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Wagner meets Beethoven

Marita Berg / kbmMay 24, 2013

In Richard Wagner's bicentenary, great-granddaughter Nike Wagner has been chosen to head the Beethovenfest. Critics say her heart is in Bayreuth, but Bonn is prepared to get involved with the complicated Wagner clan.

Nike Wagner
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

A great-granddaughter of composer Richard Wagner, Nike Wagner for the past four decades has been a key player in both the international classical music scene and the never-ending - but ever-entertaining - Wagner family feud.

Born in 1945 and raised Bayreuth, Nike Wagner has been a fierce critic of the Bayreuther Festspiele, which she has accused of becoming "artistically numb" - a situation that could have been different had she become director of the opera festival.

Nike Wagner is the daughter of Wieland Wagner, who directed the Bayreuther Festspiele for many years together with his brother Wolfgang. Nike then had to watch as Wolfgang took over upon Wieland's death in 1966. Nike repeatedly laid claim to her father's position but without success.

When her cousins Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner took over the direction of the festival from their aging father in 2008, Nike Wagner criticized the succession process as "embarrassing" and "unethical."

Wagner with puppets

Since 2004, Nike Wagner has successfully directed the Pèlerinages arts festival in Weimar. Her creative programming and selection of distinguished artists in residence - including violinist Gidon Kremer, pianist András Schiff and composer Jörg Widmann - brought the festival renown.

However, audience numbers have fallen in the last few years, which diminished her support among local Weimar politicians, who began criticizing her approach to the festival.

Wagner's last Pèlerinages, taking place in late summer in her great-grandfather's bicentennial year, is dedicated to the works of Richard Wagner. The opera "Lohengrin" and a light version of the "Ring" cycle, performed by the Salzburg Marionette Theater, are on the program. Siegfried, Brünnhilde and Co will appear not life-size but as 70-centimeter-tall (27.5-inch) puppets. And rather than engrossing the audience for 16 hours over four days, they'll condense it into two-and-a-half hours on one evening.

Sketch for a new festival concert hall in Bonn, by architect Zaha Hadid
Star architect Zaha Hadid has drawn up a potential design for a new festival concert hall in BonnImage: Zaha Hadid Architects/London, Deutsche Post AG

At home with Beethoven

Nike Wagner's other prominent relative, her great-great-grandfather Franz Liszt, was one of the biggest Beethoven fans of the 19th century. He was the initial founder of the Bonn Beethovenfest in 1845 and even began an initiative to build a concert hall in the city of Beethoven's birth. Richard Wagner was also deeply inspired by the works of Beethoven, particularly in his early years as a composer.

Nike Wagner, as a member of the Beethoven-loving Wagner clan, seems then like a natural choice as the next director of the Beethovenfest.

Bonn's cultural committee and city council have said they hope Nike Wagner will bring "new conceptual approaches and ideas," particularly looking ahead to the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth in 2020.

"Her resume and previous cultural activities indicate that she brings a great deal with her in order to set an interesting and exciting cultural course in Bonn," said Markus Schuck, cultural spokesman for the Christian Democratic Union in Bonn's city council.

Some may be hoping that Nike Wagner will revive plans for a new festival concert hall in Bonn, which have been put on ice after extensive discussions over who should pay for it. "I'll gladly invest my energy and experience," Nike Wagner told local press.

A matter of trust

Though the decision to appoint Nike Wagner as director of the Beethovenfest was met with widespread approval, it also drew some criticism. It's no secret that Wagner continues to look at Bayreuth with envy and nostalgia.

Inside the Bayreuther Festspielhaus in Bayreuth
Nike Wagner still has close ties to BayreuthImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Jürgen Repschläger from the Green party commented that Nike Wagner was a competent person and also "an excellent networker when it comes to finding sponsors." However, he was doubtful that she would be directing the Beethovenfest in 2020, "since she's still flirting with Bayreuth."

Nevertheless, the decision-makers in Bonn have expressed their faith in Nike Wagner. What she does with it is now up to her.