March / June / September / December 2006
Welcome to this, our first Newsletter for 2006, in which we mourn the passing of arguably the greatest Wagnerian soprano of the second half of the 20th century, Birgit Nilsson. Many of us only know her effortless soaring steely-sheened voice through recordings, whether as Sieglinde (and third Norn) in Knappertsbusch's spacious 1957 live Ring from Bayreuth, or as Brunnhilde in Solti's monumental studio recording of the Ring (1962-65) and in Böhm's meticulous live Bayreuth recording from 1967. Her great voice was stilled with her retirement from the operatic stage in 1982, except for one last extraordinary Brunnhilde at a gala performance at Covent Garden in 1992 when, at 72, "she could still tingle the spine with the voice that had dominated opera houses in the 1960s and 1970s" (UK Telegraph 12 Jan 2006).
While on the subject of recordings, we are still waiting for the first opera of the promised set from the Neidhardt Ring in Adelaide in 2004, and regretting that last year's triumphal Tristan in Brisbane with Lisa Gasteen and John Treleaven went unrecorded.
On 19 February, we held our first function of 2006, at which Professor Kim Walker, Dean of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, spoke about the role of the Conservatorium, the work of the Opera Studies Unit in particular, and the need to find private funding to replace government grants which have been severely cut. Sharolyn Kimmorley then conducted a voice coaching class with Catherine Bouchier, a voice student at the Con. From feedback received at and since the function, members attending found this "master class" a fascinating and rewarding window onto the work of the Conservatorium, and I'd like on your behalf to once again thank Professor Kim Walker, Sharolyn Kimmorley and Catherine Bouchier for their fascinating insights.
Traditionally, our functions are held on the third Sunday of each month. However, as the Wellington Parsifal performances are on the weekend on the third Sunday in March, and because the Easter and Anzac Day public holidays fall around the third Sunday in April, we have combining the March and April functions into a single meeting on Sunday 2 April at the Goethe- Institut at 2pm, at which Alan Whelan will speak on the life and works of Siegfried Wagner.
It's generally acknowledged that, as a composer, Siegfried Wagner never emerged fully from the shadow of his father. When he died in 1930, in the same year that his mother died (Cosima cast an altogether different shadow over Siegfried's life), Bayreuth was left in the hands of his notorious widow, Winifred Williams. We tend to see the origins of present-day Bayreuth in the next 15 years of German history (1930 to 1945), and for some the stain left by Winifred and some of their children has still not been wholly wiped out. The tumultuous period following his death may have contributed to a certain neglect which Siegfried Wagner has suffered at the hands of Wagner scholars, and I'm looking forward to Alan's presentation.
Going to the Movies
Without a lot of fanfare, we showed the first of ten episodes of "Wagner", Tony Palmer's 1983 marathon (9 hour) film on the life of Wagner before our function on February 19. Just like "serials" at the movies in the days before home theatre, we will be showing one episode before each of the next 9 functions, starting with episode two on 2 April. The "Wagner serial" will start at 1pm, and the function will start (as usual) at 2pm.
The film is not without its critics, especially for its non-chronological use of music and its occasional waywardness when historical accuracy gets in the way of the story, but in terms of the outstanding actors who deliver the roles, it is almost without peer. Foremost are the Wagner of Richard Burton and the Cosima of Vanessa Redgrave. Then there is the knightly Pfing Pfong and Pfang of Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir Laurence Olivier (as Pfistermeister, Pfordten and Pfeufer respectively), the narration of Andrew Cruickshank (that great Scottish ham whose Doctor Cameron is burned in to the collective unconscious of too many generations), and an army of bit players - Gwyneth Jones, Peter Hofmann, Franco Nero, Sir William Walton, Arthur Lowe, Prunella Scales, Corin Redgrave, Yvonne Kenny, Manfred Yung, Jess Thomas, Dame Joan Plowright, Cyril Cusack, and many more.
This isn't something that is likely to be coming to a cinema near you any time soon, so why not come early to a few of the functions and sample its delights.
At our December 2005 function we drew the names of all the applicants for Bayreuth tickets in 2006 one by one from a hat (a Neidhardt Ring sunhat) which I took from my own Pandora's Box which is called "unfortunate Wagner merchandise bought on impulse which is too vile even for raffle prizes".
My Pandora's Box ("unfortunate Wagner merchandise" etc) had a few additions over the holiday period. While trying to sniff out Wagner rarities on DVD from Germany (via google.de) I came across three seeming gems which were unknown to me: Wagner meets Cuba - Parsifal goes La Habana; Wagner meets New York - Tristan meets Isolde in Harlem; and Wagner meets Spain - Siegfried's Ole in Espana. Tragically, only the first two have arrived, but when the third appears I know where it will be going. There is very little Wagner in these works, which are recordings and concerts given by a small orchestra augmented apparently by local musicians and singers from each location. "Tristan meets Isolde in Harlem ", for example, has music which sounds a little like Big Band meets Procol Harem, with occasional recognisable moments from Wagner. You can tell that the theme is taken from Wagner because His Head appears rather prominently on the screen and if, when the word "enter" flashes on-screen you press "enter" on your DVD remote controller, you can hear the actual orchestral passage which is being butchered. I must have been very naughty in a past life to have to endure these DVDs.
