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Nike Wagner on her father's Nazi ties and life as a Wagner

Rick Fulker
July 27, 2017

Wieland Wagner, born 100 years ago as the grandson of composer Richard Wagner, received special attention from Hitler and brought unconventionial ideas to Bayreuth. Nike Wagner reflects on life as his daughter.

Nike Wagner
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

This year's Bayreuth Festival marks the cenntenial of the birth of Wieland Wagner in 1917. The grandson of composer Richard Wagner, Wieland Wagner ran the festival dedicated to his grandfather's operas together with his brother Wolfgang until his early death in 1966 - which led to many years of tension among Wieland and Wolfgang's children. 

Nike Wagner, one of Wieland Wagner's four children, is currently the director of the annual Beethovenfest in Bonn. She spoke with DW music editor Rick Fulker. 

DW: Just ahead of the opening of the Bayreuth Festival, an event commemorating the Wieland Wagner centennial took place in the Festspielhaus performance hall - and notably featured music that was not by his grandfather Richard Wagner. This is an extremely rare occurrence in over 140 years of festival history. How did this departure from historical precedent come about?

Nike Wagner: My siblings and I devised the program, but not in an act of defiance of Bayreuth traditions and institutions. In portraying Wieland Wagner, it's important to note that he didn't just stage the works of his grandfather, but also operas by other composers. So we begin and end with Wagner, and in between, you hear excerpts from Verdi's "Othello" and Alban Berg's "Wozzeck," operas that Wieland Wagner staged in Frankfurt in 1965 and 1966.

It's actually rather funny if you consider that Verdi was Wagner's musical antithesis in the 19th century, and Alban Berg was one of those composers whose music was condemned in the 1920s and 30s - in Bayreuth as well - because it was considered too modern. So this is a deliberate break with Bayreuth tradition - by the back door and on the strength of Wagner's grandson's biography. Our program had to be approved by the festival director and the Richard Wagner Foundation, however. As Wieland's children, we were pleased that nobody put up any barriers.

Nike Wagner
Nike Wagner spoke at the repoening of the Wagner Museum in Wahnfried, the house she grew up in, in 2015Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Wittek

The children of Richard Wagner's grandsons Wolfgang and Wieland haven't exactly been on friendly terms for a long time. Are we seeing a reconciliation of a kind not witnessed in over 50 years?

We try harder; at least at this event commemorating the man who reopened the Bayreuth Festival after World War II, everybody pulled together. And it's not really as though these families have always been at each other's throats. The feud of the previous generation grew out of the fact that two brothers - Wieland and Wolfgang - both sat on the same throne, i.e., they had equal rights as festival directors. That doesn't work even with the most peaceable characters.

Read more: Nazi-abused Wagner opera staged by Jewish director Barrie Kosky in Bayreuth

Then the older brother, the one who set the artistic standard, died young. He was only 49 - and with that, his family was locked out of participating in the festival and excluded as candidates for leading it. The younger brother, Wolfgang, won the inheritance game and consolidated his rule in the family and politically over a period of decades.

But aside from the general alienation, there are occasional friendly exchanges - and suddenly we find ourselves chatting over a glass of wine. Such as at the celebration in January 2017 marking the 50th anniversary of my father's death. Anyway, after my 2008 application for the festival directorship in tandem with Gerard Mortier was rejected, I've remained quiet on the issue of Bayreuth.

Life as a Wagner

About your father Wieland Wagner, he's generally seen as inseparable from his work: stage direction, festival direction, art. Was he also a family man?

He came from a big family, so family was always a given for him, with positive connotations. As far as taking care of the children directly - that was managed the traditional way. But he was always warm and encouraging, as one can see in the wonderful letters he wrote to his children and by his many interventions when they reached a difficult age. He did everything he could to foster our development, planning our education yet allowing us freedoms too.

He took particular note of talents emerging among his children: Who can play the piano, who has the ability to draw? We were allowed to watch Papa anytime at work. He'd sit at his desk and look at art books, write letters or sketch. And we were in and out of the Festspielhaus during rehearsals, lighting synchronizations or when he'd sit there late in his atelier at night, moving little blocks of wood and miniature singers around in his stage models.

