President's Reports 2015

April / June / September / December 2015

April 2015
Welcome to the first Quarterly for 2015.

We have already had two major events this year. Both of them suffered in different ways from technical difficulties at the Goethe Institute. The first was a wonderful presentation by Dr Rosamund Bartlett on Sunday 15 February on “Russia and Wagner 1841-1941: A century of Reaction and Revolution.” This riveting exposition of Wagner’s influence in Russia–a subject which is not often touched upon–with musical and visual illustrations, was sadly interrupted when the loudspeaker suddenly ceased working, forcing a considerably abbreviated conclusion to Dr Bartlett’s presentation. We later discovered that she had accidentally knocked the microphone, causing a short circuit. If the same thing happens again we will know to briefly turn off the power, and the system should then rectify itself. It was a great pity, but at least we saw the major part of her exposition. A number of members afterwards suggested that we should ask her to return and enlarge upon andcomplete her presentation. It is too late to do so for this year, but we willcertainly take it on board, as she is a most compelling speaker. 

The next event was on the evening of Tuesday 10 March, when Professor Heath Lees came to talk to us about how Wagner has been depicted in film over the last 100 years. It goes without saying that, as “film” was the centrepiece of this presentation, it was a matter of considerable concern when the projector at the Goethe Institute did not seem to work. After some phone calls Michael Abicht, who works at the Goethe, arrived, but even he was unable to get the main projector to work. Eventually, about three quarters of an hour after the presentation had been due to start, Michael managed to get an alternative projector working, so we all moved our seats in the opposite direction and saw about two-thirds of Heath’s wonderful presentation, about how Wagner has been depicted in film–both films about the man and his life, as well as films of his music and dramas. We were extremely fortunate that it was the incredibly talented Heath Lees who was our presenter that evening, because for the first half of his presentation, while they were working on the projector, Heath sat himself at the piano and played–without music or preparation–a number of transcriptions of Wagner music, and explained the circumstances in which they had come to be transcribed or played for the first time. It ended up being a wonderful and instructive evening.

The other exciting Wagner event this year was Victorian Opera’s “Flying Dutchman”, presented in conjunction with the Australian Youth Orchestra, at the Palais Theatre in St Kilda, on 14, 17 and 19 February. It was a spectacular success. The orchestra, under the baton of Richard Mills, played superbly, and there was not a weak link amongst the cast. Oskar Hillebrandt was the Dutchman, Lori Phillips was Senta, and Warwick Fyfe was Daland. The settings were interesting, as was the production. We were all given 3D glasses when we went in. I was sitting in the circle, quite a long way back, and the glasses made very little difference. I was incredibly impressed by the Palais Theatre. It has not been used for decades, and they have apparently spent huge amounts of money to prepare it for these performances. It will need considerably more to bring it back to its previous glory, but it was still very beautiful. It has wonderful acoustics, and apparently it can take 3,200 people – almost double the capacity of our Opera Hall.

We have many more exciting events scheduled for this year. There are a couple of matters I should alert you to. First, the AGM this year will be held earlier than usual, on 19 April. Secondly, as you probably already know, the Sydney Symphony will be mounting a concert performance of Tristan and Isolde on 20 and 22 June. On the intermediate day, Sunday 2 June, we will be having a social “meet and greet” afternoon at the Goethe, with members of other Wagner Societies. I am very much hoping that the conductor, David Robertson, will be able to join us, and I understand that quite a number of members of the New Zealand Society will also be there. So it will afford a great opportunity to meet Wagner lovers from numerous other places.

For those of our members planning to travel overseas in the next few years for Wagner performances, Camron Dyer has again updated his Raven’s Report that is well recognised in Australia and around the world as a “go-to” listing of productions of Wagner’s works. On behalf of our members, I would like to thank Camron for this creating this invaluable resource.

I would also like to again thank our members who contribute articles to this Quarterly, as it is an important way for everyone to learn about productions, books, films etc that members have seen or read and to promote knowledge about Wagner and promote his works.

I look forward to seeing many of you at our exciting events during this year.

Jane Mathews


June 2015
Welcome to the second Quarterly for 2015.