Next to these latest arrivals in Pandora is the two-volume set of P Craig Russell's masterpiece "The Ring of the Nibelung". Had I noticed that the publisher was Dark Horse Comics before I bought them, I might not have been as surprised when I opened the parcel from Amazon dot com. The most interesting part of the "illustrated novel" is at the end. After Hagen has been dragged down into the Rhine, we see Wotan thrusting his shattered spear into Loge's breast, killing him. Later, we see Brunnhilde and Siegfried alive and united, like Adam and Eve, near the ashes of Walhalla. And in the arid burnt wasteland, a tree takes root and grows. The final cartoon image is the final image from the Neidhardt Ring, sans Erda.
A number of members have asked about the biography of Franz Liszt to which Nigel Butterley referred, which was the three-volume set written by Alan Walker and published by Cornell University Press:
Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years, 1811-1847 (482 pages, ISBN: 0801494214)
Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, 1848-1861 (656 pages, ISBN: 0801497213)
Franz Liszt: The Final Years, 1861-1886 (624 pages, ISBN: 0801484537)
I have included the number of pages in these paperback editions so that you will see the task that lies before you if you purchase all three. Also by Alan Walker and published by Cornell University Press is the smaller and much sadder volume "The Death of Franz Liszt: Based on the Unpublished Diary of His Pupil Lina Schmalhausen (Hardcover, 224 pages, published December 2002, ISBN: 0801440769) which gives a stark account of Liszt's lonely death in Bayreuth.
A number of members have also asked about the Newsgroup in which Alan Whelan participates, which is humanities.music.composers.wagner.
There are several ways in which you can access this Newsgroup. Your Internet Service Provider can give you a link so that, using standard email software such as "MS Outlook Express" you can access this and any other Newsgroup. For example, Telstra Bigpond broadband cable subscribers can use a link at server-news.bigpond.net.au to access any Newsgroups they wish. Your Internet Service Provider should be able to help you set up a connection to this Newsgroup using their own server address.
You can also access the messages from this Newsgroup via the web. For example, if you search on humanities.music.composers.wagner using google.com you will easily find a number of web-sites, such as
where you can view the current day's postings, or sites such as
where you can view the last 500 postings.
In Sydney in 2006 we have the SSO performing "The Ring - An Orchestral Adventure" under the baton of Edo de Waart on 6, 7, 8 and 10 April, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra performing the Siegfried Idyll in a series of concerts billed as "The Giants" on 9 and 12 September in Angel Place and on 10 September at the Opera House, and also in Canberra and Wollongong, Adelaide and Melbourne.
In Perth the West Australian Opera is staging three performances of Neil Armfield's production of Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Richard Mills, on November 4, 8 and 11. The cast is Isolde, Susan Bullock; Tristan, Alan Woodrow; Brangane, Bernadette Cullen; Kurwenal, David Wakeham; King Marke, Bruce Martin and Melot, Barry Ryan.
And by the time you read this, the two "semi-staged" performances of Parsifal in Wellington on 17 and 19 March will be over. With an all New Zealand cast, including Sir Donald McIntyre in the role of Gurnemanz and Margaret Medlyn as Kundry, these performances are part of the 2006 New Zealand International Arts Festival, in conjunction with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Our Society has made a donation of A$2,500 in support of these performances.
I hope that you can attend some of these 2006 Wagner performances, and some of our own functions, and please don't forget to take a look at one of the Tony Palmer "Wagner" serials at 1pm before each of our functions.
5 March 2006
I am delighted to begin my second report for 2006 with news that my earlier predictions of a dearth of things Wagnerian in Australia over the next few years may well prove to be wrong.
Melba Foundation Limited, which, according to CEO Maria Vandamme, stepped in at the last minute to record the Ring Cycle in Adelaide in November and December 2004, wrote to patrons in April to announce a schedule for the release on CD of each part of the Neidhardt Ring, and then of the whole set. Die Walkure was released on 7 June 2006, Das Rheingold will be released in October 2006, Siegfried in February 2007 and Gotterdammerung and the Ring Cycle set in October 2007. [For some information about the new SACD format and the release of Die Walkure, see below.]
As I said in my annual report for 2005 delivered at our AGM in May this year, Opera Australia is rumoured to be planning productions of two Wagner operas, one in 2007 and a second in 2008, and there are also rumours that the State Opera of South Australia is planning to stage Meistersinger in 2008 and to restage the Neidhardt Ring in 2010. Having Cassandra-like predicted a depressing lack of future Wagner performances, I will devour humble pie with relish if this proves not to be the case.
