President's Reports 2010

March / July / September / December 2010


March 2010
Happy New Year, and welcome to our first Newsletter for 2010.

Congratulations to Miriam Gordon-Stewart

Our warmest congratulations go to Miriam Gordon-Stewart, who has been cast in the role of Helmwige in Bayreuth this year. We last saw Miriam in August 2006, when she arranged a discussion with Deborah Polaski as a special member function. I'm not sure when the last Australian soprano sang in Bayreuth, and I'd appreciate hearing from anyone who knows. For details of her recent European performances and repertoire, check her website

2009 Functions

On Sunday 20 September 2009, a number of members who had attended the 2009 Bayreuth Festival gave a fascinating presentation covering more than just the performances. Because there were no new productions in Bayreuth in 2009, the group decided not to cover the same ground as speakers from the 2008 festival, but to talk about events and interests around the Festival itself.

For example, Maree Leech began by discussing what someone might read before attending his or her first Bayreuth visit, recommending for 'Bayreuth Virgins' works as diverse as Robin Holloway's article entitled 'The Bayreuth Experience' in the Spectator of 27 August 2008 (still available online), Ernest Newman's Wagner Nights and Bryan Magee's Aspects of Wagner; Loraine Longfoot spoke about concerts she had attended at other Bayreuth venues, including a piano recital by Stefan Mickisch; Michael Chesterman talked about touring the countryside around Bayreuth; Jim Leigh covered material which has been expanded into an article on Stefan Herwegh's production of Parsifal published elsewhere in this Newsletter; and others discussed the performances and their likes and dislikes.

Our thanks to all who participated in the meeting, and gave such an informative and in many cases personal account of their Bayreuth experiences.

On Sunday 18 October, members of the Sydney University Opera Company gave a singularly outstanding concert. Louis Garrick and Jack Symonds played an arrangement of the 'Pilgrim's Chorus' from Tannhauser for piano duet; Emma Moore (soprano) accompanied by Louis Garrick (piano) sang Berg's Seven Early Songs; and Jack Symonds and Chad Vindin played seven scenes from Parsifal arranged by Humperdinck for piano duet.

I only knew the Berg songs from a CD with Jane Eaglan, and hearing them fresh and live was a revelation, with Louis Garrick's lucid and supporting accompaniment. Emma has recently won the 2009 2MBS-FM Young Performers Award, and sings her first opera role in March as Miss Jessel in the Sydney University Opera Company's production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw at the Cleveland Street Theatre, 199 Cleveland Street, Strawberry Hills on March 2, 4, 5 and 6. Tickets are $30, and you can find details on the Company's website,, including how to book. These are extraordinarily talented young people in search of an audience, and I'd urge you to make the effort to see this performance.

The Parsifal transcriptions were a brilliant tour-de-force by Jack Symonds and Chad Vindin (who have been playing piano duets together since they were 6 years old.). The full work, with narration by Elke Neidhardt, had been part of the 2008 Utzon Concert Series at the Opera House, with two of the four hands belonging to Simone Young. Dr John Casey was not alone in his view that the Symonds/Vindin performance was the better of the two, perhaps because their playing was more immediate, youthful and vigorous, and less musicological. It wasn't an attempt to make the piano sound like an orchestra, or to copy the tempi of a live performance, but a piano performance in its own right with its own tempi and dynamics.

Later in 2010, the Sydney University Opera Company will present the world premiere of a new opera Notes from Underground, written by Jack Symonds and based on the Dostoyevsky novel. We'll let you know when more details are available.

On Sunday 8 November, Antony Ernst spoke about curses in Wagner, in a talk entitled 'From Malediction to Valediction - curses and dramatic resolution in Wagner.' Antony began by describing the kinds of curses Wagner uses, and then catalogued the litany of curses throughout Wagner's work. Antony's attention to detail and his intimate knowledge of these works was breathtakingly displayed.

Antony leaves the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in early March to return to Sydney and take up the position of CEO of the Sydney Youth Orchestras. It's always a pleasure to welcome a prodigal son home, and we hope to see and hear more of him.

2010 Functions

Our first function for 2010 is on Sunday 21 February when Peter Bassett (who provided the following information) will give a richly illustrated talk on 'The Operas Wagner Almost Wrote', about the great composer as he is rarely seen: the creator of such non-Wagnerian characters as the theatre prompter who can't stop sneezing, the young man who makes his living dressed as a bear, and the poet who addresses his audience from a hot air balloon. Peter will also discuss the visionary composer who planned dramas dealing with the lives of Jesus and the Buddha, and relations between the west and Islam. This talk will explore Wagner's many unfinished works and show how these anticipate dramatically and textually the great music dramas of his maturity. Peter's preparations for this talk have formed part of his research for a forthcoming book on Wagner and Verdi, whose bicentenaries will be celebrated in 2013.

Our next function is on Sunday, 28 March when Professor Heath Lees (who provided the following information) will be our guest speaker. Heath's presentation 'Lifting the Lid on Wagner's Piano,' covers two main aspects of the subject. The first, which might be sub-titled simply 'Wagner and the Piano' shows how the young Wagner was frequently rude about the piano. Sometimes he called it more of a musical laboratory than a musical instrument, and claimed that the expressive difference between the orchestra and the piano was so great that no real comparison could be made. And yet, Wagner wrote a number of pieces for the piano, and as Heath will show, much of the music for his operas was clearly written in 'sketch' form at the piano - it seems obvious in many places that the way the notes lay under his fingers helped him to find the music that he was after. He travelled everywhere with a sturdy Erard grand piano that he had almost tricked Erard's widow into donating, and in later life, he was often pictured seated at the piano. Thanks to the equal-tempered tuning of the piano, he was able to write his most chromatic music easily by hearing it first on the piano.

