- The Washington Times - Friday, July 27, 2007

BERLIN — The great-granddaughter of composer Richard Wagner has been jeered and booed after staging one of his operas complete with nudity, giant plastic phalluses and raining shoes.

The world’s most fastidious opera-goers had eagerly gathered on the opening night of the Bayreuth festival in Germany to pass judgment on 29-year-old Katharina Wagner’s direction of “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.”

The verdict was considered particularly important because Miss Wagner is locked in a three-way battle with fellow Wagner scions Nike and Eva, both 62, for control of the festival.

A directorial triumph could have in effect crowned her as successor to her 87-year-old father, Wolfgang, the current festival director.

But as the seven-hour production got into full swing on Wednesday night, initial warm applause was replaced by gasps and hoots. The notoriously hard-to-please Bayreuth audience, which included Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband, Joachim Sauer, proved unforgiving as Miss Wagner toyed with the traditionalist themes of opera.

Past productions have tended to feature charming town squares and a heavy dose of nostalgia.

But precedent was cast aside, as Miss Wagner’s characters reversed roles, with the opera’s flamboyant hero turning nerdy conformist while his geeky rival dramatically shed his straight-laced style.

The interpretation was bound to upset some regulars, who inevitably despise the slightest novelty. But the denouement of the “Die Meistersinger” had even Bayreuth’s most accommodating fans raising an eyebrow.

Nudity may now be common fare on stages elsewhere, but the apparition of singers equipped with giant phalluses seemed designed to outrage this audience.

You have to take risks to build something new, Miss Wagner told the Daily Telegraph before the festival began. In Germany there is a problem that people always have tradition on their minds, like folk dress and lederhosen. Of course I break with that.

There were no lederhosen to be seen when her production featured a cast member as the great man himself, Richard Wagner, dancing onstage in his underpants.

At rehearsals before opening night, Miss Wagner said the production was intended as a meditation on art, and how it adapts to constraints.

While most German newspapers will print their reviews today, early opinions have been damning. Der Spiegel magazine described it as overly intellectual and compared it to a pizza with too many ingredients on a very thin base.

So it was with understandable nerves that Miss Wagner took to the stage of the famous Festspielhaus after the final curtain had fallen. Wearing a backless dress, she took her bow as the traditionalists mocked her staging with boos and whistles.

Amid the jeering, however, as if to prove that young blood still flows at Bayreuth, some stood to hail her direction with cries of Bravo!

That mixed reception, and its attendant publicity, may be enough to secure Miss Wagner’s hand on the helm of another Bayreuth production. But it seems the race to take control of the festival permanently is far from over.

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