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BERLIN — Gudrun Wagner, wife of Bayreuth Opera Festival director Wolfgang Wagner and a key partner in helping him stage the annual event, died Wednesday, officials said. She was 63.
She died Wednesday morning at a Bayreuth hospital. No cause of death was immediately given, said Peter Emmerich, a spokesman for the festival.
Her death took the Wagner family by surprise.
“It is with deep emotion and with silent grief that I must convey that this morning my loving wife and close co-worker Gudrun Wagner died fully unexpectedly,” Wolfgang Wagner said in a statement.
Her death comes amid a behind-the-scenes feud over who will succeed Wagner — a grandson of the composer Richard Wagner — as festival director. Wagner is now 88.
He had long insisted that Gudrun, his second wife and partner in directing and staging the festival, was the only person capable of taking over.
“As the most important assistant and supporter of her husband, she shaped the luster and the worldwide significance of the Wagner festival in Bayreuth,” said Guenther Beckstein, state governor of Bavaria. “Her death is a deep loss to Bavaria, Bayreuth and the global festival community.”
But recently, Wagner has indicated that he would be prepared to step aside in favor of the couple’s 29-year-old daughter, Katharina.
Wolfgang Wagner has led the Bayreuth festival showcasing Richard Wagner’s operas since 1951 — at first jointly with his brother, Wieland, and on his own since his brother’s death in 1966. He married Gudrun in 1976.
He recently has faced calls to step aside from the festival leadership, although he has a lifetime contract, amid concerns about his health and a feeling the annual event would benefit from an injection of fresh ideas.
In early November, the foundation overseeing the festival urged members of the Wagner family to come forward with ideas for the event’s future.
Wolfgang’s niece, Nike, and Eva, a daughter from his first marriage — both experienced managers of artistic or musical events in their 60s — have indicated interest.
Katharina made her directorial debut at Bayreuth this year, producing a closely watched interpretation of “Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg.”
In an effort to bolster her chances and counter criticism that she is too young and inexperienced, Katharina, who is in her early 30s, recently teamed up with star German conductor Christian Thielemann, 48, and composer and cultural manager Peter Ruzicka, 57.
Katharina has argued that the current festival leadership has already signed contracts with artists well into the year 2015. She told the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper in September that her rivals would be “well above retirement age” before they were able to put their own stamp on the event.
As well as Katharina, Gudrun Wagner has two children from a previous marriage. Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.
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