On 2 April, we held our second function of 2006, at which Alan Whelan gave an illustrated talk on the life and works of Siegfried Wagner. The overwhelming impression for me that remains from Alan's talk is, perhaps unexpectedly, one of the intense lyricism in parts of Siegfried Wagner's music, such as his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra composed in 1915.
My curiosity and enthusiasm roused, I bought Sonnenflammen, his opera Opus 8 set at the time of the fall of Byzantium to the crusaders, which was the only complete opera recording I could find locally. The story ends with the body of the flawed hero Fridolin being consumer by the flames that are destroying the city, while the women of the story escape. For those who are looking for them, parts of this plot have some similarities to plots used by his father, but the most immediate difference between the two story-tellers is that Siegfried Wagner's story is (please excuse the awful pun) Byzantine, difficult and confusing in its myriad directions, and perhaps in search of a good editor.
Within the music, however, there are such unexpected periods of lyricism that I find myself looking for more. Through the Internet, it's not hard to find. There is an International Siegfried Wagner Society at www.siegfried-wagner.org , which has an English-language page. Unfortunately, unless you are a fluent German speaker, your enquiries take you into the amusing, but unreliable, world created by the auto-translation facilities offered by Internet search engines such as Google
One story which I could confirm was that Werner Andreas Albert, who was president of the International Siegfried Wagner Society for many years and conducts a number of orchestras in performances of Siegfried Wagner's works which are available in Europe on CD, was in Brisbane on 5 May 2006 and conducted the Queensland Orchestra in a concert which began with the overture to Siegfried Wagner's opera Der Friedensengel (the Peace Angel), Op 10, which was published in 1914. This concert was broadcast by ABC Classic FM.
Our third function for 2006 was our annual celebration of Richard Wagner's birthday, held on the closest Sunday to the actual date, which this year was Sunday 21 May. Our Vorabend was the showing of the third part of Tony Palmer's 10-hour epic, "Wagner", which was followed by our Annual General Meeting, a recital by Jessica Pratt and two of our 2005 German Language Scholarship students, Amy Radford and Harriett Marshall, accompanied by Kate Golla, the 2005 Bayreuth Scholar, who also gave a short talk about her month in Germany last year, and finally by our birthday celebration. My thanks to the singers and to Kate Golla, for making this another wonderful afternoon. The staged venom with which Jessica Pratt launched into the Queen of the Night's second great showpiece, "Der Holle Rache", left me breathless.
The Annual General Meeting decided, after much discussion which was thankfully focused at the end by Professor Hans Freeman, to amend the rules for allocation of Bayreuth tickets so that members who have not previously been to Bayreuth with tickets provided through the Society will be given preference. Sets of tickets will henceforward be allocated by ballot to applicants in the following order: (i) to applicants who have been members of the Society for two years or more and who have not previously or in the past five years received tickets to Bayreuth through the Society, (ii) to other applicants who have been members of the Society for two years or more, and (iii) to all other applicants.
I would like to welcome two new members to our Management Committee, Gaby Bremner-Moore and Alan Whelan, who were nominated from the floor of the AGM. They join the existing committee office-bearers and members, who were all reappointed for a further year.
Other Wagner performances
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra's performance of "The Ring - An Orchestral Adventure" under the baton of Edo de Waart in early April was an unexpected pleasure. I had been put off by the faux marketing of a "highlights" performance, under a poster of the Valkyries as Mardi Gras icons Dykes On Bikes, but it was nothing of the kind. Instead, it was a single connected whole made up in the main of music from the Ring Cycle written by Wagner without voices - the prelude to Rheingold, the descent into Nibelheim, the entrance of the gods into Walhalla, the ride of the Valkyries, Forest Murmurs, Siegfried's Rhine journey, and so on. Musically it was a delight, with very few moments where the absence of a vocal line intruded into the flow of the music. For me it brought back memories of the four years, ending with Gotterdammerung in 2000, when de Waart and the SSO gave outstanding concert performances of each of the Ring works.
I almost hesitate to heap more praise on the two "semi-staged" performances of Parsifal in Wellington in mid-March, since the reviews of the performance have already used all the superlatives I know. With an all New Zealand cast, including Sir Donald McIntyre in the role of Gurnemanz and English-born Margaret Medlyn as Kundry , these performances were part of the 2006 New Zealand International Arts Festival, in conjunction with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Our Society made a donation of A$2,500 in support of these performances.
Instead of telling you how good the singers were, I'll make some observations about negative aspects of the ticketing process and the physical location of chorus and soloists relative to the audience and the Michael Fowler Centre. Tickets were first allocated to Wellington subscribers for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's 2006 subscription season (which is how friends and I got our tickets) and were only later made available to the public. This meant that some eager overseas travellers had to book travel and accommodation without having tickets for the performances. The staging took place on a raised platform behind the orchestra, with the orchestra moved forward to the very front of the stage. This proved to be a disaster for many viewers in the Fowler Centre, where the front-row seats in the stalls are already slightly below the level of the concert stage. Although these seats were priced as premium seating, they had no view of the raised stage behind the orchestra or of the singers on that stage, and many overseas visitors I spoke to from our own Wagner Society and from the Adelaide Society were bitterly disappointed with their seating. Luckily, the management of the theatre and the staff of the NZSO were able to re-seat many of them, but as a general rule a festival performance will not attract friendly comments from overseas visitors if they only get seating left-over after the locals have taken the best available in the house, or from anyone who pays premium prices for opera seats without a view of the singers.
