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Uncovered: Wagner family’s unseemly battle for control of composer’s legacy

It could have been a plot from one of his celebrated operatic works, but a power struggle between two branches of the Wagner family for control of their great grandfather's cultural legacy was all too real until it was finally resolved this week.
 
The story began earlier this year when Wolfgang Wagner, Richard Wagner's grandson, announced he was stepping down as head of the foundation that runs the Beyreuth festival – one of Germany's most important cultural events.
 
To understand the festival's significance, it is necessary to go back to its opening in 1876. In need of financial independence after selling off the performance rights to his own works to alleviate a cash flow problem, Richard ended up in Beyreuth.
 
Once settled in the town, the composer built an opera house to showcase his own works, in particular Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal. Ever since, the festival has presented performances of the founder's operas. Today it has an annual budget of $23.3 million and a waiting list for tickets that can be up to seven years.
 
Wolfgang has presided over the festival for the past 57 years, but the Wagner family has effectively overseen the direction of the festival since the mantle passed to Richard's wife, Cosima, following his death in 1883.
 
The terms of the festival state that control must remain in the hands of the Wagner family, unless there are no suitable candidates.
 
But Monday saw the announcement that Nike Wagner, Wolfgang's 63-year-old niece, and Gerard Mortier, the general director of New York City Opera who she had teamed up with, didn't want to hear.
 
Wolfgang's daughters, Katharina Wagner, 30, and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, 63 (both pictured), were chosen by the foundation's board who heard pitches from both camps.
 
The vote was a unanimous 22 votes to none in favour of Katharina and Eva, who Wolfgang fathered via two different mothers. There were two abstentions.
 
What makes the decision even harder for Nike to take is that the board consists of several members of her own family in addition to officials of the federal, state and local governments.
 
However, Nike's bid for the festival's top job came too late in the piece, just days before her uncle was due to retire. She has since said that board members had gone into the meeting with their minds made up.
 
In 2001 the foundation made it clear that Wagner-Pasquier was their preferred choice to succeed Wolfgang, but he refused to step down unless Katharina and her mother were put in charge.
 
As her father's first choice Katharina has promised changes including making productions more children-friendly and, crucially, attempting to put the festival's Nazi legacy behind it.
 
Wagner was Hitler's favourite composer and the dictator was close to Winifred Wagner, the composer's daughter-in-law and the festival's Nazi-era director.
 
Katharina will have a tough job on her hands. She presented her first Bayreuth production last year but it was widely disparaged by critics, who turned their nose up at the nudity and the use of plastic phalluses.
 
Her success will no doubt depend on the relationship she builds with her half sister and the reaction of her scorned cousin. 

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