Wolfgang Wagner dies aged 90

Composer’s grandson and former Bayreuth director exits the stage

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The Bayreuth Festival has announced that Wolfgang Wagner, grandson of the composer, has died at the age of 90.

Wolfgang Wagner was director of the German opera festival for an astonishing 57 years, when in 1951, alongside his older brother Wieland, he restored it to the calendar after a lull brought by the Second World War. As well as directing the festival administratively, both brothers also directed productions artistically – Wieland was by and large the more forward-looking of the two in this regard.

Wieland died in 1966, at which point Wolfgang assumed sole command. Under his leadership, Bayreuth enjoyed a degree of modernisation both on and off stage – the famous 1872 opera house underwent significant renovation and leading directors were invited from overseas leading to a number of groundbreaking productions, with Patrice Chéreau’s controversial 1976 Ring Cycle in particular proving a challenge for critics and audience alike. Demand for tickets soared, and there is now a ten-year waiting list for those who want to attend.

Fittingly, however, Wolfgang Wagner’s long life and career itself was not without drama and controversy. In 1997, Gottfried, Wolfgang’s estranged son from his first marriage, attacked him in print for failing to renounce his mother’s anti-Semitism and the Wagner family’s close ties to the Nazi leadership.

And then, two years later, the Wagner family found itself at loggerheads over who should take over directorship of Bayreuth, with Wolfgang grimly hanging on to his position well into his eighties and insisting on having the right to name his successor. Only in 2008 did he finally step down, with the festival passing into the joint hands of his daughters Eva (from his first marriage) and Katharina (from his second), despite the rival claims of Nike Wagner, Wieland’s daughter.

Reporting on his death, the Bayreuth website says that Wolfgang Wagner ‘dedicated his whole life to the legacy of his grandfather’.