My second observation relates to the physical location of the male chorus with the Fowler centre. This chorus was split, with 17 tenors high up in the back rows of a block of audience seating on one side of the orchestra, and 17 basses similarly high up on the opposite side of the hall. The female chorus was also in audience seating behind the orchestra, but it faced out into the auditorium. The stage was not large, and only the principal singers, pages and Klingsor's six Zaubermadchen appeared on it, a few at a time. The acoustics of the auditorium appeared to favour singers and musicians on or near the stage, and did not favour the male choirs located high up in audience seating, who sang across the hall to each other rather than out into the auditorium. As a result, the Grail Knights, whose vocal menace is usually a driving force in the Good Friday services, sounded weak and distant from where I was sitting. Similarly, Klingsor sang from high at the back of the auditorium behind the orchestra and stage, behind and between two screens onto which the text was projected. These screens seemed to me to block some of the sound, so that Martin Snell's deep rolling bass voice sounded oddly thin. The quality of the singers was so overwhelming that it was annoying that the performances were marred by these positional decisions.
Visit by Bernd Benthaak
Bernd Benthaak, the director of the Wellington Parsifal and of other operas including works by Wagner, will be visiting Australia later this month. He will be in Adelaide around 20 June as guest of honour at the 20th anniversary celebrations of the Richard Wagner Society of South Australia. Bernd was not a foundation member of that Society, but he provided the catalyst for its formation, as he was directing the Flying Dutchman in Adelaide in 1986 when members of the audience decided to see if there was enough interest to form a Society.
Mr Benthaak's visit is being partly-sponsored by our Society as a contribution towards the celebration of South Australia's anniversary, and on his return to New Zealand, Bernd will be stopping off in Sydney for a few days, when we hope to organise an informal dinner with him. Details of this will be sent to members by email, since at this stage we don't know the exact dates of his travel.
A recent Sunday morning waddle past the eateries lining Macleay Street, Potts Point, in search of sustenance, was pleasantly but briefly interrupted by a chance encounter with Colin Jones and Paul Curran. Paul has made an outstanding career for himself as a stage director in Europe and North America, and was back in Sydney between projects. Paul's
website, www.paulcurran.info contains some astounding images from his past productions, and if you have the time it's well worth a look, especially at the pictures from his La Scala Tannhauser.
Donations and membership renewals
Finally, some words of apology. I have been beset by problems with technology, requiring a new PC following the untimely demise of my former model with the consequent loss of a considerable amount of data. My new PC failed after a number of weeks and I had to start the process of rebuilding my data a second time. Then there were the unappreciated attentions of a select group of worms and viruses, which were inconvenient but not fatal. And lastly the discovery that a number of macros which I used to generate letters to renewing members and to produce receipts for tax-deductible donations would not run on my new PC no matter how nicely I fiddled with them.
The upshot of this tedious tale is that no letters or receipts have been posted since March, and for this unacceptably long delay I apologise. I will be posting individually hand-crafted receipts for donations and letters acknowledging your membership renewals over the next few weeks, so that everyone should have received a reply by the end of the current tax year, 30 June. If you don't receive anything by then, please phone me so that I can re-generate the document you require.
Our Newsletter editor advises me that the September issue will contain a number of reviews of the Copenhagen Ring Cycle. Many thanks to the contributors. All contributions are welcome!
Best wishes to you all,
13 June 2006
I am delighted to begin my third report for 2006 by confirming that, as most of you already know, at least half the rumour that Opera Australia is planning productions of two Wagner operas, one in 2007 and a second in 2008, is correct. OA will be re-staging the Neidhardt Tannhäuser in October and November 2007. Bernadette Cullen is scheduled to sing the role of Venus, Glenn Winslade Tannhäuser, Janice Watson Elizabeth, Daniel Sumegi Hermann and Warwick Fyfe Wolfram. We’ll have to wait until the 2008 AO programme to find out whether the other half of the rumour is also correct.
Elke Neidhardt’s production had its share of criticism when it was first staged. Venusberg’s Bacchanal was all smoke and laser lights with male sexual fantasy stereotypes emerging from the smoke under the wide eyes of a bemused Horst Hoffman - a French maid, a vamp in fishnet stockings, a schoolgirl, a dominatrix etc. The vocal demands of the title role seemed to me to sit well with Horst Hoffman’s voice, and it was the finest and most relaxed singing I ever heard from him. The meadow scene featured a giant metal cow on a revolving dais of green plastic butcher’s grass. The shepherd boy played his pipes while sitting under the cow, a family of burghers with dachshunds walked across the stage, trumpets like menacing blunderbusses emerged from under the curtains at the sides of stage to sound fanfares – and not, as some may have wished, to blow the whole production away. We will organise a seminar in conjunction with the production and provide details of date, venue and speakers next year.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s 2007 programme includes three December performances of the Siegfried Idyll.