In sum, it seems clear that in his youth and early manhood, Wagner had a kind of love-hate relationship with the piano, but that he came to terms with it as life went on, and by the end, came to accept it as an important musical resource for composition, and expressive in its own right, for performance.

The second aspect of the talk might be sub-titled 'Wagnerism and the Piano.' In other words, it explores how Wagner's music was introduced to others and spread widely through the piano, which was used to teach, to demonstrate, and to win 'converts' in private gatherings and in amateur circles. Heath will offer a brief survey of the kinds of transcriptions that people have produced, from Wagner's day (Liszt, for example) to our own day (for example Stefan Mickisch in Bayreuth). He will also relate how the wagneriste 'showman- pianist' arose in many countries of Europe, where amateur pianists made a name for themselves by offering Wagner 'performances' at the piano, singing, describing, playing, and re-composing large passages of Wagner to increasingly devoted audiences.

Some hilarious send-ups of Wagner by pianists young and old will be included as well, and there will be a few examples of the way composers/performers found ways of using the piano to help them break the stranglehold that Wagner's music exercised on later generations of composers.

As usual, Heath will provide lots of examples and illustrations, with some (sometimes rare) video and audio excerpts. He will also give the impression of some live moments from the past through his frequent, dangerously impromptu piano-playing.

Lisa Gasteen

In an interview with Helen Trinca published in The Weekend Australian of November 21-22 2009, Lisa Gasteen revealed that she may never sing again. The article says that Lisa, 52, has 'agonizing neck spasms that began after she pinched a nerve while picking cumquats 18 months ago!' While the neuro-muscular spasms may subside, she has cancelled forward bookings to 2012. To her legion of fans, this is awful news. My most vivid recollection is of her Isolde at a concert performance in Brisbane in 2005, with Richard Mills and the Australian Youth orchestra, which remains the most impressive Isolde I have heard live. Not everything Ms Gasteen has sung has pleased everyone, but it will be a tragedy if another great Australian voice is prematurely silenced.

Der fliegende Hollander in Adelaide

Last November, there were 4 performances of Der fliegende Hollander (the Wagner opera, not Andre Rieu) in Adelaide. There's a review elsewhere in this Newsletter, so I won't duplicate that material. I attended 3 of the performances, unimpressed by the continuous days of 39 degrees of dry, windy heat which accompanied them.

My first observation came when I sat down again in that Dear Hall, reflecting on the bleeding obvious. Here, in this hall, we have been able to enjoy a feast of Wagner over the past decade. First, in 1998, through the genius of Bill Gillespie, the Pierre Strosser / Jeffrey Tate Ring; in 2001, the Elke Neidhardt / Jeffrey Tate Parsifal; in 2004, the Elke Neidhardt / Asher Fisch Ring; and now in 2009 the Chris Drummond / Nicholas Braithewaite fliegende Hollander. (Please don't ask 'who?')

What has the rest of Australia done in that period? Opera Australia has yet to stage the Ring, or Parsifal. Lyndon Terracini, who took up his four-year contract as Opera Australia's artistic director in October last year, has promised Sydney a Ring and Maureen Wheeler, co-founder of the 'Lonely Planet' publishing phenomenon, is willing to put up a rumoured $12 million to see one staged in Melbourne. But neither city has an obvious venue to fulfil these promises. While in Adelaide, slightly teary-eyed, I am sitting in the one venue in Australia which has all done this, twice, and more besides, waiting for the curtain to rise.

My second observation is more frivolous. There are those who believe that Wagner was ahead of his time in many fields. For example, his profound understanding of human psychology predates Freud, and his understanding of the space-time continuum shown in the transition music in Parsifal Acts 1 and 3, predates Einstein and relativity. In this production, we are reminded of Wagner's prescient knowledge of the very new crime of 'internet grooming'. Mary supplies Senta with the picture of the Hollander, and teaches her his Ballad so that, even before she first sees her spectral lover, Senta has been groomed for her role as willing redeemer, even unto death. In this production the giant video picture of John Wegner's Hollander is 'alive' as his head turns, eyes following Senta as she walks across the stage singing his Ballad. He is able to inspect Mary's handiwork in grooming another potential saviour before even setting foot on land. Oddly, the Hollander only understands how well Mary has chosen in the last few bars of the opera, while we humble viewers have known since the middle of Act 2.

My final observation follows on from the first. In 2013 we will celebrate the bicentennials of the births of Verdi and Wagner. The world will be awash with Ring cycles, but what will Australia be awash with? I have no doubt that Stephen Phillips and the State Opera of South Australia are already planning a commemorative production, but what will Opera Australia provide? In the absence of a Ring, perhaps it will be world ash trays and rinse cycles?

Membership renewals

Membership renewals for 2010 are now open

Roger Cruickshank
31 January 2010


July 2010
Welcome to our second Newsletter for 2010.

