Nike Wagner says she was bitter at being ousted from Bayreuth.

Written By The Wagnerian on Wednesday, 20 August 2014 | 6:15:00 pm

Meeting the great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner is an intimidating prospect. We don’t believe family traits are “in the blood” any more, but even so it’s hard to imagine a scion of that domineering “sacred monster” of the 19th century won’t turn out to be formidable. Certainly the 131 years since Wagner’s death have done little to water down the worldly power of the Wagner gene. The Wagners still maintain a stranglehold on Bayreuth, the opera house that Wagner had built at his admirers’ expense, and which has been the centre of the Wagner cult ever since.

As for the relationships within the clan, it’s been a saga of, well, Wagnerian proportions. The different sides of the family have fallen out spectacularly, and battled it out for control of the sacred shrine. Those who have won have had an unfortunate tendency to crush the life out of their rivals and would-be successors, in their bid to hang on to power. Those who lose end up roaming the world, never quite able to put their family connections behind them.

On the face of it, Nike Wagner falls into the latter camp. The third daughter of Wieland Wagner, born a month after the end of the war and raised in the family home of Wahnfried, she seemed well placed to take over the family business. “I remember so well growing up in that house,” she tells me. “My father was in charge of the productions, and worked so hard to bring a radical new style to Bayreuth. We thought we were born on the right side, compared with other Wagners; we were on the side of revolutionary artists, so to speak. This gave me a world-view that has lasted all my life.”
"But I was 21 when my father died, so this dream came to rather a rushed end. His brother, my uncle, Wolfgang, took over, and pretty soon I and my siblings realised we were no longer welcome.”
Did she hope that one day she would become part of all this? “Of course it was a childhood dream to be a singer or dancer… or at least an assistant director. But I was 21 when my father died, so this dream came to rather a rushed end. His brother, my uncle, Wolfgang, took over, and pretty soon I and my siblings realised we were no longer welcome.”

Is she bitter? “I was, but not now,” she says, and then adds, “it was not so hard for us children, but it was very hard for my mother. She was very bitter, and she passed her bitterness on to us.” Surely she nurtured dreams of returning at some stage? “Uh-huh,” she says with studied coolness. She picked up her Americanisms during the years she spent in the US as a student of cultural history. Even so it’s odd to hear it in the mouth of a Wagner, and it emphasises her distance from what one thinks of as the Wagner manner. With her slender, elegant figure and quietly spoken diplomatic ways, she reminds me much more of Christine Lagarde than the fiery composer who manned the barricades in Dresden in 1848. Only in profile does one get a reminder of that Wagner nose.
"We knew behind the scenes Wolfgang was working to make sure his line of the family would take the reins of the festival. It was a done deal, but we had to try.”
Unlike her great grandfather, who was always impatient, Nike Wagner bided her time. “I made my own way as an author and critic, and at the beginning of the Nineties I felt I was ready to take another look at Bayreuth.” That’s putting it mildly. In 2001, she published a book which took exquisite revenge on the family that had rejected her, portraying it as dysfunctional in ways that parallel the dysfunctional families in Wagner’s operas. At around the same time she made a bid for the directorship of Bayreuth, in league with Gérard Mortier, the man who had caused radical changes at the Salzburg Festival.

Their plan seems reasonable enough, but in the context of Bayreuth it was a revolution. “We wanted to raise the standards of singing and conducting, bring in new directors, and also perform the youthful works of Wagner we never see there. Also we felt it was time to break the hold of tradition, which says you can only have Wagner morning, noon and night, by bringing in other works with a connection to Wagner. Our overriding principle was to connect Wagner with the modern world.”

Nike never expected to win this battle. “We knew behind the scenes Wolfgang was working to make sure his line of the family would take the reins of the festival. It was a done deal, but we had to try.” In the event the daughters of Wolfgang were appointed, one older and experienced, the other young and glamorous. Has the partnership worked? Nike Wagner won’t be drawn on that. “My rule since then is never to comment, because if you are the loser it just looks like resentment.” Instead she’s thrown herself into other things. From 2004 to 2013, she directed a festival devoted to her great-great-grandfather Franz Liszt (Liszt was the father of Wagner’s second wife Cosima, who was Nike’s great-grandmother). Now she’s just been appointed director of the Beethovenfest in Bonn.

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