On Sunday 16 July, we held our fourth function of 2006. Terence Watson chaired a thoughtful discussion on the subject of anti-Semitism in Wagner’s music, after first showing a video to stimulate our ideas. It was fascinating to hear forthright views from range of members on a subject that is often deemed “unsuitable” for discussion in an open forum. A number of interesting perspectives were discussed and observations made, and subjects were as diverse as the 30 Years War, the anti-Semitism of Luther and Marx, and the level of anti-Semitism in different historical periods.
As well as this month’s function on Sunday 17 September, at which those who attended the Bayreuth festival will discuss the experience, the rest of the programme for 2006 has been finalised and is printed in this Newsletter.
Other Wagner performances
On Sunday 18 June, I was delighted to attend a concert as a guest-of-honour of the Woollahra Philharmonic Orchestra, which included interludes from the Ring. The concert, titled tongue-in-cheek Colossal Cosmic Classics, was given by the combined forces of the Woollahra Philharmonic Orchestra and Orchestra Nova of Newcastle in the cold and cavernous acoustic of the Mary Immaculate Church in Waverley, and included Holst’s Planets, which from the audience reception was the highlight of the afternoon. It was preceded by three interludes from the Ring, including a magical Forest Murmurs.
Bleeding chunks of Wagner taken out of context and robbed of their vocal lines don’t always work as stand- alone orchestral pieces, but this selected worked very well.
I must admit, somewhat sheepishly, that until their invitation came I had not heard of the Woollahra Philharmonic, but having become acquainted I hope to enjoy many more of their performances. Their programme and venues are varied, and you can find more details at www.wpo.org.au.
Bayreuth Scholar for 2006
This year’s Bayreuth Scholar is Michal Imielski, a NIDA graduate who wants to direct opera. After spending a month in Germany as winner of this scholarship, Michal will spend a further two months alongside Barry Kosky, and will tell us about his travels at our May meeting in 2007.
The www.shh.com.au website has some biographical details for Michal. He was born in Poland and moved to Australia when he was 14. He attended the Conservatorium of Music in Czestochowa from 1989- 1996, studying classical guitar, piano, double bass and musicology. At the time the biography was posted of the website, Michal had completed a Bachelor of Media and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University majoring in writing and was “undergoing” a Masters degree in Theatre and Performance Studies.
He has composed music for short films, theatre and various projects, and acted in short films made for Tropfest and other film festivals. He has also been a professional magician for five years and has done a lot of work with puppetry and black light theatre.
Reports of the new Ring in Bayreuth
Winter can be a very problematic time here in the Antipodes. Like the unnamed bambino in Madama Butterfly, if you’re going overseas for one of the many Ring cycles on offer in the Northern Podes – Bayreuth, Toronto, Orange County, and Dresden all having their fair share of visitors from Down Under – or for another opera festival, then your name is Gioia; but if you’re wintering at home (which this year I am) then your name is Dolore.
With the Internet, however, it has become possible for the legions of Sadness to keep vicarious tabs on the hordes of the Joyous. One such lucky adventurer, our Webmaster John Studdert, has been dropping joyous postcards from Bayreuth onto the Society’s website (http://www.wagner- nsw.org.au/reviews/0006_post.html) which have been tantalising, and more than usually polite.
Many of the reviews from Bayreuth this year, especially of the Ring, could have learned from John’s good manners and discretion. Bloomberg’s Shirley Apthorp, under the headline “Bayreuth’s Mediocre `Ring’ Reflects Festival’s Stagnation” was one of many nay-sayers. Ms Apthorp began by contrasting the reaction of German chancellor Angela Merkel to last year’s festival, where “the press focused on the sweat marks around her armpits” to her reaction to the Thielemann-Dorst Ring, which the blue- clad Ms Merkle saw in its second cycle and left “apparently dry.” Ms Apthorp said that “80-year-old dramatist Tankred Dorst” was “dull as ditchwater”, while conductor Christian Thielemann, the “great white hope for the future of hardcore German repertoire” was “hailed as a savior.” Ms Apthorp continued:
“The tragedy is that the festival, founded by Richard Wagner in 1876 to break new artistic ground, has stagnated. It ought, by rights, to remain what it has been in the past, a place where ideas are born and standards are set for Wagner interpretation worldwide. Instead, it has become a bastion of convention and a temple of mediocrity.
“Token gestures of modernism in past seasons -- Christoph Schlingensief’s incoherently provocative “Parsifal,” Christoph Marthaler’s quirky “Tristan und Isolde” -- are rendered inconsequential by the stultifying weight of this dreary new “Ring”.’
“Dorst’s problem is not lack of ideas. He has plenty. It is their execution that fails. Dorst has never staged an opera before, and his inexperience tells. Singers move awkwardly, left to find their own way in matters of characterization. More often than not they end up standing rigid in the footlights, staring at the conductor. This is not conservatism. It is ineptitude.”