Wolfgang Wagner

We all mourn the passing of an age with the death of Wolfgang Wagner on 21 March 2010. While he no longer officially played a direct role in the management of the Bayreuth Festival - his daughters Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner are now the Leiterinnen of the Festival - he was one of the last direct links, through his grandmother Cosima Wagner and his father Siegfried Wagner, to Richard Wagner and his contemporaries. Wolfgang Wagner had known (for good or ill) many of the major figures of European musical, political and artistic history in the 20th century and had seen tremendous upheavals in his own children arising from that history. In his memory, we showed a DVD of Act 2 of his 1981 Bayreuth production of Parsifal before our function on 28 March, and honoured his personal, artistic and administrative achievements which have contributed to the survival of the Bayreuth Festival.

Sir Charles MacKerras

On 14 July 2010 the Patron of our Society, Sir Charles Mackerras, died in London aged 84. Sir Charles was an active supporter of the Society while he lived in Sydney, but after he made his home overseas his busy schedule meant that there were fewer opportunities for him to be directly involved with our activities. Although I did not have the pleasure of meeting Sir Charles, like many others I was able to enjoy his concerts and recordings, a legacy which will endure.

While a number of the generous obituaries paid tribute to his conducting of Mozart and Gilbert and Sullivan, many of us will remember him for his Wagner here in Sydney, both at the official concert for the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973 (an all-Wagner affair with Birgit Nilsson) and for the Bi- Centenary Meistersinger in that Opera House in 1988. CDs or DVDs of both events are still available through Amazon. Some of his recorded legacy reflects the pinnacle of musical achievement. For me, nothing surpasses the recording of the Messiah (Basil Lam edition) for HMV, still available from EMI France through Amazon. The soloists and the small clear chorus produce an authentic recording of unmatched beauty and power. In an age still in love with Messiahs with battalions of choristers, Mackerras gave us the unalloyed beauty of Handel's authentic voice. Your committee will consider and approach suitable candidates for the position of the Society's second Patron, and ask the 2011 AGM to acclaim Sir Charles's successor.

2013 - Commemorating the Bicentennial of Wagner's Birth 

Members of the Society have begun meeting informally and making contact with key music organ isations in New South Wales and nationally to discuss their 'Wagner plans' for 2013 (if any). So that our Society is in a position to sponsor music organizations which commemorate the Wagner Bicentenary in 2013 in their programming a formal sub-committee is being set up, made up of these members and others, with a view to recommending ways of raising money to support concerts and also organ ising special Society events during 2013.

John Studdert reported to the Annual General Meeting in May on approaches that have been made so far, and gave an outline of proposed future actions, including keeping members informed through the website and our Newsletter. At this stage scheduling of performances by leading music organisations in 2013 is still subject to negotiation, so that it is not clear what events will be staged here is Sydney.

The position is further clouded by rumours of a Ring Cycle in Melbourne by Opera Australia, with Niel Armfield's comments on the ABC's "Talking Heads" programme about producing Gotterdammerung in 2017 doing nothing to clarify matters. (You can find a transcript of this interview with an internet search for 'neil armfield ring wagner', or going to s29451 93.htm) - see also article below.

2010 Functions

Our first function for 2010 was on Sunday 21 February when Peter Bassett gave an illustrated talk entitled 'The Operas Wagner Almost Wrote'. Peter gave us glimpses of Wagner as the creator of unexpected characters, such as the theatre prompter who can't stop sneezing, the young man who makes his living dressed as a bear, and the poet who addresses his audience from a hot air balloon, as well as the better-known planned dramas on the lives of Jesus and the Buddha, and on the relations between the west and Islam.

Where many other composers were sent libretti written by professional dramatists to set to music, Wagner was both his own poet and composer. More ideas ended without being realized than the 10 works post-Rienzi which form the Wagner operatic canon today.

Peter made a very interesting comment about the quality of Wagner's dramatic poems - even those which he did not orchestrate were of such quality that they could have been successfully performed as plays. Some of us may smile politely when we encounter stories of Wagner reading his poems to his friends, thinking that we would rather have been at home polishing our fridge magnets that night. So I was pleased to read a few days later about a spoken-word recording of Meistersinger, released on the label Col Legno in Germany in 2007, where an actor named Franz Winter read the poem (according to the reviewer) in a quiet metered recitation lasting 3 hours and 48 minutes.

Another reviewer mentioned a recent spoken-word recording of the Ring, also by a single reader, although "he read different characters with a different voice, and tried to infuse some semblance of drama into it." We look forward to reading more about these and other topics in Peter's forthcoming book on Verdi and Wagner which he is writing for the bicentennial of their births in 2013.

Our second function was on Sunday 28 March when Professor Heath Lees gave an illustrated presentation entitled "Lifting the Lid on Wagner's Piano". Many were surprised to learn that Wagner was not a good pianist, and that he claimed not to like the instrument, although in the Tony Palmer film "Wagner", excerpts from which illustrated Heath's talk, he was shown trudging across Europe, his trusty Erard grand following behind. Many portraits of composers with Wagner show him seated at the piano with the others circled around, but this more likely an arrangement for artistic emphasis rather than a natural sitting.

Professor Lees also pointed out that despite his disparaging of the piano, Wagner wrote a number of piano pieces and much of the music for his operas and music dramas was clearly written in 'sketch' form at the piano. Heath then discussed the way in which Wagner's music was championed by pianists such as Liszt in Wagner's own lifetime, thereby being spread to a wider audience, and also by pianists such as Stefan Mickisch in our time. Heath played an excerpt from a recording of Wagner's piano transcription of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, where the singers are retained and the piano only replaces the orchestra, unlike Liszt's transcription of that work where the piano replaces both orchestra and singers.

