she is the great-granddaughter of richard wagner, and her life has been dominated by the lights and shadows of his genius. But as a teenager growing up in Bavaria in the 1950s and ’60s, Eva Wagner-Pasquier was googly-eyed by an entirely different musical icon: Elvis Presley. she remembers the emotion that she aroused more than half a century ago with the simple passage through a neighboring town in maneuvers with the usa. army. So last year, along with her American-born son Antoine, Eva Ella finally traveled to Graceland to pay homage to the king. “I always wanted to go there,” she said, opening her cell phone to reveal the idealized image of elvis that she uses as her wallpaper. “it was excellent! of course, we stayed at the heartbreak hotel.”
The trip to Memphis was a joyous escape from the burdens of running a family business like no other. Since 2008, when Eva and Ella’s half-sister Katharina succeeded Ella’s father Wolfgang Wagner, they have directed the famous summer opera festival founded in 1876 by Richard Wagner and run by her estate ever since. In this bicentennial year of the composer’s birth, Wagner devotees now undertake their annual pilgrimage to the seat of his still-powerful cultural domain: the charming city of Bayreuth (pronounced By-Royt), located far from Germany’s urban centers, in the rolling hills of upper franconia. “Wagner without Bayreuth,” observes cultural historian Frederic Spotts, “would have been like a country without a capital, a religion without a church.”
From July 25 to August 28, worshipers will ascend the city’s famous green hill to the orange brick-clad Bayreuth Festival Theater, known worldwide as the Festspielhaus. it was built by wagner himself to present his revolutionary works, including his four-part ring cycle, tristan and isolde and parsifal, in the innovative architecture and staging he felt they required. The Bayreuth Festival became the first full-fledged music festival of modern times, the granddaddy of everything from Salzburg and Spoleto to Bonnaroo, Burning Man, and the Newport Jazz Festival. in bayreuth, however, only works by wagner are presented. After his death in 1883, the festival and theater became a sacred shrine to his followers, many of whom embraced his ideology of fierce German nationalism, racial superiority, and anti-Semitism. He was idolized by Adolf Hitler, whose rise was abetted by the support of the Wagner family in the early 1920s.
Despite all the cataclysms of modern German history, the festival has endured. In April 1945, the same week that Eva Wagner was born in a neighboring town, Allied warplanes leveled two-thirds of Bayreuth. Wahnfried, the manor house and tomb that is the Wagners’ equivalent of Graceland, was 45 percent destroyed in the first of four bombing raids that somehow saved the Festspielhaus. In 1951, the festival resumed operation under the direction of Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson, who had reinvented himself as a visionary of post-Nazi opera and renamed Bayreuth as a haven for avant-garde productions that periodically have offended traditionalists. Yet Wagner loyalists have not wavered, queuing for a decade and more to attend. This year, for some 58,000 tickets offered for the five-week festival, there were 414,000 applications from 87 countries. the reward, his admirers feel, is a direct encounter with the sublime. Cast aside associations with the Third Reich, they say, and allow this captivating music and elemental drama to touch your soul.
if you’ve ever hummed “here comes the bride” (from wagner’s lohengrin) or seen the apocalypse now (helicopter assault “ride of the valkyries”), you’ve already drunk from the well. Those who have immersed themselves in Wagner’s complete operas, long and demanding, yet flowing and churning like a great river of thought and feeling, often experience a sense of wonder. “It’s so rich and deep, sometimes it’s like a drug. If you give in and let go, it really drags you into a mysterious world,” Jonas Kaufmann, the celebrated German tenor, said on NPR in February. “Emotionally, her music is like no one else’s,” says Janet Ciriello, a Los Angeles Wagner Society member who has attended the Bayreuth Festival “six or seven times” since 1985. “It grabs you and you have to stay. with her. whatever the issue, greed, power or eros, he somehow manages to encompass everyone’s feelings.” she adds her husband nick ciriello: “i love donizetti, mozart and verdi, of course, and puccini. all these people stir you up and grab you, but wagner picks you up and throws you against the wall. you are in his hands. he is the great sorcerer.”
david mcvicar, the celebrated scottish theater and opera director, believes that potential fans of wagner have been unnecessarily frightened by the perceived difficulty of his works. “I don’t like the idea of any opera composer being approached as some kind of intellectual Everest to climb,” says Mcvicar, who has directed Die Meistersinger and Wagner’s Ring Cycle. “if you have the capacity, if you have an open mind, wagner will speak to you directly. he will reach you. he will find things inside of you.”
in the same way, mcvicar says, people tend to find what they want in the wagner cosmos and appropriate it for their own purposes. “Wagner did not create hitler,” he says. Hitler found what he was looking for in Wagner. there is always the dark side and the light side, an internal tension in the works, because it was an internal tension within wagner himself. I am interested in the imagination of it. I’m interested in the brilliance of music, which has such a high level of inspiration.”
over time, one’s appreciation deepens, says philippe jordan, the swiss-born musical director of the paris opera. “The fascinating thing about Wagner is that it is easily accessible from the first point, everyone understands the energy of the “Ride of the Valkyries”, but the further you go into his universe, the deeper you can go, and it is a process that never stops. Jordan says. “I’m performing my third cycle of rings [in paris] now, and I discovered things that I hadn’t been aware of before, although I thought I knew the score very well.”
