President's Reports 2013

March / June / September / December 2013

March 2013

Welcome to our first newsletter for 2013.

This is to be a very big year for Wagner lovers the world over. On 22 May 1813, in Leipzig, Johanna Wagner gave birth to her ninth child, a boy initially baptised as Wilhelm Richard. Who was to know that this boy was to become one of the great musical geniuses of all time, and that by the time he died nearly 70 years later, he would have changed the face of opera in particular, and music in general?

It is barely possible to count the number of Wagner festivals and/or Ring Cycles to be performed at various places in the world this year. It would certainly not be possible to attend all of them, no matter how dedicated a Wagnerian one was. And we in Australia are doing our bit, with the three Melbourne Ring Cycles at the end of the year, and the concert performance of The Flying Dutchman in Sydney in July.

As most of you will know, the Society conducted a Ring workshop on 9 and 10 February at the conference centre attached to the Willoughby Uniting Church. 180 people attended, most of them being members of the Society. It turned out to be an excellent venue, with plenty of space for the participants, both in the lecture room itself and in the adjoining foyers where we repaired during the breaks. The full title of the workshop was: "Forging Meaning out of Music: Heritage, Complexity and Vision of the Ring." It was presented by Dr Antony Ernst and introduced by Lyndon Terracini Artistic Director of Opera Australia. To describe it as a spectacular success would be an understatement. Antony was on his feet - literally - for well over ten hours over the two days. He provided amazing insights into the Ring Cycle and its background, which were entirely new to many of us, but which, the moment he pointed them out , seemed so obvious. Similarly, he made connections within the various Ring operas of which many of us had never thought. Moreover, he did all of this without recourse to any notes. The whole workshop was delivered on an apparently completely impromptu basis. His delivery was always clear, and was laced with some wonderful anecdotes and a great deal of humour. At the end he received a lengthy standing ovation - something I had never previously seen at a seminar or workshop of this nature. Our only regret is that it was not recorded. And given that Antony spoke without recourse to notes, there is now no complete record of the event. I took a number of notes, and my summary of Antony's presentation is set out later in this newsletter.

Having started on such a high note, we have a great deal to live up to during the course of this year. I am confident that we will maintain the extremely high standard that has now been set. A full list of our forthcoming events and concerts is set out later in this newsletter. As you can see, a major centrepiece will be our birthday dinner on the evening of 22nd May. It would be very helpful if we could get an idea as to the number of people who would like to attend this dinner. If you would like to come, I would be most grateful if you would email the Society through the website email address, indicating your interest, and saying how many people will probably be attending with you.

At our next meeting, on 10 March, Louis Garrick and Jack Symonds of Sydney Chamber Opera will be telling us about their forthcoming opera "Climbing towards Midnight", based on the relationship between Parsifal and Kundry. The Society has been offered 20 free seats for the first night of the opera on 15 April, and we are proposing to allocate them to members who attend the next meeting and win them in a "draw". So if you are interested in going to the opera (which I think sounds fascinating), I strongly suggest you come to the meeting on 10 March.

I do not like to end this letter on a downward note, but I am afraid that the news from Bayreuth is not good. It now turns out that the German government, which is the major sponsor of the festival, has insisted that ticket allocations to Wagner Societies should cease. Why it has taken the authorities so long to pass on this news, and why we were originally given grounds for optimism, remains a mystery. But unless something unexpected happens in the future, it would seem that we will no longer be receiving tickets from the Bayreuth box office. The Friends of Bayreuth have allocated us two tickets to all seven operas this year, and there is every reason to expect that this pattern will continue indefinitely.

I wish you all a very happy, healthy and contented Wagner bicentenary.

Jane Mathews
The Hon Jane Mathews AO President Wagner Society in New South Wales


June 2013
Welcome to the second Wagner Quarterly for 2013 (Quarterly No 2 (129) This, of course, is the biggest Wagner year in recent times, being the bicentenary of the Master's birth. It is being celebrated the world over. Indeed, I am currently in Milan for the Barenboim/Cassiers Ring, and the place seems to be full of members of the NSW Wagner Society.

