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Culture

Wagner in Weimar

Nike Wagner, great-great granddaughter of Franz Liszt and great granddaughter of Richard Wagner, has taken the helm of Germany's Weimar arts festival until 2006. Deutsche Welle met up with the new director.

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Nike Wagner wants to see Weimar emerge from the shadow of its past

Since Weimar's glory days as European City of Culture in 1999, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's home town has been struggling to maintain the international flair it gained five years ago.

But now there's a new girl in town -- and she means business. Under Nike Wagner, once tipped as a possible new director of the Bayreuth Festival but pipped at the post by her younger cousin Katharina, the 2004 Weimar arts festival marks a new departure for a city that's trying hard to shake off its conservative image. The revamped event has been hailed as a forum for contemporary arts, including music, art, literature and dance.

The Weimar mythology

In a city as steeped in history as Weimar, the task of re-energizing the local arts festival while upholding the city's formidable legacy is far from an easy one. But Wagner stresses that the city's unique past is what makes her post so challenging. "Weimar has always had a certain mythology for me," she says. "I'm West German through and through, but when I studied German at university, Weimar really captured my imagination."

Vokhard Knigge, director of the Weimar Klassik Foundation which organizes the festival, described her appointment as an "extraordinary opportunity." When the former culture minister in the Hamburg regional government agreed to take over, a funding crisis meant it wasn't even certain the event had a future. And Wagner admitted she had her work cut out for her. "My generation never gave any thought to the eastern half of Germany, which is something I deeply regret, " she says. "But I was thrilled when I was asked to take over the festival."

Last but not Liszt

Weimar

Goethe und Schiller in Weimar: Gone but not forgotten

In the past, the festival has highlighted the city's literary heritage. Not only home to Goethe and Schiller, Weimar's other famous sons include Herder and Nietzsche. But this year, Wagner -- not one to shy away from controversy -- has chosen to highlight the Hungarian composer Franz Lizst, who spent several decades in the city and who also happens to be her great, great grandfather.

"This city is more or less off the beaten tourist track, and I wanted to find a way of making it more attractive," she explains. "I felt that music did this more than literature, so I decided to organize a music festival - and who do I come across? Franz Lizst."

Moreover, Wagner renamed the new-look festival Pèlerinage, a title inspired by Liszt's piano cycle "Années de pèlerinage". The pilgrimage theme is central to this year's event, which has "Heimweh" (homesickness) as its motto.

"To me, art is something that has nothing to do with anything stationary," Wagner says. "Art is restless, it's always looking for new departures, new shores, new utopias."

In 2004, the increased post-enlargement East European presence at the festival gives this theme added relevance. "Nietzsche's philosophy, for example, described the status and sensibility of new-age man as nomadic," points out Wagner. "That's the trademark of the modern age -- in a philosophical sense, we no longer have a home."

Commemorating the past

This year's festival also features plenty of modern music, including work by Béla Bartok and contemporary composers such as György Kurtág, Steffen Schleiermacher and Heiner Goebbels. Wagner is aware that her detractors might find her program a little too challenging for classicist Weimar. But she firmly believes that the festival's juxtaposition of old and new can only be good for a city whose history is both a boon and a burden.

"Modernist movements tended to fail here, they were often banished," she observes. "Take the Bauhaus artists, who left to go to Dessau. Modernist movements have always been given a hard time in Weimar, but it has to be pointed out that no other city needs modernism more than this one."

"It has a surplus of everything else," she adds. "Its museum collections and archives are phenomenal, and obviously, they need to be preserved very carefully. But you have to get around traditions, you have to see them as a challenge!"

Another of her innovations has been to usher in a new tradition: every year the Weimar festival will open with a concert in memory of Buchenwald, the nearby Nazi concentration camp.

"It's a memorial concert, but it won't be held in Buchenwald, which would exploit the horrific past of the location," she stresses. "It's just a thoughtful, beautiful orchestral performance…..there are few ways of commemorating the past appropriately, and this is one possible solution."

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