For Wieland Wagner, life and work were one and the same thing - all the more so because my mother was his most important co-worker. As a dancer and choreographer, she taught him the principles of how to direct stage action. In their early years together, they'd withdraw into the "Halle" in Wahnfried (Eds.: the Wagner family residence in Bayreuth). You'd hear music come out of the room, and the stage concept grew out of the music.

Wieland wasn't an absent father at all. He was always there. That changed later, when he began to stage operas outside Bayreuth. With the kids in boarding schools, we didn't see each other much. He got deeper and deeper into the music rat race, placed ever growing demands on himself - financial ones as well - and that cut his life short. I was 21 when he died.

Read more: Richard Wagner's 'Mastersingers' given a grim-funny take in Bayreuth

Was there an element of playfulness in him? Does one need that quality somehow to be a stage director?

There was nothing "playful" about him at all. He was a depressed, burdened, quiet man with a wonderful gift for sarcasm, wit and irony - and he was a brilliant public speaker. But he had a certain gravitas. He was quiet most of the time, then a sudden outburst would scare everybody. Like his brother Wolfgang, he had a hot temper. He'd rip the tablecloth off the table if the meal wasn't up to his expectations, slam doors, throw food or stamp on my mother's clothes in the shower. 

That shows the incredible pressure he was under in the early years after the festival reopened. Everyone was allied against him: the press, critics, audiences. And despite all his own reassuring polemics: who could guarantee that he was on the right path artistically?

Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner in 1955
Two brothers on the same throne: Wieland (left) and Wolfgang Wagner, co-directors of the Bayreuth Festival from 1951 until Wieland's death in 1966Image: AP

They say, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." He must have been able to stand a lot.

Yes, mostly rejection at first. Nowadays what he had to defend seems quaint. It was always about being "true to the work." Goodness, nobody talks like that anymore. Back then though, the traditionalists were there - and they'd mobilize: the Wagner associations, Wagner societies, Wagnerians in the audience…

When they've all died out, maybe we'll see a Wieland Wagner-style staging that's true to the work. I could imagine that.

He was "true to the work!" Not to the scenes and directions as spelled out in the score, but to the spirit of the work. He was always seeking to free operas from their temporal context and to penetrate to the core, to reach the archetypical level. Paradoxically, that core was what enabled him to give a work a modern interpretation. "Valhalla is Wall Street," he once famously said.

Wieland Wagner's connection to Hitler

He also bore a burden, from his youth.

A horrendous burden! From the day he was born, they called him the inheritor of the Bayreuth Festival. Actually, his artistic views were initially quite traditionalistic. His early stage productions were nearly naturalistic, with just a few symbolic elements added. His "Parsifal" sets from 1937 in Bayreuth were retro in comparison with the mildly progressive, then-modern style employed on the Bayreuth stage by director Heinz Tietjen and set designer Emil Preetorius. As a young man, Wieland was strongly opposed to their innovations, thought they were terrible. The "inheritor" was old-school at first.

Added to that was the political situation. Wieland Wagner should be seen in the context of an era that was solid-state Nazi, particularly in the little reactionary city of Bayreuth, and especially in the fog of Wagner traditions. But nowadays people get worked up over the horrific image of Wieland as a Nazi and Hitler protégé.

Read more: Rediscovered films show a 'friendly' Hitler in Bayreuth

Yes, Hitler was a Wagnerian, and he too saw Wieland as next in line to the "Bayreuth throne." He projected the idealized image of a son onto the youth who was talented in the visual arts - and Hitler gave him special attention and benefits.

Wieland was six years old when Hitler first visited the family, and of course he must have been impressed by his mother's fanatical devotion to that "Savior of Germany." And it's true than when he tried to stake a claim to the festival directorship, he sought the intervention of Adolf Hitler, hoping that the "Führer" would depose his hated rival, Heinz Tietjen. A horrible situation! But in contrast to his Nazi-loyalist mother, the son changed his stance and broke with the past.