William Berger, author of Fearless Wagner and commentator for Sirius XM Metropolitan Opera Radio, continually finds more to admire. More recently, he says, he has been struck by the unity of the operas. “tristan [und isolde] is a perfect example,” says berger, “because the first bar is a famous unresolved chord, and the last bar is the resolution of that chord. and the five hours in between go from a to b.”
Born in Leipzig in 1813 and in political exile in Zurich and Paris for more than a decade after the revolutionary upheavals of 1848-49, Wagner struggled through much of his early career for the recognition and rewards he felt he deserved. corresponded. he was quarrelsome, grandiose, manipulative; in many ways a horrible character. “He used women, cheated on his friends and was constantly looking for money to pay for his lavish lifestyle,” writes dirk kurbjuweit in spiegel online international. Worse still, from Wagner’s perspective, his operas were widely misunderstood and despised by many of his contemporaries. “The prelude to Tristan und Islode reminds me of the old Italian painting of a martyr whose intestines slowly unwind from his body on a spool,” noted critic Edward Hanslick wrote in 1868. “Wagner is clearly mad,” the composer suggested. Hector. berlioz. Taking a softer approach, 19th-century American humorist Bill Nye ventured, “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds,” a phrase often misattributed to Mark Twain, a Wagner enthusiast, who enjoyed quoting it.
By the time of his death in Venice in 1883, however, Wagner had become a cultural superstar. Wagner societies sprang up all over the world. He was hailed as the avatar of a new artistic order, the hero of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, “the idol of impressionists, realists, decadents, post-impressionists, and modernists right up to Proust and Thomas Mann,” says historian Jacques Barzun in the 1958 edition of Darwin, marx, wagner.
Powerful as they were to non-Germans, Wagner’s works struck an even deeper chord with his compatriots, especially in the heady days that followed the unification of Germany in 1871. He had become a national symbol, as shakespeare, cervantes and dante. However, there was an ugly side to Wagner’s conception of the nation: he favored a Germany uncorrupted by Jewish influence, explaining his views in a notorious pamphlet, Das Judentum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music), which it helped put wind in the sails of a nascent ultranationalist movement that was fueled by widespread hostility toward Jews. “Yet even amid the chorus of 19th-century anti-Semitism, Wagner’s rantings stood out for their malicious intensity,” writes New York music historian and critic Alex Ross, who is writing a book on Wagner.
After his death, the composer’s widow, Cosima Wagner (Franz Liszt’s daughter) cemented Bayreuth’s identity as the spiritual center of the movement. Wagner’s son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, became its thought leader, much admired by the young Hitler. When the future dictator ascended in the 1920s, the Wagner family publicly embraced him. When hitler was jailed after the failed brewery putsch of 1923, winifred wagner, richard’s daughter-in-law, brought him the paper on which he wrote mein kampf. (She died in 1980, still believing in his greatness.) As chancellor, Hitler became a regular guest at Wahnfried and the Festspielhaus: Bayreuth had become “Hitler’s court theater,” in Thomas’s well-known phrase. mann, a reputation that haunts the festival to this day, like any vestige of cultism.
philippe jordan admits he was hesitant to go to bayreuth before he was hired to conduct parsifal at the festival last year. “i’ve always been fascinated by wagner and always loved it, but i wanted to avoid ‘german’ wagner and this kind of pilgrimage that you associate with wagner and bayreuth, a kind of fanaticism,” says jordan, who will drive the vienna. symphony orchestra next season. “For me, Wagner is not just a German composer, he is universal. he was the first pan-European composer.”
in the end, the cool atmosphere and idyllic surroundings of bayreuth were a pleasant surprise, according to jordan, and very conducive to the performance. “The people there are not fans, they just love their music.” he adds, “music, by itself, is not political. music itself cannot be antisemitic. notes are notes and music is music.”
It goes without saying that Germany has changed radically since 1945, and today is arguably the best-behaved and best-ruled great power in the world. On the lovely grounds of the Bayreuth Festival Park, just below the opera house, an open-air exhibition, Verstummte stimmen (Silenced Voices), individually commemorates the Jewish artists who were banned from Bayreuth in their darker period; several of them were eventually killed in death camps. The heroic Wagner bust created by Hitler’s favorite sculptor Arno Breker glars at the tall commemorative banners. “Germany is the only country that has built monuments mourning its most shameful episode,” Avo Primor, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany, said in Bayreuth at the opening of the exhibition in July 2012.