Our own Sydney celebrations went extremely well. On the early evening of 22 May many of us converged on the Sydney Conservatorium of Music for the opening of the wagnerlicht Exhibition, a spectacular series of installations which will later be travelling to Europe. [Details of the exhibition are set out later in this newsletter]. Then we wandered down Macquarie Street to the Royal Automobile Club where ninety of us enjoyed a delicious dinner. We were entertained by the soprano Emily Edmonds, with Bradley Gilchrist as accompanist, who sang songs by Schubert, Berg, and - of course - Wagner [see below for details]. Then her Excellency the Governor, who was our guest of honour, cut the birthday cake and we all sang happy birthday to Richard. I have no doubt that the Master would have been delighted at the celebrations of his birthday in a country so far from the Germany of his birth. 

Four days later, on 26th May, we held our Annual General Meeting at the Goethe Institute. The President's report was received, as were the Society's financial statements. These show the Society to be in a very healthy state at the moment. There were a few changes to the office bearers and committee members, as set out later in this newsletter. Both Roger Cruickshank and Terence Watson had decided not to stand for re-election. Both, however, have agreed to continue their important work for the Society: Roger in the capacity of consultant, and Terence as editor of the Wagner Quarterly. Roger was President of the Society for many years, and he has much of our history in his very wise head. Terence was Vice-President, and has been Editor of the Society's newsletter for a long time now. We owe both of them an enormous debt of gratitude.

The one matter of significant discussion at the meeting related to the new logo. Some members expressed disappointment that we were no longer using the original swan logo, which was devised with great ingenuity many years ago. It was agreed that we would include a history of the original logo in our newsletter. [This will be included in the next Quarterly.] Since then the committee members have been discussing this matter, and have decided upon the following compromise. From now on we will include a regular column in each newsletter, headed by the swan logo, which will be devoted to the history of the Society, and which will either include a segment from much earlier newsletters (e.g. from the 80s) or will include reflections from the past contributed by our long term members. We very much hope that this idea finds favour amongst you, the Society members. We welcome any comments or suggestions you might have.

A final matter which bears mention relates to the annual meeting of the Wagner Verband (the International association of Wagner Societies) which took place in Leipzig on 20th May. The NSW Society was represented at the meeting by our Treasurer, Dennis Mather. One of the problems relating to the Verband is that it has always been rather German-centred. Under its Constitution, a member society could only vote through having its own delegate present at the meeting and casting a vote. There was no provision for proxy votes. This particularly discriminated against the more distant societies, which had great difficulty in sending delegates to Verband meetings. This in turn goes a long way to explaining the German-centric nature of the Association. Indeed a number of Wagner Societies had announced their intention of leaving the Verband. The good news is that Dennis, with the assistance of a few of the other delegates who were present at the May meeting, and ultimately with the support of the President of the Verband, had the Constitution amended so that in the future proxy votes will be permitted at Verband meetings. This will give the more distant societies a much greater voice in the affairs of the Association.

I hope that our members are enjoying the various events that we are mounting for this highly significant year.

Jane Mathews
The Hon Jane Mathews AO
President Wagner Society in New South Wales


September 2013
Welcome to the third Wagner Quarterly for 2013.

I have to confess that I have missed some of our Society's more recent events, as I have taken my Wagner enthusiasm overseas. I am really sorry not to have attended these events, as on all accounts they have been outstandingly successful. Some fifty people, including her Excellency the Governor, attended the Dutchman seminar. This is described later in this Quarterly, as are the Lisa Gasteen meeting, the "Swords and Winterstorms" concert, and the more recent Neil Armfield talk, which I believe was fascinating.

In June this year, I was fortunate enough to attend Ring Cycles in Riga, Milan and Longborough. And in August I went to the third and last cycle of the new Ring production in Bayreuth. Unfortunately, because of the decisions relating to ticket allocations, there were many fewer Sydneysiders in Bayreuth than in previous years. But a small ray of hope on this issue remains. In November the matter will again be discussed at a meeting of the Administrative Board, and it is possible that there might be a different outcome. We can only hope!

