Bayreuth Blues

The Wagners: The Dramas of a Musical Dynasty

by Nike Wagner, translated from the German by Ewald Osers and Michael Downes
Princeton University Press, 327 pp., $29.95

A few weeks ago the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth celebrated its 125th anniversary. To the world (perhaps I should say, to the opera world) at large, things have been going along relatively smoothly at Bayreuth since the centennial year 1976, when Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez created a sensation by their bouleversement of Der Ring des Niebelungen, and when the former director of the festival, Winifred Wagner, daughter-in-law of Richard, did likewise by celebrating her Nazi past on camera for Hans Jürgen Syberberg. For insiders, however, the interim has been marked by an intensifying struggle for the succession to the directorship held for fifty years by Winifred’s son Wolfgang. Often reported in the press, and only very recently resolved, this “soap opera,” as Nike Wagner calls it, forms the background for her impressive book The Wagners: The Dramas of a Musical Dynasty. She is a great-granddaughter of the composer and has been one of the claimants.

The dramas she tells about are of two kinds, literal and metaphorical. The first half of the book consists of brief essays on the Wagner operas. The second half is a concise and caustic history of the Wagner dynasty, a series of family dramas sometimes presented (more entertainingly than convincingly, it must be said) in parallel with tales from the Ring and the Grail. The English-language edition also includes a statement of intent that the author issued about a year ago in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, setting forth extensive changes she would promote to reinvigorate and modernize the festival. This was, no doubt, a final measure of desperation—

So, a manifesto to round off a family story? It was not premeditated that it should appear, either in this form or at this point, and by the time this book is published it will already have been overtaken by events.

In March the new director, her more conservative cousin Eva Wagner-Pasquier, was appointed as of 2002. Has the situation been resolved? Wolfgang refuses to step down, so the soap opera may be good for a few more episodes.

Eva is an opera manager with solid international credentials. Nike is described as a “music critic and cultural commentator”; she has a Ph.D. from Northwestern University and has written a book on Karl Kraus. With or without manifesto, The Wagners must be seen as an attempt—already, I am afraid, desperate—to establish her bona fides as an intellectual rather than a theater functionary.

I approached this book (as one approaches any book by any Wagner) with skepticism, but ended up being very impressed. The opening chapters—vignettes, really, rather than actual studies—focus on one particular aspect of each opera: Romanticism in Lohengrin, incest in the Ring, the peculiar humor of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. They rely rather heavily on Freudian interpretation, and like so many of the writings about this composer, they hardly ever deal specifically with the music. That said, I would recommend them seriously to anyone interested in the Wagner oeuvre …

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