Family feud sets scene for Wagner opera festival


Berlin : A 29-year-old blonde who has staged just five operas is being lined up to run one of the world's most famous festivals dedicated to the works of Richard Wagner.

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All eyes will be on Katharina Wagner when her much anticipated production of The Mastersingers of Nuremberg launches this year's Bayreuth Festival in southern Germany Wednesday.

The composer's great-granddaughter is convinced she has the talent to oversee the annual event that has been in family hands since 1876. "I am confident of my ability to take over the leadership of the festival," she said during rehearsals last week.

Wagner's 87-year-old father, Wolfgang, has been building her up to succeed him as director. In sole charge since 1966, he is reportedly in frail health and anxious to retire.

But his plans could be thwarted by the ambitions of his daughter from a previous marriage, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, and niece Nike Wagner, both of whom have expressed an interest in the position.

The two women, both 62, are successful artistic directors in their own right, but have been embroiled in a family feud with Wolfgang Wagner for years.

Nike Wagner is director of the Weimar arts festival in eastern Germany, while Wagner-Pasquier works at the Aix-en-Provence festival in France.

The Bayreuth festival's foundation committee is due to meet in the autumn to discuss a successor to Wolfgang Wagner, who was given a contract for life in 1966.

While Katharina Wagner's two rivals may be able to show more experience, youth could be on her side. Choosing her, opera experts say, would enable the Wagners to prolong their dynasty in Bayreuth for decades.

But the big test will come Wednesday when the curtain opens on "The Mastersingers" in front of a prominent audience that includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Running for nearly five hours, "The Mastersingers" is one of the longest works in opera history. Directing the orchestra will be Sebastian Weigle, who, like Katharina Wagner, is making his debut at the festival.

Another conductor appearing for the first time is Christoph Ulrich Meier, who stepped in at the last moment when Italian Fabio Luisi pulled out of "Tannhaeuser" because of back problems.

Staged by Philippe Arlaud, the popular tale of the legendary German singer and poet received only lukewarm reviews when it was performed in 2005 and was dropped from the programme last year.

Also on the programme is a staging by Germany's foremost theatrical playwright/director Tankred Dorst of Wagner's four-opera epic masterpiece Der Ring der Nibelungen.

Dorst's radical production of "Rheingold", "Siegfried", "The Valkyries" and "Twilight of the Gods" was not well received on its debut in 2006, although some critics hailed its visual opulence.

"Parsifal" fills out this year's repertoire. The version on view is the controversial post-modernist staging by enfant terrible Christoph Schlingensief that shocked Wolfgang Wagner when it made its premier three summers ago.

A diverse cast of singers will be making their Bayreuth debut this year, many of them in "The Mastersingers". Among them are German bass Franz Hawlata in the role of Sachs, Michael Volle as Beckmesser and Klaus Florian Vogt as Stolzing.

The revival of Arlaud's production of "Tannhaeuser" will see Dutch tenor Frank van Aken taking over the title role in his first-ever appearance at Bayreuth.

All 30 performances for the festival running until August 28 have long been sold out. There is a waiting list of eight years for tickets, which this year cost from 22 to 192.50 euros ($30 to $265).

Katharina Wagner vowed she would make no concessions to the public in her staging of "The Mastersingers", saying she hoped it would stimulate her audience without annoying them.

"It's only secondary whether they like it or not. What's more important is that I am able to look myself squarely in the eyes," she said in a magazine interview.

"If I wanted to be everybody's darling then I would have chosen another profession," said Wagner, who was booed for her staging of "Puccini's Il Trittico" at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in January 2006.