Given that most of my recent Wagner experiences have been outside the country, I shall describe them briefly here. I do not include the Milan Ring Cycle, which is discussed elsewhere in this newsletter.

The Riga Opera House is a jewel of a 19th century opera house at one end of a park which divides the mediaeval section of the city from the modern city. The standard of opera there is extraordinarily high. The Rheingold was directed by Stephan Herheim (of recent Bayreuth Parsifal fame), and was full of metaphors. For example, Wotan was Wagner, and Valhalla was the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The giants wore masks which depicted Marx and Engels. Alberich in Scene 3 was Hitler, and the Nibelungen were his soldiers. In general, the metaphors worked well, and it was a very engaging production. The orchestra was conducted throughout the cycle by 32-year old Cornelius Meister. The following three operas were directed by Viesturs Kairišs, and lacked continuity and, sometimes, cohesion. The orchestra was consistently good, as were most of the singers, almost none of whom I had previously heard of. Deserving of special mention are Marcus Jupither as Alberich and Gunther, and Katrina Gerstenberger as Brunnhilde in Walkure and Gotterdammerung. Roger Cruickshank’s review of the cycle is included in this edition.

Most people have never heard of Longborough in the UK. Nor had I until I read Terry Clarke’s rave review of last year’s Gotterdammerung in our Newsletter. It was this which encouraged me to apply for tickets for this year’s performance of the entire cycle, and I am so glad that I did. Terry and Julie’s description of the event is contained elsewhere in this newsletter, so I will not repeat it here, except to say that it was a wonderful experience in every way. In particular, I must endorse what Terry and Julie said about Rachel Clarke’s Brunnhilde. She was extraordinary. I think that we will be hearing a lot more about this young soprano.

The Ring in Bayreuth had very mixed responses from the audience. Musically it was generally extremely good. The orchestra, under the baton of Kirill Petrenko, was of a uniformly high standard, only exceeded by the same orchestra under the baton of Christian Thielemann in The flying Dutchman. Wotan was Wolfgang Koch, known to many of us as Alberich in the 2011 Hamburg Ring Cycle. He was good, but not as outstanding as I had expected after the Hamburg experience. Lance Ryan was Siegfried, and made it easily through to the end of the opera Siegfried, only to be booed when he made his curtain call – something which amazed me. His voice was flinty, but he did not deserve this! Catherine Foster was generally a very good Brunnhilde, although her lower registers almost disappeared in the earlier operas. She came into her own at the end of Gotterdammerung, when her voice rang out beautifully. It was just as well, because virtually nothing else was happening on stage at this time, when – according to the text – the existing world order was meant to be coming to a dramatic end. This takes me to the Frank Castorf production, which was by far the most controversial part of this Ring Cycle. This is not the place for an analysis of this extraordinary production. It was based on the proposition that oil is the modern form of gold, and is thus desired by all people in search of power. This makes some degree of sense, but in much of the cycle it was very difficult to discern any connection at all with oil. Nor, sometimes, with the original text. Nevertheless, I enjoyed much of the cycle, obviously a great deal more than most of the audience. The end of each opera was met with resounding boos from throughout the auditorium.

In addition to the Ring Cycle at Bayreuth, there were performances of The flying Dutchman, Tannhauser and Lohengrin. Now is not the time to describe them, except to say that – for the first time ever, to my knowledge – two of these operas were interposed between the major Ring operas. This meant that the total experience was almost too concentrated: instead of seven operas spread over nine evenings, we had seven operas in seven evenings. It also meant that the Ring journey was broken up, which I thought was a very great pity.

