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Wolfgang Wagner Prepares to Relinquish Bayreuth Control

It was a fitting final curtain for Wolfgang Wagner's career as the man in charge of the Bayreuth opera festival as Richard Wagner's last opera "Parsifal" signaled the end of his 57-year reign.

Wolfgang Wagner

Wolfgang will pass the legacy to a new generation of Wagners -- but which ones?

Thursday's closing performance of the 2008 Bayreuth festival, the world's oldest and most prestigious summer music event, brought the 88-year-old Wagner to the brink of tears as he took in the dying strains of "Parsifal" in the surroundings in which he has spent over half a century battling to preserve his family's legacy.

Wolfgang has ruled Bayreuth with an iron hand ever since his brother and organizing partner Wieland died in 1966 leaving him in sole charge.

Wagner's tenure officially comes to an end on Saturday, one day ahead of his 89th birthday, and a board of directors will then convene two days later to begin the much talked about process of who will succeed him.

Just as "Parsifal" is about the quest of the knights of the Holy Grail for a savior, so too is Bayreuth in need of a new leader with fresh vision and new ideas to steer it out of long years of artistic and creative stagnation.

Even his fiercest critics acknowledge that Wolfgang helped make Bayreuth what it is today, but many observers agree that his ruthless determination to hold on to power has contributed to the festival's artistic ossification. The need and desire for reinvention has spawned an internecine feud more worthy of soap opera than classical opera.

Enter stage left?

Wolfgang Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier

Wagner cheered the performance with his daughter Eva, one of the contenders

In what has become a saga fitting of the family's association with dramatic spectacle, the succession to the Bayreuth throne has pitted ambitious family members against each other in often bitter competition.

When the festival's ruling body, the so-called Stiftungsrat, meets on Sept. 1 to decide who will take over from Wolfgang, they will assess an application from Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier -- both Wolfgang's daughters by different marriages -- and a rival bid from Wolfgang's niece Nike Wagner in tandem with the Belgian opera impresario and Paris Opera chief, Gerard Mortier.

Katharina and Eva's joint leadership bid looked to have succeeded until recently, in spite of the estranged half-sisters' often fraught relationship.

But with a last-minute application by Nike and Mortier, the succession process has once more been thrown into turmoil.

According to the statutes of the festival, founded by Richard Wagner in 1876, control must remain in the hands of the composer's descendants, unless there are no suitable candidates.

With the iron grip of Wolfgang now torn from the festival's reins, it will once again be every Wagner for herself.

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