Our third function this year was on Sunday 18 April when Terence Watson asked the question, "What would we have had to do for Wagner to count us among his friends?" as part of a survey of some historical and philosophical influences on Wagner's world view and creative work. This talk was extracted from material on Wagner and philosophy which Terence is preparing for publication. Central to these ideas were "friendship" and "sympathy", and following Hobbes and David Hume, Wagner saw sympathy as a fundamental emotion, a genetically endowed mechanism which makes us moral. Would we have had enough "sympathy" to qualify in Wagner's eyes as a "purely human" being?

Terence introduced us to a friend of Nietzsche's, who also became a close friend of Wagner's and is mentioned in Cosima Wagner's Diaries, the Baroness Malwida von Meysenbug, a writer and idealist. The scion of a wealthy German family, she was a prolific writer and possessed through her sensitivity and feelings, the qualities of friendship and sympathy Wagner demanded of his friends. For Wagner, Art addressed the feelings, and could not be understood in a rational way. And so it was with his friends.

Annual General Meeting on Sunday 23 May

Our annual general meeting was held at the Goethe-Institut on Sunday 23 May. A signed copy of the final accounts is available on our website, audited by our pro bono auditors, WalterTurnbull. Once again, we are deeply indebted to the generosity of WalterTurnbull, its Executive Director Mr Mark Driessen, and Mr Christopher Ritchie, for their kindness and diligence in completing this audit on our behalf.

Following the Annual General Meeting, we enjoyed a recital organized by Emma Moore (soprano), with Anne Dowsley (mezzo-soprano), Simon Halligan (baritone), and Thomas Johnson (associate artist, piano). Normally, the AGM recital consists of students from the Conservatorium of Music who have already received German language scholarships from the Society for study at the Goethe-Institut, but this year two of the three recipients were unable to attend, and Emma kindly arranged a recital with fellow-students who will now all receive German language scholarships in recognition of their generosity and talent. These recitals are positive proof, if any were needed, of the value of encouraging talented young singers and artists in their chosen professions, and the value our small contributions make to these young people.

Future Functions

  • July Function

Our July function will be held on Sunday 1 August, when Stephen Whale will give a piano recital including works by Haydn, Schubert and Brahms. Since he last performed at a Society function in July 2009, Stephen has commenced studies for his Masters Degree at the Yale School of Music, and is now in the final year of that course.

  • September Function

On Sunday 19 September members of the Society who visit the Bayreuth festival in August will report back on the new production of Lohengrin, and comment on the continuing works at the festival. We also hope to confirm a speaker who will talk about the connection between Liszt and Wagner, in preparation for 2011, which is the bicentenary of Liszt's birth.

  • October Function - new production of Das Rheingold from the New York Met

A number of members have pointed out that our functions often clash with the high definition delayed broadcasts from the New York Metropolitan Opera, and in 2011 we will ensure that this doesn't happen (unless it's by design).

However on Sunday 24 October our function will be held at the Chauvel Cinema, Paddington, which will be showing a delayed broadcast of Rhein gold marking the start of the new Met Ring under James Levine, in an eagerly-awaited production by Robert LePage. You will need to buy your ticket to that performance early, through the theatre box-office, to avoid disappointment. The Society is negotiating with the management of the Chauvel, with a view to having an area set aside for an after-film function for Society members. If that is not possible, we will attempt to find another location nearby. If you have already bought a ticket for this performance at the Hayden Orpheum or Dendy Opera Quays, or for another date, please think carefully before you cancel that ticket and purchase another for the showing at the Chauvel, as it may be booked out at that time.

Please also note that, because our October function is being held at the Chauvel Cinema on Sunday 24 October, the previous advertised date of Sunday 17 October no longer applies.

  • November Function

Our final function of the year will be held on Sunday 21 November, and will be our Christmas Party.

Functions in 2011 - visit by Tony Palmer

The Wagner Society of New Zealand is hosting a national tour by Tony Palmer, film-maker and Wagner specialist, in March 2011. Following that tour, it's proposed that Mr Palmer and a colleague will visit the Australian Wagner Societies between 1 and 14 April. Mr Palmer will take this opportunity to publicise a new remastered version of his 9-hour plus epic film "Wagner", and a new documentary on the Wagner family. At this stage we're uncertain which dates he will be in Sydney, but our hope is that we can arrange for Mr Palmer to give talks on these and other films, and can also arrange for showings of these works.

Our Website -

If you go down to the Website today, you're sure of a big surprise!! It has been completely transformed, thanks to the hard work of our web-master John Studdert, and to a piece of software called Joomlah! (Why do the creators of software give them names which sound like bad movies starring Robin Williams?)

The transformation is just spectacular. Gone are the flaming torches, replaced by clear uncluttered vistas with white space. And even though you may type in the old website address, you will be taken to our new address - www. John has done a tremendous amount of work to change and update our website, although there is much work to do, including finalising a Member's Only area that will require members to log in with a password to see information, such as the full PDF of the Newsletter, and to comment on the Newsletter or other people's views on performances in a blog. However, we owe him a great debt of gratitude for the work he has done so far. Thank you, John, and well done!!

Bayreuth Scholarship is reborn

When Carolyn Watson, a young Australian conductor currently living in Europe, was awarded the 2009 Bayreuth Scholarship, we were all unaware that she would be the last recipient of that award in its current form. The Bayreuth Scholarship, administered by Opera Foundation Australia, has now been replaced in its 32nd year by a new award, the "Berlin New Music Opera Award."Â Opera Foundation Australia will continue to administer the "Berlin New Music Opera Award"Â, which like the Bayreuth Scholarship is sponsored by the German Government (D.A.A.D), The Savage Club and the Wagner Society.