Back to matters directly relating to our Society. During the first six months of this year we received donations from 37 people, totalling $4,545.00. I would like to express our deep thanks to all of them. During the same time we have committed ourselves to scholarships or sponsorships to the tune of $22,700 (in addition to the $41,000 paid to Opera Australia, which was subsidised by individual donations from members). This might sound as if we have exceeded our financial allotments, but in fact the Society is in a very healthy financial position, as the overall figures show. It is opportune to add here that the Wagner Society has, for the first time, awarded a prize to Rachel Bates in the 2013 Sydney Eisteddfod for a singer of Wagner works as part of the Society’s fostering of local singers and Wagner performance. Our congratulations to Rachel, who has promised to perform for the Society in the future. The Society looks forward to being able to award a similar prize for Wagner singing in future Eisteddfods.

Jane Mathews
The Hon Jane Mathews AO
President Wagner Society in New South Wales


December 2013
Welcome to the fourth Wagner Quarterly for 2013.

This has been an amazing year for Wagner lovers. This, of course, is hardly a surprise: by definition, bicentenary celebrations happen only once, and we are extremely fortunate to have been able to enjoy this one. There have been Ring performances all over the world, to a degree that I suspect has never been seen before, and probably will not be seen again for a very long time...perhaps not for another hundred years!

The one extremely sad note during the course of the Melbourne Ring Cycle festivities has been the death of Elke Neidhardt. Elke became an icon to Wagner lovers after the unveiling of her amazing production of the Adelaide Ring in 2004. There were aspects of her production–the "Wunderbar" amongst them–which will always be remembered as creating the benchmark for certain scenes from the Ring. It is a tragedy that her production will never be seen again.

Since our last Quarterly, the Society has held only one event: On 6 October Susan Bullock and her husband Richard Berkeley-Steele gave a highly illuminating and entertaining talk on "Singing Wagner." As most of you know, Susan Bullock is Brunnhilde in the Melbourne Ring, and Richard is Loge in Rheingold. It is a great pity that they never get to be on the stage at the same time, or even in the same opera. But at least each of them gets the opportunity to be in the audience and to watch the other.

This is going to be a shorter letter than usual, given that I am currently in Melbourne, midway through the Opera Australia Ring Cycle. It seems to me that Sydney must be virtually deprived of Wagner lovers, because everywhere I turn in this city–particularly at the opera–there is a familiar face from home. It is a very great pity that the opera hall at the Opera House could never host a performance such as this. Apart from everything else, it would be impossible to fit more than half of a normal Ring orchestra into our pit.

This is not the place to enter into a detailed critique of the Melbourne Ring, but I can say that in general it has been a great success. From a musical point of view–which is by far the most important–it has been excellent. The orchestra, in particular, has been extraordinarily good, particularly given the fact that it was a "scratch" orchestra, which had never previously played together. Moreover, for most of its members this was their first Ring Cycle. In this regard, all credit goes to the young Finnish conductor, Pietari Inkinen, who came in at relatively short notice and has attracted universal praise and acclaim for every aspect of his management of this monumental task. The singing is generally of a very high order indeed. Amongst other stars, Stuart Skelton has been a memorable Siegmund; and Deborah Humble, who was sponsored by our society, has excelled as Erda and Waltraute. Terje Stensvold has been a very moving Wotan and Wanderer, and Stefan Vinke an amazing and athletic Siegfried. The production has, as is almost invariably the case, had its detractors. But it thoroughly achieves what Neil Armfield, the director, set out to do....namely, it tells the story very clearly, as well as depicting the shifting relationships between the various parties. This, in my view, is extremely important. With a number of current productions of the Ring, particularly in Europe, it would be virtually impossible to discern what it was all about if you were not already thoroughly familiar with the work.

Finally I would like to give our heartfelt thanks to the printers of our Newsletter and Quarterlies, B.E.E.Printmail, for adapting to the new style, and for printing and distributing the Quarterly in an incredibly efficient and speedy manner and for their generous help in presenting you with a full colour wrap-around to commemorate Elke Neidhardt and celebrate the Melbourne Ring Cycle.

Jane Mathews
The Hon Jane Mathews AO
President Wagner Society in New South Wales