavailable for an interview, also banned his son from Villa Wahnfried and canceled an exhibition on Winifred, which the festival was about to stage on the centennial of her birth.
In its place, the festival published, as part of the guidebook it issues each year at the time of the festival, what it said was the sole surviving correspondence between Winifred and Hitler: six innocuous postcards.
Tale of a Tantalizing Trove of Letters
Gottfried isn’t having any of this. He claims that his grandmother once unlocked a special steel-lined cabinet at his request and showed him a tantalizing trove of letters between her and Hitler. The letters, he says, may very well still be in Bayreuth and, if published, would reveal the extent to which Winifred’s early patronage boosted the seedy Austrian corporal up the road to social acceptance and political power.
“That’s baloney,” retorts Emmerich, the Bayreuth Festival spokesman. “Villa Wahnfried was bombed [at the end of World War II]. It was destroyed. If [Gottfried Wagner] claims there was something left, then he should tell us where it is. We don’t have it.”
Villa Wahnfried was indeed damaged by Allied airstrikes at the end of the war; it was later rebuilt and turned into a museum. Among the questions facing the American forces that occupied Bayreuth at the time were: What to do with all this history; with the Wagner legacy and the Festival Theater, standing so appealingly at the top of a landscaped hill; with the masterpieces of music and the repellent political writings; and with the unrepentant Winifred and her children?
Some leading German cultural lights were urging that all Wagners be banished from Bayreuth, but the American occupation planners--after removing Winifred--deemed young Wolfgang and Wieland innocent victims of circumstance and let them go on with the show.
Brothers Take Over at Reopening in 1951
In 1951, the lights went up for the first time since the war, and Wagnerians gasped at what Wolfgang and Wieland had done to purge the operas of their famous old Germanic imagery, now so distasteful in light of the Holocaust and the Nuremberg trials. Brunnhilde now sang her arias without a breastplate. “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” took place in a town that was in no way identifiable as Nuremberg.
Although such productions set off grumbling in the beginning, Wolfgang and Wieland--who died of cancer in 1966--over the years won critical acclaim for their daring and innovative productions, as well as for seeking out and promoting new talent, including Jewish artists.
The Bayreuth Festival never advertises, but each year more than half a million people apply for the 51,000 available tickets.
Still, these statistics aren’t enough to satisfy Nike, Wieland’s daughter, a literary historian and the next Wagner descendant to wage open war on Uncle Wolfgang. Nike is the only Wagner openly campaigning for control of the festival.
“I like restaurants where the menu says, ‘Here the proprietor is also the cook,’ ” she says. “Or ‘the proprietress.’ The end of male rule of Bayreuth is long overdue, however much Wolfgang Wagner is afraid of freethinking women.”
Nike has also recently published a book, “Wagner Theater,” in which she too skewers the family--and offers some of her ideas on how the festival might be reworked. One proposal: to open up Festival Theater to the work of modern composers in the off-season. With rare exceptions, Bayreuth offers only Wagner’s operas--and in fact, only his later operas--for just 30 nights in July and August.
Daughter Says Uncle Was Her Father’s Rival
In print, Nike’s approach is to cast Wolfgang as the talentless rival of her late father. She even suggests that Wieland’s early death was brought on by the stress he suffered as a result of having to share the festival with Wolfgang.
“Something was slowly robbing him of his powers,” she says of her father. “Namely, having to deal with the shadow that was always attached to his heels, with the demon who was sucking out his blood in the light of day, with the goblin whom he was beating down a hundred times and who jumped right back up again and again: his brother.”
Festival spokesman Emmerich acknowledges that Nike and others have been criticizing Bayreuth for failing to stage new productions of late, but he says this is not the result of Wolfgang’s “stagnation.” It is, he says, the result of German government budget cuts that have hit theaters and operas all over the country, as well as a conscious decision to keep the old favorites in play.
“If we launched new productions all the time, then we’d have to drop the old ones,” he says. “And that would mean the people who have to wait such a long time to see them would never have the chance.”
And Nike? Does she have a chance? Some insiders applaud her well-choreographed campaign for the succession, while others--such as cousin Gottfried--say she is a complete nonstarter. Since her book came out, she can’t even get tickets to opening night.
Gottfried, meanwhile, says unequivocally that he doesn’t want the job, adding that he thinks all Wagner descendants should have been kicked out long ago. He has moved to Italy, having discovered that his outspokenness on Bayreuth has damaged his career opportunities in Germany.
Current Director Not Tipping His Hand
Wolfgang isn’t tipping his hand, but some observers are betting that he’ll keep up the tradition of his grandfather and father, Richard and Siegfried Wagner, and hand off the baton to his second wife, Gudrun. There is also a daughter from this marriage who has stayed out of the family feuding and might make a suitable successor.
Emmerich, however, says that while the festival’s bylaws do favor Wagner’s descendants, these days a festival council votes on the succession. Wolfgang can put forward candidates and join in the voting, but he doesn’t have the power to unilaterally appoint a successor anymore.
Which brings up conductor Daniel Barenboim, the only non-Wagner to be mentioned--and mentioned again and again--these days in the discussion of power at Bayreuth.
Barenboim, the Argentine-born music director of the German State Opera in Berlin, is a naturalized Israeli citizen, known among his other accomplishments for leading the Berlin Philharmonic on its first concert tour of Israel.
Could the selection of Barenboim, a Jew, to the leadership of what was once Hitler’s cultural ground zero, to conduct works that are informally banned in Israel and written by an open anti-Semite--could all that be what it takes to drain away, once and for all, the bad blood in Bayreuth?
Emmerich won’t comment on Barenboim other than to acknowledge the persistent rumors. But he says this much is true: A Bayreuth without a Wagner in the front office is no longer unthinkable.
“To lead an artistic institution such as this is to carry a very heavy responsibility,” he says. “It’s not enough just to have a certain name, or nose or chin. You have to understand management, and you have to understand art. Special knowledge, or special qualifications, could be more important than being a member of a dynasty.”
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Wagner Family Tree
Heirs and widows of Richard Wagner’s family have directed the Bayreuth Festival since 1983. Now, scandal and new revelations of connections to the Third Reich threaten to end the family reign.
Richard Wagner (born 1813-died 1883) [1876-1883**] m. Cosima [1883-1907**]
Siegfried (died 1930) [1907-1930**] m. Winifred [1930-1944**]
Wieland (died 1966) [1951-1966**] m. Gertrud
Wolfgang (1951-today**) m. Ellen
** Years Bayreuth Festival director
* Daughter with Gudrun