Wotan, father of the gods, has just kissed his daughter, Brunnhilde, to sleep and left her to burn alive. Katharina Wagner raises her eyebrows as she smacks her lips around an ice cream, and looks on in satisfaction at the sea of 20,000 people who have gathered on Bayreuth’s carnival ground to watch a live transmission of The Valkyrie on a huge screen. “I think we’ve pulled it off,” she says.
Dressed in jeans and polo shirt, the attire of the co-chief of Germany’s Bayreuth festival could hardly be in starker contrast to that of the high society event’s standard dress code. But then Wagner neither looks nor behaves as you might imagine the head of one of the world’s most talked-about cultural institutions to, or even the great-granddaughter of composer Richard Wagner.
It is clear that Wagner feels more at home here at the public viewing — one of the innovations that has characterized her young tenure so far and with which she has taken on the powerful Bayreuth establishment — than hobnobbing with the great and good. “The people are down to earth here. I feel at home,” says the 32-year-old in her characteristic deep, gravelly voice. “I hope very much that the public viewing will be seen as my contribution to the festival, as an attempt to make it less stuffy, and elite, more open and transparent.”
This is no mean goal. Bayreuth is one of the most conservative festivals in the world, for which you can wait 10 years to secure a ticket: this year, for the 54,000 tickets there were 408,000 applications from more than 80 countries. The festival is seen by legions of fans as a sacred shrine to Richard Wagner, who set it up to showcase his works 134 years ago. These Wagnerians are deeply divided over Katharina, who after a long family battle, but with the staunch backing of her father Wolfgang, took over the helm last summer together with Eva, 33 years her senior. “The feeling of Wagnerians towards her oscillates between holy veneration and calling for a witch hunt,” says Die Welt’s cultural commentator, Lucas Wiegelmann.
This is the first time the sisters have been completely on their own, following the death of their father in March. Poignantly, his seat in the Festspielhaus, where he watched no fewer than 1,300 performances, has been cordoned off out of respect. “I feel Dad’s absence in every nook and cranny of Bayreuth,” says Katharina. “But he’s also constantly there with me, whispering in my ear, ‘You’re doing a good job, girl.’”
The sense that a new era has begun is palpable. At the free public viewing, locals — 70 percent of whom admitted in a recent survey they had never seen a Wagner opera — are invited to watch high culture while devouring sausages, beer and pretzels. There is also a kinder opera, now in its second year, in which a Wagner work — this year it was Tannhauser — is condensed to a more digestible and child-friendly format.
The sisters have tried to shift the power away from the traditionalists by setting up a new team of “active festival patrons” to encourage more transparency and artistic freedom, and less bureaucracy. The move is risky, as the traditionalists, who make up the Society of the Friends of Bayreuth, control much of the festival’s funding.
“I don’t want Wagner just to be for people who have a lot of money,” says Katharina. “It should be for everyone. When I’m told I’m killing the myth due to my podcasts, live streams, or television transmissions, I’m really sorry, but the myth is the work itself. Nothing can destroy that. The myth is Richard. End of story.”