Opera: Looking Forward Backward

"Is Bayreuth in Danger?" The question, posed by Munich's Abendzeitung, may have seemed strange as the little Bavarian town of Bayreuth prepared last week for its annual Wagner festival. Hotels were doubling their rates; black marketeers were getting an all-time high of $500 for tickets; and economically at least, the institution created by Richard Wagner in 1876 to perpetuate his works and ideals was thriving as never before.

In fact, Bayreuth is confronting a turning point in its history. When the composer's innovation-minded grandson Wieland Wagner died two years ago, the festival's postwar era of boldly symbolic, iconoclastic productions appeared...