The Award enables an Australian artist who is professionally engaged in some facet of opera such as a singer, conductor, director, designer or repetiteur, to further develop skills by undertaking study in any part of Germany. The focus of the newly named Award is on the new and revised productions of operas. We are delighted to be able to continue to support Australians involved in Opera by donating the cost of a return airfare to Europe (Icelandic ash clouds notwithstanding) to the winner of this award. Subject only to confirmation from the German authorities, Opera Foundation Australia hopes to present the inaugural winner with his or her prize at its function on Sunday 1 August at the Sydney Conservatorium.

Applying for tickets for Bayreuth 2011

The application form for sets of tickets for Bayreuth 2011 is at the back of this Newsletter. In the past, we've asked applicants to send us a cheque which we have held unpresented until after the ticket ballot, when we send payments from the successful applicants to the Bayreuth Festival Box Office.

This process will not apply this year. Instead, we are asking applicants to make sure that we have reliable contact details for them for November and December 2010, so that once we receive advice from Bayreuth we can contact them to confirm their application, and advise an approximate cost of tickets, based on the relative values of the Australian Dollar and Euro at that time. They can then deposit a cheque direct to the Society's bank account, or transfer the funds electronically.

We are also instituting a time limit for responses. If we contact you by email and telephone at the addresses you have provided and we do not receive a response within 48 hours, we will offer your tickets to the next members on the list of applicants and remove you from the process. This means that if you're going to be overseas, or walking across the Simpson Desert at that time, you need to give us the name of someone with whom we can deal in your absence.

This will ensure that successful applicants have certainty about their tickets, and that we are able to send the payment for our tickets to Bayreuth within their deadline.

Bayreuth celebration dinner and Dr Sherwin Sloan

For many years, Dr Sherwin Sloan, the president of the Wagner Society of Southern California, has organised an annual dinner during the Bayreuth Festival in honour of Wolfgang Wagner. These dinners have been held in the Festspielhaus Restaurant starting immediately after the performance of Rhein gold in the last cycle of Ring performances, and is generally well-attended by English-speaking visitors to the Festival, and by singers and other artists taking part in the productions. Dr Sloan is perhaps better known as the person who in retirement was a passionate follower of Ring Cycles, allegedly attending performances from some 90 different productions.

Sadly, Dr Sloan died in May this year, and the celebration dinner this August, in honour of Eva Pasquier-Wagner and Katharina Wagner, the joint directors of the festival, will undoubtedly take on the character of a tribute to both Wolfgang Wagner and Dr Sloan. Those Society members in Bayreuth this year who are able to attend the dinner will be taking part in a sad and historical occasion.

Lectures on 'Wagner in Dresden'

The University of Sydney's Centre for Continuing Education is offering a course entitled "Wagner in Dresden" starting on Thursday 4 November and finishing six lectures later on Thursday 9 December. Lecturer Robert Gay covers Wagner's time at the Saxon Court, from the triumph of Rienzi through the Dutchman and Tannhäuser to his disastrous involvement in the failed uprising of 1849 and his eventual escape to exile in Switzerland via Weimar and his musical compatriot and future father-in-law, Franz Liszt.

Robert Gay has a formidable musical and historical knowledge, and his lectures are delivered with great humour and authenticity. With the approach of the 2013 Bicentennial of both Wagner and Verdi, you can expect more than a trickle of lectures and courses on these composers, and Robert's "Wagner in Dresden"Â is likely to be an excellent way of getting your feet wet. You'll find more information and can enroll by contacting the Centre for Continuing Education on (Sydney) 9036 4789 or online at

Jessica Pratt

I was browsing through the (UK) Financial Times online (the consequence of boredom and an iPad) and found a review of a performance of Rossini's Armida at the Garsington Opera in Oxfordshire, UK. Headed "Fiendish demands: Jessica Pratt excels in the difficult title role"Â, reviewer Andrew Clark says "What sets the performance alight is Jessica Pratt's Armida. This young English (sic) soprano has a ringing top, good looks, stage temperament and enough vocal agility to make sense of Rossini's love-struck heroine."Â However, don't expect to get tickets to Garsington any time soon. Clark says that "shameless exclusivity is the key" and that Garsington echoes "the world of (Richard Strauss's) Capriccio, in which rich people devise a performance for their own amusement."

If you search YouTube for "Jessica Pratt", you'll find live footage of Jessica in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor in Genoa this year, and one excerpt from her performance of Armida at Garsington. Unfortunately, some of these clips appear to have been recorded on a mobile phone by someone standing at the back of the theatre. Despite these poor production values, the sound and vision give you some indication of how much better the performances must have been 'in the flesh'. The vision of Maestro Gelmetti and her supporters has been realised through Jessica's hard work and talent.

A personal note

I have been somewhat self-absorbed over the last few months in one of the phases we all go through eventually - down-sizing, de-cluttering, and moving house. In the process, four tonnes of accumulated detritus found their way into recycling or rubbish. At the same time I encountered numerous difficulties with relocating technology, and all these events have meant that a number of Society matters have been unduly delayed, including acknowledging and welcoming new members, providing receipts for donations, and writing this report. I apologise to Terence Watson, our Newsletter editor, and to any others of you who have been inconvenienced by this. I'd like to report that things are back to normal (well, almost, as is often the way with technology.)

