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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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“How can so great an artist—so prophetic, so profoundly understanding of the human condition, of human strengths and flaws, so Shakespearean in the simultaneous vastness and specific detail of his perceptions, to say nothing of his mind-boggling musical mastery—how can this first-class genius have been such a third-rate man?”

His answer did not resolve matters.

“I come out with two, and only two clear, unarguable truths,” Bernstein said. “One, that he was a sublime genius of incomparable creative power, and two, that he was a disagreeable, even intolerable megalomaniac. Everything else about Wagner is debatable, or at least, interpretable.”

Endlessly so. In 1924, biographer Ernest Newman apologized for producing four volumes on the composer. “I can only plead in extenuation that the subject of Wagner is inexhaustible,” he wrote. Today thousands of books are listed in the Library of Congress catalog under Wagner’s name. Still more have been published in this bicentennial year, as 22 new and revived Ring productions are being mounted across the world. Yet each generation comes to Wagner anew, starting from scratch, as it were.

One such newcomer is Antoine Wagner-Pasquier, who, like his mother Eva, tends to shorten his name to Wagner for simplicity’s sake.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, raised mainly in Paris and London, Antoine studied theater at Northwestern University and filmmaking at New York University, traveled widely, learned to speak six languages and became a rock video producer and photographer. He has also learned a thing or two from his father, French filmmaker Yves Pasquier. Antoine was slow to come around to the Wagner family’s history, but now, at 30, has made a film with Andy Sommer, Wagner: A Genius in Exile, shown this spring on European TV and released as a DVD on July 1. It retraces Wagner’s journeys through the mountainous Swiss landscapes that influenced the creation of the Ring cycle. A high point, in every sense, was finding the very spot, above the clouds, where Wagner said he was inspired to write “The Ride of the Valkyrie.” “I felt like I'd been walking through his sets,” Antoine says.

With his background, could he see himself taking on a role at Bayreuth someday?

“I’m slowly going towards that,” he says. “In the near future, I have other plans, other desires. But it’s true that if it presents itself one day, it’s not something that I’ll just kick out of the process, but something that of course I’ll consider.”

That may or may not be music to the ears of his mother, Eva,

She grew up in Bayreuth back when her uncle Wieland and father Wolfgang directed the festival. She lived on the grounds of Wahnfried for many years. She remembers climbing around in the rafters of the Festpielhaus as a young girl, scaring the wits out of 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 his second marriage, and always a good deal of controversy, family feuding and gossip—artistic, financial, political. It comes with the territory. The Wagners are the royal family of German culture, with all the public scrutiny that entails.

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