Hardly anyone seems to have had a good word to say for Herr Dorst, and criticism has appeared in unexpected places. Sven Friedrich, Director of the Richard Wagner National Archive in Bayreuth, in an interview on the work of the Archive said when asked of Dorst’s production “I think his idea is interesting -- that the gods are among us and live in a sort of parallel universe, which is not able to be seen by normal people. But he is unable to transform the idea into a staging. He is not able to deal with the singers and to put them on the stage and to move them on the stage and to create a psychological tension between the singers. Because he is not a director.”
Perversely, these negative reviews make me keen to see the production in a few years, perhaps in 2008 or 2009, after Herr Dorst has made a few changes to make his staging better reflect his ideas. The initial controversy surrounding Christoph Schlingensief’s Parsifal in 2004 similarly made it a “must see”, and in some ways it’s disappointing to read reports that Herr Schlingensief seems to have listened to his critics and further reduced the images cluttering his stage.
Members have already put their names down for tickets to Bayreuth in 2007, and our application form hasn’t been released yet. Following our AGM this year, the rules for ticket allocation have changed. Any member can apply for a set of tickets, but those sets we receive will be balloted first among applicants who have been members of the Society for two or more years and have not had tickets to Bayreuth through the Society in the past five years, then among those who have received tickets, and finally (if any sets remain) among applicants who have been members for fewer than two years.
The new work in 2007 will be a Meistersinger produced by Wolfgang Wagner’s daughter Katharina, who seems in her father’s eyes at least the forerunner among the Wagner great-grandchildren for the role of Festival Director. On the prospect of staging Meistersinger, Reuters quotes the blond Ms Wagner: “Of course, I know the stage and the opera house much better than most others”, she said. “But my name also evokes anticipation and rejection that few others would have to face”. “If the criticism addresses my work, then that’s good and important to take into account”, she said. “But if they start calling me ‘Barbie- doll’, it’s obvious it’s about me and not my work -- and that has nothing to do with reviewing art per se”.
The good news is that Herr Schlingensief’s Parsifal will continue next year and will not end its run of boos early. It is the Holländer that has left the stage at Bayreuth to make way for Katharina Wagner’s Meistersinger.
The dates for next year’s third Ring cycle are: Monday 20 August 2007, Rheingold; Tuesday 21, Walküre; Thursday 23, Siegfried; and Saturday 25, Götterdämmerung. However, until we have checked with the Wagner Society of New York, which provides English-language lectures before one performance of each work around the time of the third Ring cycle, we won’t know the dates for all the performances for which we will book. Best wishes to you all.
Monday 4 September 2006
This is my final report for 2006. I hope this newsletter finds you all in good health, having survived the bunfight of 2006 year-end activities and ready for another scorching antipodean summer, and for 2007's Wagner treats.
Locally, so far as we can tell from the published programmes of Australian opera companies and orchestras, Wagner performances are limited to the Australian Opera's performances of Tannhauser and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's performances of the Siegfried Idyll.
The closest item of interest is in Wellington, where the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is following up the success of this year's semi-staged Parsifal performances with an all-Wagner concert on Friday, 7 September 2007, including Margaret Medlyn singing the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and the Immolation from Gotterdammerung.
Further afield, and much more colourful and exotic, the Bangkok Opera is staging Die Walkure in July 2007. Peter Bassett is leading a tour which includes a performance on Thursday 26 July. He writes "The Bangkok production emphasises the universal nature of Wagner's work by linking it to Thai experience and to the Hindu and Buddhist philosophies that Wagner regarded so highly during the last three decades of his life. The Artistic Director of Bangkok Opera, Somtow Sucharitkul, approaches the work from a distinctively Asian perspective, and the result is intriguing and surprising."
On 17 September, members who had been to Bayreuth in 2006 reported on the performances and in particular on the new Dorst/Thielemann Ring, and on Bayreuth's new Brunnhilde, Linda Watson. Dennis Mather and John Studdert led the Ring discussion with an excellent presentation of photographs from the programmes and other sources. The general impression of Herr Dorst's production, with the theme that "the Gods are among us, but we can't see them" was very favourable, with most members rejecting the charge that this was one-dimensional production, finding it instead more multi-layered and textured than many of the overseas critics. There was general praise for Thielemann's shaping of the music and his general structure and tempi, and, despite some reservations, admiration for much of Watson's singing.
Elizabeth Gordon-Werner spoke about her very personal and favourable reaction to Christoph Schlingensief's much-maligned production of Parsifal, and read from notes she made at the time which she has since turned into an article, printed in this Newsletter. After the Parsifal performance, Elizabeth went back to her hotel room and wrote down her impressions, reactions and feelings while they were still raw, and the images and sounds were still very close to her, which makes the article very real and immediate without the distance which a more deliberate view might contain.