Roger Cruickshank
22 July 2010


September 2010
Welcome to our third Newsletter for 2010.

Barbara McNulty

Members and friends of our Society would have been saddened by the news of Barbara McNulty's death on 31 July. My thanks to our editor, Dr Terence Watson, for compiling the fine tribute and obituary which appears in this Newsletter.

From a personal viewpoint, my fondest memories of Barbara came during the latter period of her presidency of the Society, when we dealt with the difficult consequences of fraud by a longstanding and trusted committee member. I have no doubt that our Society's survival at that time was due to Barbara's personal integrity. Although that matter should have ended when we were advised that criminal proceedings would not be initiated because of the age and poor health of the individual concerned, unhappily for our Society I believe that it also led to Barbara's early retirement from the presidency.

Even in the most difficult moments during this period, Barbara's eyes would suddenly flash and she would deliver a comment which would have us both in stitches. It's her keen wit and unexpected 'naughtiness', as well as her warmth and charm, which I'll cherish.

When Barbara asked me to join the committee, I was sure that it was because I was relatively young and able-bodied (by our members' standards), could still move the furniture when required, and even occasionally win a battle with technology. When I teased Barbara about this she confirmed that it had always been my body and not my brain which made me such a perfect candidate for the committee.

Once, when we sat together for a performance of L'elisir d'amour (the production with fake corrugated iron sheep on wheels), Barbara warned me that as she didn't often attend the opera with a male handbag, there could be comment on the platform. Sure enough, we were approached by several of her acquaintances who said 'And this must be your son!' After that I took to calling her 'Mother' and she would respond 'My son, my son' (because, apparently, there was enough of me to make two sons.) Barbara rarely left a performance early, no matter how vile, and we drained this insufferable Elixir to the last drop. (I would much rather have repaired to 'Aria' for solace and soufflé but stayed instead with Barbara.) I didn't believe her when she said that it was 'character-building'.

She bore adversity with humour. After the operation which removed a third toe, Barbara delighted in telling the story of one of her grandsons, who presented her with a copy of the Seven Times Table which he'd written out to help her in her reduced mathematical circumstances.

Trite to say, we chiefly know the people we know, through the events and circumstances we have shared with them. When those who gathered to mourn Barbara's passing shared their stories at the wake, there were tales of the Barbara I hadn't known, as well as the Barbara I had. We were all diminished by her passing.

Opera Australia to stage the Armfield Ring in Melbourne in 2013

Donner's hammer has swung and driven away the cloud of rumours surrounding Opera Australia's forthcoming Ring Cycle in Melbourne in Spring, 2013. To milk this metaphor even further, we must now wait three years to see what magic Neil Armfield's Froh can weave from these vapours.

There are numerous questions surrounding the planning and announcements for this event, not least being the unavailability of Simone Young for the project. It has been suggested that the change from the more gradual 'one opera a year' plan which co-sponsor Houston Grand Opera will follow, to the more exciting but fraught Adelaide-style 'big bang' approach, meant that Ms Young would not be available because she is already fully committed in 2013.

1998, 2004 and now 2013. It has been a long time between drinks.

Roger Cruickshank
7 September 2010


December 2010

Dear Members

Happy New Year, and welcome to our first Newsletter in 2011.

Functions in 2011

New Year is the one time when we can allow ourselves a few moments of romantic indulgence, as we gaze across the misty landscape of 2011 and beyond, like the unknown and over-dressed young man in Casper David Friedrich’s famous painting “Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer” (Wanderer above the Sea of Fog). Cynics will tell you that the poor man was blind, and that with his next step he plummets cane and all onto jagged rocks below, but not every story has a happy ending.

For our Society, I hope that 2011 will be an important year on our way to the milestone of 2013, when we will celebrate both the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth and the Armfield Ring in Melbourne.

Our first function for 2011 is on Sunday 20 February, when David Larkin will give a talk entitled “Cui bono? The Liszt-Wagner relationship reconsidered.” (In case your Latin is a little scratchy, Wikipedia tells us that cui bono means “to whose benefit?”, literally “as a benefit to whom?”.) In its own right, 2011 is the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth, an anniversary without which Wagner’s life could have ended very differently in 1849.

David Larkin teaches courses in musicology and music analysis at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, with the music and aesthetics of Richard Strauss, Wagner and Liszt his main research interests.

On Sunday 20 March, Dr Terence Watson will speak on “Rousseau and Wagner: musician-philosophers”, which forms a chapter of his forthcoming book on Wagner.

Tony Palmer was to have toured Wagner Societies in Australia and New Zealand from mid-March to mid-April this year, visiting Sydney from April 1 to 4. Unfortunately his tour has been postponed, and we will let you know when it is rescheduled. Mr Palmer recently released a special commemorative 25th anniversary edition of his epic film “Wagner” starring Richard Burton and Vanessa Redgrave, and in 2009 released a new documentary “The Wagner Family”. He was hoping to show these to audiences in Australia and New Zealand during his tour.

On Sunday 17 April Brendan Carmody, the inaugural winner of the “Berlin New Music Opera Award” will talk about his three months in Europe, including working with Barry Kosky at the Komische Oper Berlin.

Sunday 22 May is the 198th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner, and will be our Annual General Meeting, a recital by Rachel Bate, and a birthday celebration for RW.

