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German Wagner Opera Festival Opens With Eyes on Future

Germany's world-famous Wagner opera festival is set to open its 2008 season on Friday. Some high-tech changes show that this will be the last festival before a major generational change.

Wolfgang Wagner at the Wagner festival theater in Bayreuth

Wolfgang Wagner is set to retire at the end of the festival

This year's Wagner opera festival in Bayreuth, Germany, which opens on Friday, July 25, will mark the end of an era that began in 1951 with the appointment of festival chief Wolfgang Wagner.

A deal has been struck for a new generation of Wagners to take over the event, which always begins with a red-carpet welcome for VIPs at the Wagner theater in this provincial German town, a kind of shrine to the composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883).

His grandson Wolfgang, who initially ran the Richard Wagner Festival in tandem with his brother Wieland and became sole chief after Wieland died in 1966, has promised to retire at the end of August.

Wolfgang Wagner

Wolfgang Wagner seems invigorated by the decision to retire

Wolfgang has delayed for years, insisting that he holds his post for life, though his health is failing and he has difficulty walking. Now, at last, he is to hand over the "family business" to two of his daughters by different marriages, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, 63, and Katharina Wagner, 30, who still have to be officially elected by the festival board.

"It's a unique case in Bayreuth's festival history that a director is elected and not determined by heredity," Peter Emmerich, the festival's spokesman, told DW-RADIO.

Aides at the theater say that Wagner appears infused with new vigour since the decision, as if a great burden has fallen from his shoulders. It is generally expected that the board will appoint the two half-sisters as joint directors from Sept. 1. Though the artistic control is with the Wagners, the board is mainly made up of public figures.

Waiting for change

Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier in a picture combo

Will Katharina and Eva get along?

Eva, who is based in France, had still not been sighted in Bayreuth as opening night approached, whereas the younger sister Katharina has been highly visible in the festival quarter of town as if she were already the boss.

Her great-grandfather, who is supposed to have admonished his followers at the first festival in 1876 to renew and renew ever again, would presumably approve of both this change of generation and the adoption of new technology undreamed of in his day.

On July 27, the festival will feature its first-ever live broadcast on a big screen. The Bayreuth Festival Square will be turned into a public viewing area, where opera fans who didn't manage to get tickets to the theatre can still enjoy Katharina's revision of her 2007 staging of The Mastersingers of Nuremberg.

The same premiere will also be available as a video live stream on the Internet all around the world. The festival's previously unsophisticated Web site has had a makeover this year, too, to make it more informative. The English version, however, was still under construction as of Friday morning.

More money on the way?

Like all classical music events in Germany, the festival charges its audiences only a fraction of the true running costs, even though there is a waiting list of years to obtain just a single ticket.

Festival spokesman Peter Emmerich said there were requests for nearly 500,000 tickets this year, more than eight times the supply. VIPs and those who have waited longest have priority access to the tickets. The festival theater seats just under 2,000 people and there will be just 30 performances this season.

Angela Merkel greets by-standers outside the Wagner festival theater

While most people wait years to get tickets, Merkel doesn't have to worry about hers

The Wagner clan bears no commercial risk in the venture, since lashings of taxpayer money make up the losses. Germany's government-funded arts community considers Bayreuth poor by comparison with some other prestige events, with an annual budget of a mere 17 million euros ($27 million).

Germany's federal government and the state of Bavaria look set to inject even bigger subsidies into the festival after reportedly constricting their funding for several years to force Wolfgang to go. Wagner-loving German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband, Joachim Sauer, are regular first-night attendees.

The festival is gingerly experimenting with commercial funding, offering rich corporate donors VIP-style treatment at the performances in exchange for generous giving. The corporate opera lovers can aspire to "silver lounge" or even more luxurious "gold lounge" status. The festival also hopes for income from festival merchandise, such as Wagner diaries and other festival souvenirs.

Perfect production

The first night on July 25 is to feature Parsifal in a brand-new version by Norwegian director Stefan Herheim. Leaked accounts describe the staging as a tour through several eras of German history.

Mihoko Fujimura as Kundry wearing a dark dress with black wings and holding a small flask

Mihoko Fujimura as Kundry

"Internally, people are saying that there's never been a more beautiful staging than this one," Mihoko Fujimura, who sings the role of Kundry in Parsifal, told DW-RADIO. "I've never experienced such a round, almost perfect production from every point of view."

Italian conductor Daniele Gatti will head the festival orchestra and Christopher Ventris will sing the title role. Katharina Wagner is believed to have made a string of changes to this year's reprise, on July 27, of her premiere production of The Mastersingers last year. Sebastian Weigle is to conduct.

The program, which continues to Aug. 28, will be rounded off by two now familiar Bayreuth stagings: Christoph Marthaler's Tristan and Isolde with Peter Schneider conducting, and Tankred Dorst's Ring of the Nibelung with Christian Thielemann at the helm.

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