On 15 October, Alan Whelan gave an illustrated talk on Rienzi, Wagner's only work in the style of French grand opera, sometimes described as the best opera Meyerbeer never wrote. The story includes Wagner's only adventure with trouser roles, where, at the premiere in October 1842, his favourite soprano Wilhelmine Schroder-Devrient sang the role of Adriano, Rienzi's son. Amazingly to our ears, while writing Rienzi, Wagner also worked on The Flying Dutchman, which failed in its first season and was replaced by further performances of Rienzi, to restore the composer's popularity.
Although Rienzi was Wagner's first truly popular work, and perhaps the most popular of his works during his lifetime, Wagner experimented both with giving the opera over two evenings (as Opera Australia did unsuccessfully with Berlioz' Les Troyens) and with making cuts so that the work could be performed in a single evening. None of these experiments was sufficiently successful to induce his family to allow Rienzi to be given in Bayreuth after his death.
We all endure Emile Naumann's quote from Rossini, allegedly made to him in April 1867, that "Monsieur Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart d'heures", generally given as "beautiful moments but bad quarter hours". Alan notes that by April 1867, Rossini could only have heard music from the early and middle works, up to Lohengrin, and possibly from Tristan und Isolde. If the quote is accurate, it might most probably apply to Rienzi and not, as it is often applied by reviewers and critics, to the Ring or other late works.
On 26 November, Nigel Butterley gave a talk entitled "Faust, Mephistopheles - and composers", tracing both the sources of the legend and composers who have set it to music. Unfortunately, because of a technical problem with new audio-visual equipment installed at the venue, it was not possible to present all the musical extracts as Nigel had intended, and we apologise again for the inconvenience this caused both to Nigel and our members. The most dramatic extract which Nigel played was by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998), from his opera the Historia von D. Johann Fausten, which incorporated his earlier Faust Cantata (1983). The acclaim which greeted this late 20th century work was somewhat unexpected.
In April 2007, Nigel Butterley will deliver a further talk on the influence of the Faust legend on composers, particularly focussing on Faust and the Feminine.
Our Christmas Party was held on Sunday 10 December, and a documentary on Waltraud Meier "I follow a voice within me" was shown. Our party was a little less formal than in previous years, but still included many traditional touches, foremost among them another of Barbara Brady's legendary Christmas Cakes, which was first prize in our raffle and was won by Colin Baskerville. Our thanks to Barbara, and to Roger Hillman, head of Film Studies at the Australian National University for a copy of his book "Unsettling Scores: German Film, Music and Ideology," and to our Ravens for a CD set of the Solti "Walkure", which were also raffle prizes.
Next year's functions
We're in the process of negotiating with presenters for a number of next year's functions. At this stage we can confirm the February meeting, at which Terence Watson and others who attended the Toronto and Costa Mesa Rings will discuss the productions, singers, conductors, orchestras and venues for each of these performances. Expect some unflattering comparisons with their Australian equivalents, particularly the acoustics of our own beloved Opera House. It will be followed by a short talk by Terence: The "Problem" of Siegfried.
In April, we have Nigel Butterley's second Faust talk, "Faust and the Feminine", and in May our celebration party at the Goethe-Institut for Wagner's birthday, along with our AGM and what for many is the highlight of our year, the recital by students from the Conservatorium of Music, who have received German Language Scholarships from our Society.
Once again, our thanks and congratulations go to Terence Watson, our Newsletter Editor, and to the high-quality bank of contributors he marshals to produce each Newsletter. I've recently received praise for the Newsletter from the Presidents of two local Wagner Societies, and from members of our Society both here and overseas.
Praise is also due to our unsung heroes, Ravens Richard Mason and Camron Dyer, who keep our calendar of future Wagner performances world-wide so up-to-date. I often find links from the websites of overseas Wagner Societies to this page of our website, allowing Wagnerites everywhere to take advantage of their research when making their travel plans.
It's time to renew your membership for 2007, and a form is provided on our website at http://www.wagner-nsw.org.au/membership.html
This year, you can send your payment electronically to our bank account, if you wish. Please don't forget to post your renewal form as well. Unfortunately, because of the high fees involved, we don't currently offer the facility to pay membership fees by credit card, but will be looking at the PayPal online payment system to see if that's viable for us.
Other Wagner performances
This year, the Richard Wagner Society of Western Australia Inc celebrated its 20th anniversary, and we congratulate them on achieving this milestone. The Society had much more than its own anniversary to celebrate, with the West Australian Opera's production of Tristan und Isolde in November being the highlight of the Wagner calendar in Australia in 2006. Reviews and members reports of the performances, and of the seminar organised by the Perth Society, have been glowing. The March edition of the Newsletter will feature some comments by members and an overview of media critiques and some comparisons with other productions. As a foretaste, we are fortunate to have a short essay by Peter Bassett in this newsletter, Image and Idea - Tristan and the Upanishads.