Bayreuth 2011 – the 100th Bayreuth Festival

We have been fortunate to obtain 12 sets of tickets for the 2011 Bayreuth Festival. The performances and dates are:

Meistersinger - Wednesday 24 August 2011
Tannhäuser - Thursday 25 August
Lohengrin - Friday 26 August
Parsifal - Saturday 27 August
Tristan und Isolde - Sunday 28 August

As a number of the original applicants have withdrawn their applications, we have sets of 5 tickets available to members only. If you’re interested, please contact Roger Cruickshank on 0414 553 282.

News from abroad

In my letter to members in Newsletter 118, I reported that Jessica Pratt had received excellent reviews for her performances in the title role of Rossini’s opera Armida at the Garsington Opera in Oxfordshire, UK. Jessica has now debuted at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in the role of the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, under the baton of Sir Colin Davis. Although the season began on 1 February, I haven’t yet found a review of Jessica’s performance in a major paper, but I’ll let you know when I do.

In 2010, Miriam Gordon-Stuart debuted in Bayreuth in the role of Helmwige. In October last year, one of our most peripatetic members Elizabeth Gordon-Werner, saw Miriam sing the role of Ellen Orford in Britten’s opera Peter Grimes in Bremerhaven, one and a half hours by train from Elizabeth’s home in Hamburg. Elizabeth reports that “Miriam was wonderful – a great actress as well as having a lovely voice.” Miriam is also the current odds- on favourite for the role of Sieglinde in the Armifield Ring in Melbourne in 2013. If this rumour is now official, I’ve missed the confirmation.

James Roser, a young baritone whom the Society helped in 2009 with tuition in Europe, has been living in Berlin, working regularly with staff at opera houses and with a number of pianists and singers on some of the major song cycles in the Lieder repertoire. James will be in Germany for the remainder of the year, and will give the Society a talk and recital when he returns to Australia in 2012.

And one last report from Elizabeth Gordon-Werner, this time on reaction to Simone Young’s recent season of Götterdämmerung in Hamburg, the last step in assembling her Ring Cycle, which so many members will be attending later this year. Elizabeth saw the premier of the season on 17 December 2010, and was stunned that the orchestra, conductor and producer were all booed. She reported that “The Hamburg Abendblatt’s assessment of Götterdämmerung was cutting. The header read “Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung”: Apocalypse without Wow” and finished with the sentence “Jetzt beginnt, schneller als gedacht, die Göttinnendämmerung in der Staatsoper Hamburg.” (Now begins, faster than we imagined, the Twilight of the Goddess at the Hamburg Opera.)” As Elizabeth commented, “How difficult it is to stay on a pedestal.”

Stephen Fry’s documentary “Wagner and Me”

The Orpheum theatre in Cremorne (Sydney) will be showing a documentary film made by Stephen Fry entitled “Wagner and Me” in limited release from 3 March. Fans of Stephen Fry will need no encouragement to see this film, which builds on some of the themes first developed in Mr Fry’s appearance on the English television show “Who do you think you are?”

The film was originally screened in August last year on BBC4, and since then has become something of a cult classic, like its maker. It has its own serious website - - and YouTube is awash with spoofs of the programme, some of which are remarkably inventive.

Quite what Mr Fry’s legions of admirers will make of all this Wagnerism, I’m not sure. Nor can I begin to guess how Herr Wagner’s own legions will react to Mr Fry’s unique perspective as he attempts (as the movie trailer says) to “save the music he loves from its dark and troubled history”.


Last September, I had the pleasure of attending a Ring Cycle in Lubeck, around 60km north-east of Hamburg. The old city of Lubeck is on an island in the Trave River, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has a population of some 215,000, and is the largest German port on the Baltic Sea. So much for the tourist brochures.

In the clichéd tradition of small places which do things well despite being overshadowed by a more famous neighbour, Lubeck is said to “punch above its weight” in many areas, including opera performances. It may not have the financial and artistic resources of Hamburg’s eagerly awaited Ring Cycle under the baton of Simone Young, but Lubeck’s Cycle was no less an extraordinary artistic and musical achievement.

I’d like to share with you some random and personal recollections, views and details of the Cycle and other things, many more of which may find their way into a coherent review on our website in due course.

Tickets to the whole cycle ranged from 72 to 172 Euro (at that time, A$120 to $290). Naturally, my friends and I splashed out on the premium tickets, but worried until the tickets arrived that they were so cheap that we might only be going to Rheingold. The argument you hear about this kind of pricing is that it’s only possibly because opera is heavily subsidised by the German government. Since poor American mortgage lending practices triggered a global financial crisis, this is no longer true, if it ever was, as the number of opera companies closing down across Germany shows. And a country which spends A$46 million to buy one vote for a game of soccer is hardly on high moral ground when denouncing subsidies.

The opera house itself is small, until the curtain goes up. In the stalls, where we sat, there are only 15 rows of seats. All up, counting the balconies and 3 tiers of circle, the capacity of the Grosses Haus Lubeck is 780. Not all seats were filled – I had never seen empty seats at a Ring Cycle before – and some seats were taken by musical instruments, with the harps occupying the balconies, and with video cameras, which recorded every performance.

Nothing of this small-scale, cosy atmosphere prepared me for the shock of seeing the stage area when the curtain went up. Size, as Lady Bracknell might have opined, really is everything when it comes to stage area. It was huge, vast, immense and cavernous, but I cannot say how many Olympic-size swimming pools (our national unit of volume measurement) it would have contained. As an indication, during Rheingold there were a number of containers on the stage, and many more floating in the vast space above it. (In the early stages above the Rhine, it really was a construction site.) These are adapted to work as offices and sheds on the site, and chillingly, the Giants take Freia into one overnight while Wotan and Loge go down to rob Alberich of his gold. There is no doubt in this production that the Giants rape Freia, although the inference is subtly drawn.

