Veteran opera director Wolfgang Wagner welcomed guests to his last Bayreuth festival Friday, walking on the arm of his youngest daughter _ a leading contender to replace him after a 57-year reign and a prolonged struggle over his successor.

Wagner, the 88-year-old grandson of composer Richard Wagner, briefly greeted bystanders along with his 30-year-old daughter Katharina outside the Festspielhaus before the opening of the annual celebration.

The audience for "Parsifal," the composer's last major work, included German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband, Joachim Sauer _ regular Bayreuth visitors _ and Bavarian governor Guenther Beckstein.

Richard Wagner founded the festival, in its 97th edition this year, in 1872.

Wolfgang Wagner and his brother, Wieland, took charge of the festival in 1951. After Wieland's death, Wolfgang became the sole director in 1967.

Wagner announced in late April that he would quit the director's post at the end of August. He had previously indicated that he would like to see Katharina replace him, but noted a co-leadership with her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier, 63, was also possible.

The two daughters have handed in a proposal for a joint directorship.

An official decision on who will take over the festival is not expected until after this year's event ends on Aug. 28. The festival board of directors is set to meet on Sept. 1.

Speculation swirled following the death last November of Wolfgang Wagner's second wife and longtime assistant, Gudrun, that he would step aside _ ending a long-running struggle that generated drama worthy of the opera.

In 2001, the festival's board of directors, which includes federal, Bavarian state government and Bayreuth city officials, tried to force Wagner to step down by naming Wagner-Pasquier to take over.

But he refused to leave, arguing his lifetime contract gave him control over the opera house where the festival is staged each summer.

He also rejected Wieland's daughter, Nike Wagner, now 63, saying his niece was unsuitable for the job.

Katharina _ seen by some as too young to lead the festival on her own _ is staging "Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg" at this year's festival.

That performance will be streamed live on the Internet for paying customers and screened at a free public viewing in Bayreuth, plans that organizers have touted as a major technological update for the festival.

Richard Wagner preferred to describe "Parsifal" as a festival play or musical drama rather than an opera. The performance is directed by Norwegian Stefan Herheim and conducted by Italian Daniele Gatti.

The lead is being sung by British tenor Christopher Ventris.