He was just over 30 when he became festival director at the war's end. He saw his opportunity - and exploited it, risking a radical new beginning both aesthetically and ideologically. That sounds easy. But it's amazing that it was possible at all. After all, he was entrenched not only in the petrified traditions from the eras of Cosima and Siegfried Wagner, but also in those of the Nazi era. And he was dealing with works he'd known since infancy, having been inundated with Wagner's music nearly exclusively for half a lifetime. 

Restless development

Nowadays his restart of the Bayreuth Festival is considered a triumph. Is that how he saw it too? Did he ever reach his goal?

He detested any kind of artistic stasis. Wieland Wagner was always interested in change and evolution, thus the slogan he devised for "New Bayreuth": He called it the "Werkstatt" (workshop). His brief creative period from 1951 to 1966 demonstrates that. He was incessantly reworking solutions he'd once found, be it in sets or costumes. His concept of theater evolved too, beginning with those vast, empty, dark and abstract scenes of the early years and developing into a different kind of imagery with powerful visual symbols. He did that in his second "Tristan" of 1963 and in his second "Ring" of 1965 with great success.

Or consider the lavish sets in his famous "Mastersingers" production of 1963 with its Shakespearean touch - or the sets he devised for his interpretation of Alban Berg's "Lulu." Here the protagonists' actions were less ritualized; there was more outright acting. The "singer-actor" Richard Wagner had once ideally called for was brought to the stage by his grandson.

But depending on the piece, he sometimes reverted to the earlier abstract and ritualized style, such as with Richard Strauss's operas "Salome" and "Elektra" - or in Verdi's "Aida," which he rendered as a tragedy from Africa, with dark colors punctuated by bright green, the march of triumph populated by pyramids of people and the scene embellished by old voodoo magic symbols.

Friedeland, Wieland, Wolfgang and Verena  Wagner
Richard Wagner's grandchildren, Friedeland, Wieland, Wolfgang and Verena, are pictured studying at home. From an early age, Wieland, the oldest, was considered the inheritor of the Bayreuth festival tradition.Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

Was he musically schooled too?

He played piano well, knew music theory and learned how to read scores and conduct. He got most of his instruction through private lessons given by the Viennese musician Kurt Overhoff, who was principal conductor in Heidelberg until 1940. Overhoff taught him how to transform musical modulations into modulations of lighting effects. He also learned sketching and painting from a teacher in Munich. But despite that adequate education, Wieland always declared he was self-taught - and there's something to that. He never saw the inside of a university or academy.

Read more: Verdict in Wagner trial: Nike Wagner and co-plaintiffs lose

It wasn't in the years immediately following World War II that Germany came to terms with its Nazi past, but decades later. So was the style of stage direction in the "New Bayreuth" of the 1950s, when it was all about rejecting traditions, a confrontation with the past or an avoidance of it?

For the Wagner brothers, it was a new beginning. That also entailed rejecting the past, be it embodied by old-school Wagnerians or by the Nazis. But in those circles and at that time, nobody really came to grips with the past.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Wieland Wagner
Wieland Wagner (right) with singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who sang the role of Wolfram von Eschenbach in the 1961 production of Wagner's "Tannhäuser" Image: AP

It was the era of the economic miracle, and everyone was focused on rebuilding. With that generation, they were busy on the outside but frozen on the inside. My father seldom had anything to say about the Nazi years either, apart from a few terse words of disapproval. The Wagner family had been too close to Hitler, so he literally couldn't talk about it. He could only show in his own field - the aesthetic medium - that he'd comprehended.

Wieland's "uncluttering" of the stage can be regarded as a cleansing process. In his professional life, he got rid of personnel he suspected of being "old Nazis" - to the extent possible. The festival employed some indispensable people who'd been there since the 30s - just like everywhere in Germany. Pretty much everybody had been part of the establishment back then, and many were rehired after the war because they were professionals.

How to move the singers around the stage

The first thing we associate with Wieland Wagner is his often nearly empty sets. The other is his stage direction. What were the hallmarks of the Wieland Wagner style, and how did he make it concrete?