Not so subtle is the scene at the end of Götterdämmerung, when Hagan’s thugs (alas, we Vassals aren’t a nice lot in this production) rape Gutrune offstage, and to ensure that none of us has missed the point, she returns with blood smeared generously over her thighs. She needs to have a little motivation, it seems, to kill Hagan at the end of the show, saving the Rheinmaidens the bother of dragging him down into their watery depths. As Hagan had speared her own beloved husband in the back, so Gutrune thrusts a spear (which Brünnhilde has conveniently dragged around all night) into Hagan’s side, proving perhaps that what goes around, comes around. Or that opera producers who laboriously stage a Ring Cycle one work a year over 4 years have by the end run out of ideas and out of interest. Perhaps they have a Lulu to stage?

The outstanding singer of the cycle was the glorious Brünnhilde of the young American soprano Rebecca Teem. She too has her own website ( where you can hear her immolate with a few screeches to a rather lacklustre piano accompaniment. This is a pale imitation of the wonder we saw and heard in the flesh in Lubeck, but it gives a glimpse of what I hope the full DVD version will show abundantly – a wonderful actress, and a glorious voice. Nothing about her physical appearance prepared me for the vocal power and intelligence she mustered in that role. Remember the name – Rebecca Teem!!

At the start of Act 1 of Götterdämmerung, Rebecca and Siegfried and their family of 10 or 12 kinder of a certain cutesy age are enjoying domestic bliss as Siegfried prepares for his journey. Perhaps daddy is going to catch the morning train? Another child arrives, 8 or 10 years old, and with his slicked-down black hair, toothbrush moustache and lederhosen, we know we’re not in Kansas any more. So do the other children, who quickly line up in terrified serried ranks until Rebecca shoos the Child Adolf away. (During the interval, I asked someone who had driven up from Munich for the performance whether German opera viewers were tired of having the Nazi era rammed down their throats when opera producers ran out of ideas, and he replied politely that it was meant to be “ironic”.) Child Adolf makes one more head-banging appearance, when Rebecca was at her weakest moment after Waltraute’s home visit, wearing a Wolf’s Head over his own and tormenting her. Such subtlety.

When Siegfried in the guise of Gunther comes to take Rebecca by force to the Gibich, Hagan’s thugs murder the whole screaming bunch of kinder surprises, and not a moment too soon. I’m making a list of other operas where Hagan’s Boys could rid us of cutesy children’s choruses, and Carmen and La bohème are up there at the top.

The production was suitably modern regietheatre. Rheingold was brimming full of interesting images and ideas, and after that it went downhill. (Will M. LePage’s Great Big Machine for the NY Met go the same way, I wonder?) The character of Loge was particularly well drawn, and as with the other actors the actions matched each word and each musical cue. Unhappily, the actor who sang Loge was short, fat and ugly, with curly hair and particularly distinctive glasses, which still doesn’t explain why I was regularly approached during intervals by people who assumed that I had sung Loge. It’s not flattering at my age to be mistaken for a tenor!!

After Rheingold, the ideas began to fail. By Siegfried, the whole conceit was in the stage machinery. A giant revolve, like one of those circular Vache cheeses with segments in foil, was our stage, and when it was spinning happily along our hero could jog through each of the separate revolving sets when the ideas dried up. One was a rather well equipped bar, where Mime mixed drinks. Another of the dried up ideas was the decayed body of Sieglinde, seated in an arm-chair and wrapped in a blanket, past which her son jogged happily as she revolved across our stage. The Woodbird was a rather voluptuous nurse and spectacularly gifted soprano, under Wotan’s control, who carried a giant hypodermic needle and injected people with gallons of a substance which turned them into the Living Dead of many a B-grade movie, Nosferatu among them. Did it mean anything? Did I care? Alberich suffered this fate and hadn’t found the antidote when he came to pester Hagan during his Watch in Götterdämmerung.

In Rheingold, while Erda was warning Wotan to give up the Ring (and Wotan was wondering how many children she could bear him), three wonderfully clad slender women in the style of Hindu goddesses draped in spectacular costumes glided majestically across the stage. These were the Norns in happy times. By Götterdämmerung, they have become the most degenerate bar girls, entertaining Hagan’s thugs in one of his local establishments. Or were those the Rheindaughters? Actually, it didn’t matter.

Melbourne Ring Cycle – 2013

I would like to thank Ms Maureen Wheeler, a major donor to the Melbourne Ring Cycle in 2013, for agreeing to give our Members an insight into her introduction to Wagner’s music and how that led to her to joining the ranks of tragic “cyclists” scouring the globe for another “fix” of the potent brew that Wagner concocted in The Ring Cycle. We are privileged that Ms Wheeler has taken the time to write the article for our Newsletter (see below). Many of our Members have shared Ms Wheeler’s “road- to-Damascus conversion,” and will find as well as finding much to think about in her assessments of the various Cycles she has attended over the last few years.

And there, gentle reader, my reminiscences must end. Ring Cycles are a magic elixir for Wagnerians, and this one for all its faults was pure ambrosia. It was an overwhelming undertaking brilliantly executed, and a deeply satisfying and difficult experience. I hope that Neil Armfield’s 2013 Ring will be that for all of us, and more.

Roger Cruickshank, 7 February 2011