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This bronze portrait bust of German composer Richard Wagner, sculptured by artist Arno Breker, resides in Bayreuth, Germany, home of the annual festival honoring his work. (Getty Images)

The Brilliant, Troubled Legacy of Richard Wagner

As the faithful flock to the Bayreuth Festival in his bicentennial year, the spellbinding German composer continues to fascinate, inspire and infuriate

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She is Richard Wagner’s great-granddaughter, and her life has been dominated by the light and shade of his genius. But as a teenager growing up in Bavaria in the 1950s and ’60s, Eva Wagner-Pasquier went googly-eyed for an altogether different musical icon: Elvis Presley. She remembers the excitement he stirred up more than half a century ago merely by passing through a neighboring town on maneuvers with the U.S. Army. So last year, joined by her American-born son Antoine, Eva finally trekked off to Graceland to pay homage to the King. “I’ve always wanted to go there,” she said, flipping open her cellphone to display the idealized image of Elvis she uses as wallpaper. “It was superb! We stayed at the Heartbreak Hotel, of course.”

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The trip to Memphis was a lighthearted escape from the burdens of running a family business like no other. Since 2008, when Eva and her half-sister Katharina succeeded their father Wolfgang Wagner, they have directed the famed summer opera festival founded in 1876 by Richard Wagner and managed by his heirs ever since. In this bicentennial year of the composer’s birth, Wagner devotees are now setting forth on their annual pilgrimage to the seat of his still-powerful cultural domain: the charming city of Bayreuth (pronounced BY-royt), nestled far from Germany’s urban centers, in the rolling hills of Upper Franconia. “Wagner without Bayreuth,” observes the cultural historian Frederic Spotts, “would have been like a country without a capital, a religion without a church.”

From July 25 through August 28, the faithful will ascend the city’s famed Green Hill to the orange brick–clad Bayreuth Festival Theater—known globally as the Festspielhaus. It was built by Wagner himself to present his revolutionary works—among them his four-part Ring cycle, Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal—in the innovative architecture and stagings 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. At Bayreuth, however, only Wagner’s works are presented. After his death in 1883, the festival and the theater became a hallowed shrine for 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 Wagner family’s support in the early 1920s.

Through all the cataclysms of modern German history, however, the festival has endured. In the same week Eva Wagner was born in a neighboring village in April 1945, Allied warplanes leveled two-thirds of Bayreuth. Wahnfried—the stately home and gravesite that is the Wagners’ equivalent to Graceland—was 45 percent destroyed in the first of four bombing raids that all somehow spared the Festspielhaus. By 1951, the festival was up and running again under the direction of Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson, who had reinvented himself as a post-Nazi opera visionary and rebranded Bayreuth as a haven for avant-garde productions that have periodically offended traditionalists. Yet Wagner loyalists have not wavered, queuing up 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 payoff, his admirers feel, is a direct encounter with the sublime. Set aside the associations with the Third Reich, they say, and allow this enthralling music and elemental drama to touch your soul.

If you’ve ever hummed “Here Comes the Bride” (from Wagner’s Lohengrin) or seen Apocalypse Now (the “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter assault), you have already sipped at the well. Those who have immersed themselves in Wagner’s full operas—lengthy and demanding, yet flowing and churning like a great river of thought and feeling—often experience a sense of awe. “It's so rich and deep—it's like a drug sometimes. If you give up and let go, it really drags you into a mysterious world,” Jonas Kaufmann, the celebrated German tenor, said on NPR in February.“His music is like nobody else’s, emotionally,” says Janet Ciriello, a member of the Wagner Society of Los Angeles who has attended the Bayreuth Festival “six or seven times” since 1985. “It grabs you, and you have to stay with it. Whatever the issue is—greed, or power or Eros—he somehow manages to encompass everybody’s feelings.” Adds her husband Nick Ciriello: “I love Donizetti, Mozart and Verdi, of course, and Puccini. All of these people stir you and grab you, but Wagner picks you up and slams you against the wall. You are in his hands. He’s the grand sorcerer.”

David McVicar, the noted Scottish theater and opera director, believes that potential Wagner fans have been unnecessarily scared off by the perceived difficulty of his works. “I don’t like the idea that any opera composer is approached as a kind of intellectual Everest to be climbed,” says McVicar, who has directed Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and the Ring cycle. “If you have the capacity, if you have the openness of mind, Wagner will talk directly to you. He’ll reach you. He’ll find things inside you.”

By the same token, McVicar says, people tend to find whatever 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’s always the dark side and the light side—an inner tension in the works, because it was an inner tension within Wagner himself. I’m interested in the imagination of it. I’m interested in the brilliance of the music, which is on such a high level of inspiration.”

Over time, one’s appreciation intensifies, says Philippe Jordan, the Swiss-born music director of the Paris Opera. “The fascinating thing about Wagner is that it is easily accessible at the very first point—everyone understands the energy of “The Ride of the Valkyries”—but the more you get into his universe, the deeper you can go, and it’s a process which never stops,” Jordan says. “I’m conducting my third Ring cycle [in Paris] now, and I’ve discovered things which I hadn’t been aware of before, although I thought I knew the score very well.”

William Berger, author of Wagner Without Fear and commentator on Sirius XM’s Metropolitan Opera Radio, continually finds more to admire. Most recently, he says, he has been struck by the unity of the operas. “Tristan [und Isolde] is a perfect example,” Berger says, “because the first measure is a famously unresolved chord, and the last measure is the resolution of that chord. And all the five hours in between are getting from A to B.”

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