They used to call it a "statuesque" style because of the very minimal, stylized actions, primarily slow movement and rare but highly expressive gestures. Together with the abstract, empty stage, that can easily grow boring. But every single motion, every gesture seemed charged with energy and tension.

My mother was a dancer and choreographer. She had learned expressive dance at the Mary Wigman school, and she's the one who taught him how to set up fields of tension between protagonists on the stage: who was to stride diagonally at what moment; who would turn their back to whom and when; what gestures were too excessive. A duplication of a musical accent and a physical accent was strictly to be avoided. If the music goes boom!, then the body has to stay still, or respond later. The oscillation between "to the music" and "against the music" created internal tensions that conveyed themselves to an attentive audience.

In the partnership with my mother, my father was the "intellectual" one, and he devised a wonderful work method for individual rehearsals with the singers. Rather than showing them how to do something, he'd express his director's wishes through words, suggestions and descriptions.

He was particularly interested that the singers understood what they were singing. That was the point of departure for everything else. So he'd translate the obscure and often incomprehensible Wagner texts into idiomatic modern German. That was very amusing, and it worked too.

What fades away - and what remains

A stage production evaporates into the air and in the memories of those who've seen it - and at some point, those are gone too…

Theater is a temporal art. You were either there, or you weren't. My father would have liked to have authoritative recordings of his art, but technological developments at that time didn't allow for that. The cameras' lights were so bright they would have destroyed the subtle lighting effects.

Read more: 9 myths about Wagner and Bayreuth

But what remains of Wieland Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival? 

This "workshop" concept was of course hardly suitable for cultivating enduring values. Quite the opposite. But his brother did retain the concept, so it legitimized further experimentation with Richard Wagner. After Wieland Wagner had established that intellectual principle on the "Green Hill" (Eds.: the location of the Festspielhaus performance hall in Bayrueth) it legitimized his brother's engagement of stage directors from outside three years after Wieland's death.

Nike Wagner in Bonn
Nike Wagner enjoys the variety offered by her current position as director of the Beethovenfest in Bonn Image: Beethovenfest/B. Frommann

But concerning Wieland Wagner's legacy, that's a different matter altogether. In other theaters, a director's playbooks, notes, models and decor from important productions are carefully preserved. But not in Bayreuth. Anything Wieland Wagner had left behind was either destroyed or burned, even plundered. Old junk!

Nothing is left today other than frayed old pieces of decoration in a couple of cardboard boxes. That's why it's so difficult to do an exhibition on Wieland Wagner. There are a few scores, photos, letters, a couple of costume designs - and that's about it. Of the many miniature sets that once existed, only two are on display in the Wagner Museum at Wahnfried. This destruction of memorabilia points to neurotic elements in the family.

What I'd give to see a Wieland Wagner production!

When asked why his stagings had such a fascinating effect, I'd say he was something of a one-man show. Wieland Wagner was set designer, director and costume designer rolled into one. That resulted in a stylistic coherence and a unity of space and color - and the effect was overwhelming. Add the music, and his greatest wish that it would be in sync with the action.

The stage concept and the musical interpretation had to fit each other. And sometimes he succeeded. His production of "The Flying Dutchman" in cooperation with conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch was in perfect tandem, from the tempos onward. He achieved similar results when he managed to hire the "un-German" conductor André Cluytens for the "Mastersingers," and finally with conductor Pierre Boulez, who cleared the musical dust off his "Parsifal" production. But there, he didn't live to see the results.

The German author and festival director Nike Wagner is the daughter of the theater director Wieland Wagner and the choreographer Gertrud Reissiger; granddaughter of Siegfried Wagner, great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner and great-great-granddaughter of Franz Liszt. She grew up in Wahnfried, once the residence of Richard Wagner in Bayreuth. Following her doctorate at Northwestern University in the US state of Illinois, she was active as a freelance author beginning in 1975; her books and essays deal in part with Richard Wagner and the history of his opera festival in Bayreuth. In 2004 she became director of the Festival of the Arts in Weimar and moved on to become director of the Beethovenfest in Bonn in 2014.

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