Bookings for Tannhauser in Sydney in 2007
Tickets for Opera Australia's re-staging of the Neidhardt Tannhauser, with seven performances in October 2007 and one in November, are apparently selling fast. Member Colin Baskerville called the box office to order an additional ticket, and was told that there were very few seats available, and that they were expected to be sold out by the end of December 2006. If this isn't part of your 2007 OA subscription, or you're planning to visit Sydney and catch a performance, you had better book now. The cast as advertised is Bernadette Cullen as Venus, Glenn Winslade Tannhauser, Janice Watson Elizabeth, Daniel Sumegi Hermann and Warwick Fyfe Wolfram.
I'd like to tell you about an internet-based video-clip phenomenon which has some interesting Wagner-related and musical items. Those of you who know your way around this world-wide waste of time will probably know about "YouTube" already, and those of you who regard the Internet with justified suspicion will be unwilling to venture there. But if you have a few spare moments over this holiday season and access to a computer, you may find this a journey worth undertaking.
First, YouTube is a free service. It's at www.youtube.com. As far as I can tell, young people, mostly American, with digital video cameras and too much time on their hands film each other doing pointless things and then "post" their video efforts on YouTube so that others can watch them. The clips range from the juvenile, such as the results of eating a few rolls of Mentos and then drinking Coke, or playing with matches close to one's person after a meal of beans, to the criminal, such as the activities of a group of school children in Victoria who filmed themselves setting fire to a young woman they had abused.
But in the midst of all this suspect material, there are some gems. This site is also used by lovers of Wagner and other music to post clips of opera performances. If you go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAo_fTiZ2hY you will see Kirsten Flagstad, after an introduction by Bob Hope, singing a few HoJoToHos from Die Walkure, standing on a fake rock and poking her spear in a manner that may draw titters from a younger audience. I suspect that this is from the Ed Sullivan Show, or something similar, and dates from the early 1950s when I was still in nappies, but as I never saw her sing live, and don't recall seeing her on any film of an opera performance, this 3 minutes and 15 seconds holds me in thrall.
Then there is my current personal favourite -http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0OQvW9-nz-0. It's described as "Richard
Wagner Lohengrin Act 3 Final. Magyar Ã Âllami OperahÃ Â¡z Budapest Hungarian TV 2004", which by YouTube standards is a very full description, and contains 9 minutes and 11 seconds from the end of Act 3 of Lohengrin. As well as seeing a fragment from a very interesting staging, you can see and hear an Ortrud of exceptional vileness in so many ways.
And with these two examples you encounter the best and worst of YouTube. Articles about this site, which is often modestly described as a "phenomenon", say that over 100,000 new clips are added each month. At the same time, YouTube's Thought Police troll through this material deleting inappropriate and copyright items, so Kirsten and Ortrud will probably one day disappear.
But until they do, they and a wealth of material you may never otherwise see are waiting for you to enjoy.
Although YouTube is free, you should probably give them your email address and register. It may make logging on and searching easier. It's anarchic, because the people who post the clips are allowed to use any tags (key words) they like to describe their material, and it is these "tags" which allow other people to find your clips - or not. A search on a "tag" such as "Callas" is as likely to produce a drag queen miming "Visi d'Arte" as it is the real thing. The Flagstad clip has four tags - Kirsten, Flagstad, Wagner and Walkure - and a search on "Flagstad" gets you four results, so it's the most direct. The Lohengrin clip has three tags - Wagner, Lohengrin and Opera - and a search on "Lohengrin" will give you 21 results. A search on "Wagner" gives over 2,000 results, but a search on "Richard Wagner" only 115, which is much more manageable. A search on "Bayreuth" gives around 300 results, and mixed in with the holiday videos from happy Burghers and clips from the 2006 German Tennis Open, there are extracts from productions by Wieland Wagner, and other delights. You just need to be a little Mime and mine for them.
On the downside, YouTube uses "Flash" technology which means that the picture size on your PC or laptop screen can't be changed, and that without some technical sophistication you can't copy the clips and keep them for later on. But if you have time to waste, this is a fertile place to waste it. So far, I have found seven different live clips of "Suicidio" from Ponchielli's La Gioconda, including Bumbry and Rysenak as well as Tebaldi and Callas, and within the confines of the little Flash screen and the best sound your PC or laptop can produce, you can compare and contrast the greatest singers of our age in performances you might otherwise never see. And that for me is a folly on which it's worth wasting a little time.
We've received an allocation of eight sets of tickets for Bayreuth 2007. Under our new ticketing rules, this means that the six applicants who have been members of the Society and have not had tickets to Bayreuth through the Society in the past five years have all been successful. They are Colin Jones and Paul Curran, June Donsworth, Jan Bowen, and Julie and Terry Clarke. At the Christmas Party there was a ballot for the remaining two tickets, and Monica and Aliro Olave were the lucky winners. As usual, Members attending Bayreuth 2007 will lead a discussion on the performances at our September 2007 function.
Let me wish you all a very safe and enjoyable summer holiday break, and I look forward to seeing many of you at one of our functions in 2007.
Warmest regards, Roger Cruickshank