The association of Wagner and Nazi Germany remains so steadfast that his music is still not played publicly in Israel. “There is still a feeling, which I respect, that as long as there are Holocaust survivors, we don’t have to force them, not in public places,” explains Gabriela Shalev, president of an Israeli university and former UN official. ambassador, who attended the bayreuth festival a year ago and was very touched. “We can listen to it at home, with friends. most of us go abroad: people who want to hear wagner can listen to him in london, in new york, in munich.” Shalev’s maternal grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz, but she grew up in a German-speaking home surrounded by German books and culture. her parents listened to beethoven and wagner. “So this is part of the ambivalence that I, as a Jew and an Israeli, bought into Bayreuth,” she says.
Jewish conductors James Levine and Daniel Barenboim are among the leading Wagner performers of our time, in Bayreuth and elsewhere. Leonard Bernstein was another whose love of music kept him playing Wagner despite deep doubts. The late director of the New York Philharmonic explored his conflicts in a previously unreleased 1985 documentary segment filmed, appropriately, in the Sigmund Freud Examination Room at 19 Berggasse in Vienna. he asked:
“How can an artist so great, so prescient, so deeply understanding of the human condition, of human strengths and flaws, so Shakespearean in the simultaneous vastness and specific detail of his perceptions, not to mention his amazing music? mastery: how can this first-rate genius have been a third-rate man?”
your answer didn’t solve things.
“I come away with two, and only two, clear, indisputable truths,” Bernstein said. “one, that he was a sublime genius of incomparable creative power, and two, that he was a nasty, even intolerable megalomaniac. everything else about wagner is debatable, or at least interpretable.”
infinitely so. In 1924 biographer Ernest Newman apologized for producing four volumes on the composer. “I can only plead in mitigation that Wagner’s theme is inexhaustible,” he wrote. today, thousands of books are listed in the library of congress catalog under wagner’s name. even more have been published in this bicentennial year, as 22 new production rings are being assembled and revived all over the world. however, each generation comes to wagner anew, starting from scratch, so to speak.
One such newcomer is Antoine Wagner-Pasquier, who, like his mother Eva, tends to shorten his name to Wagner for simplicity.
Born in Evanston, Illinois, raised primarily in Paris and London, Antoine studied theater at Northwestern University and film at New York University, traveled extensively, learned to speak six languages, and became a rock video producer and photographer. he has also learned a thing or two from his father, the french filmmaker yves pasquier. antoine was slow to understand the history of the wagner family, but now, at 30, he has made a film with andy sommer, wagner: a genius in exile, which was shown on european television this spring and was released as dvd on 1st of July. Wagner’s travels through the Swiss mountainous landscapes that influenced the creation of the ring cycle. A highlight, in every way, was finding the exact spot, above the clouds, where Wagner said he was inspired to write “The Ride of the Valkyrie.” “I felt like he was walking his scene,” says Antoine.
with your experience, could you see yourself taking on a role in bayreuth one day?
“I’m slowly moving towards that,” he says. “In the near future, I have other plans, other wishes. but it’s true that if it comes up one day, it’s not something I’ll just kick out of the process, but something I’ll certainly consider.”
which may or may not be music to her mother’s ears, eva,
he grew up in bayreuth when his uncle wieland and father wolfgang ran the festival. he lived on the wahnfried grounds for many years. she remembers climbing the rafters of the festpielhaus when she was a child, scaring the watchman on duty. but her family life had all the sturm und drang of the ring cycle. there was a long estrangement from her father after her second marriage, and there was always a lot of controversy, family quarrels and gossip, artistic, financial, political. she comes with the territory. the wagners are the royal family of german culture, with all the public scrutiny that entails.
the result has been to focus all of eva’s energy on what matters most to her, which is the survival of the bayreuth festival as a living, ever-evolving cultural enterprise refreshed by new productions of her great-grandfather’s works. is a massive, year-long effort involving hundreds of artists and artisans in a remote location, all for a short five-week series of world-class opera performances.
“It starts when you have a little model,” of the proposed scenario, he said several months before the opening of this summer’s highly anticipated new production of rings by Frank Castorf. “And then the designer comes in, and the director, and now all of a sudden, last week, this little model was already on stage for das rheingold. it’s like a miracle, like a birth, something absolutely extraordinary.”
and then, on opening night, the first extended note of the ring will emerge from the silence of the festspielhaus orchestra pit, and the drama will begin all over again.
leonard bernstein quotes courtesy leonard bernstein office, inc.