The stage director and co-director of the Bayreuth Festival talks about her relation to Wagner's music and to her great-grandfather, whose influence remains on her life and work.
DW: As great-granddaughter, head of the Bayreuther Festspiele and director, you're involved with the works of Richard Wagner pretty much around the clock. Are you able to still look objectively at the work of your great-grandfather?
Katharina Wagner: That's a difficult question. I think the problem is, if you grow up with something like that, and are so familiar with it, then you can't really say you're impartial because you're so familiar with the material.
How do you create distance for yourself when you're staging a work by your great-grandfather?
For me every day, every moment, every change can play into a stage production. As a director, I can't negate the past or what is happening in the present. I think particularly with Wagner's works it's about basic elements of the human condition like jealousy, power, love, hate. Those things will always somehow be timely, as long as humanity is around.
Anyone around the world can enjoy Wagner's opera with excellent performers. Why should they come to Bayreuth?
First of all, because Bayreuth is a very special place. The festival hall simply has the world's best acoustics, at least the most unique acoustics, but in a totally positive way. When you see "Parsifal" there, you feel the music from all around - from under your chair, the side, from above. It's really an acoustic miracle.
On the other hand, you've got an excellence in Bayreuth defined by a certain atmosphere - that people go there and look forward to it, even giving up their vacations. We shouldn't forget that. The working conditions are quite different - people want to work in Bayreuth, and you can really see the benefit in the artistic result.
You took over the festival in 2008 with your half-sister Eva. What's changed? Has your view of Bayreuth and the whole festival changed?
There's been a change from a single proprietor - our father - to three publicly owned shareholders and one private shareholder. The change to a limited company as the legal entity has brought with it a lot of changes that are still really in the adjustment phase.
As great as the fascination for the music of Richard Wagner is around the world, there is also a great deal of skepticism. In Israel, for example, his music remains unaccepted. Historians accuse the family of continuing to hinder research into its involvement with the Nazi period. How are you dealing with that?
We do try to make things accessible to the public as much as possible. And for my part, that's what I've done. Things are being put into the archive so that they are completely accessible. But there is still material in the family that belongs to all the heirs - and this is an important point - I can't decide alone what happens to it.
Rumors exist that it's correspondence between Winifred Wagner and Hitler. You promised to work on clearing that up, but not much has happened yet.
Since it belongs to four heirs, I have to reach agreement with them because it's not my sole property. So I can't say I'm going to throw this at the public's feet tomorrow. I have to see that everyone's pulling in the same direction and then make the material available. That requires a lot of patience. If it were up to me, it would all have been publicly accessible long ago.
What's the biggest innovation you've made so far?
I think we've done a lot of wonderful things, like the children's opera. That's been very successful. It's a great opportunity, and artistically we're trying to do it at the highest level. Another great thing is "Wagner in the Cinema." Starting in 2016 I think you'll see what we've really achieved. Of course we hope that we've found good artists.
May 22 is Richard Wagner's 200th birthday. There's not an opera house in the world that doesn't have his works in their program. How are you and Bayreuth celebrating this anniversary?
Bayreuthis celebrating the anniversary with a birthday concert in the festival hall, which is a big exception because normally we only have performances during the festival season. It's a huge organizational effort for us because the new "Ring" is currently having stage rehearsals. That means we have to take all that down, and set up for the concert. The "Ring" rehearsals have to be interrupted. All the musicians gather and we'll rehearse under conductor Christian Thielemann.
The Bayreuth Festival only lasts six weeks. What do you do the rest of the year?
I twiddle my thumbs! No, this year in particular we've got the early works, three complete operas in partnership with Leipzig and with Christian Thielemann in the Upper Franconian Hall in Bayreuth. It's a multi-purpose hall, and we're building a real opera house into it. We've been working on it for the last three years. It's a crazy amount of work but we wanted to have the three early works in Bayreuth in the jubilee year. That was our big wish, because they've actually never been performed together that way.