As many of you will know, we held our Annual General Meeting early this year. This was because a number of the committee members (including myself) were to be overseas in late May, when the AGM is usually held in order to coincide with Wagner's birthday. The AGM ran very smoothly, and I was honoured again to be nominated as president. The one significant change on the Committee was the resignation of Peter Murray, and the appointment of Margaret Whealy. I would like to record my great thanks to Peter, who contributed a great deal to the Society in his several years on the Committee.

I am writing this letter in Vienna, where I am about to embark on my second Ring Cycle for this trip. Earlier this month I was in Dessau, in the old East Germany, for the annual Congress of the International Association of Wagner Societies (called the "Verband"), which coincided with a Ring Cycle there.

I mentioned the Verband in an earlier letter. Over recent years it has become an extremely German-centric organisation, and there appeared to be little benefit to overseas Wagner Societies from belonging to it. Indeed, most of the American Societies have ceased their membership. We, the NSW Society, did too, for a while, but we resumed our membership this year because it appeared that the organisation might be broadening its approach and providing some benefits to distant societies. However it became obvious in recent months that there were severe rifts within the governing board ("the Praesidium") of the Verband, with vitriolic emails being sent from both sides. Fortunately, at the Dessau Congress these issues appear to have been resolved, and the Verband now has a new President and Secretary. The President, Horst Eggers, is based at Bayreuth and enjoys extremely good relations with the Festival management. It now appears likely that Wagner Societies which belong to the Verband will again start to receive ticket allocations to the Bayreuth Festival.

The Ring in Dessau was an overall great success. I had never heard of any of the singers, or of the conductor, Antony Hermus. But without exception they all performed to an extremely high standard. In particular, Ulf Paulsen as Wotan and Lordanka Derilova as Brünnhilde were extraordinarily good. Paulsen also returned in Gotterdammerung as a superb Gunther. The orchestral sound was wonderful. As to the production, it was difficult in Rheingold to perceive any particular theme. All performers in that opera (including the Nibelungen, who were young children) were dressed entirely in white. The only piece of colour was a red handkerchief in Loge's jacket pocket. In Der Walküre the picture started to emerge of a film background, with Wotan as the director, manipulating the actors. Things started to go seriously amiss at the end of Act II when Brünnhilde refused to follow the director's line. Nevertheless, the Walküre scene at the beginning of Act III was huge fun, with the girls helping themselves to drinks at a bright coloured bar - rather reminiscent of the "Wunderbar" in Elke Neidhardt's Adelaide Ring. At the very end of the opera they appeared to abandon the film line, and reverted to genuine acting, with an extremely moving farewell scene between Wotan and Brünnhilde. In Siegfried the film theme moved towards on-line virtual reality, but it still remained true to the story. Siegfried was played by Jürgen Müller, who not only had a lovely voice, but also looked the part - young and handsome. The final scenes between him and Brünnhilde were wonderful.

A few days later I had a completely different Wagner experience when I went to Das Liebesverbot at the Leipzig opera. This was the first time I had ever seen this rarely performed opera, written when Wagner was only 21. As with all his works, he also wrote the libretto. It was essentially a comic opera, and was similar in style to the Italian operas of the day, upon which Wagner later turned his back. Musically it was exceptionally good, particularly given the age of the composer at the time. Also this was a wonderful production, which brought out the burlesque in the work. Those of us who saw it all agreed that had it been written by, say, Donizetti, it would have long been part of the established opera repertoire.

Finally I would like to remind our members of the several important causes which we, as a Society, have been supporting....providing opportunities for talented young musicians to advance their careers in the German (and specifically Wagner-related) operatic fields. We can only continue this work with the support of you, our members. So I urge you, as the financial year is coming to an end, to seriously consider making a tax-free donation in order to ensure that your Society can continue this good work.

Jane Mathews


September 2015
Welcome to the third Quarterly for 2015.

This letter will be shorter than usual. I am currently in London, on my way to Bayreuth, the Wagner shrine, for the annual festival. There I hope to meet up with a number of our members, a few of whom obtained their tickets through the Society.

We are very much hoping that, before too long, considerably more of our members will be able to obtain Bayreuth tickets this way. A couple of meetings I will be having during this trip might well throw further light on this matter. Many of you attended one (or both) of the Sydney Symphony concert performances of Tristan and Isolde on 20th and 22nd June. It was generally agreed that these were highly successful, although many people thought that the film projections were an unnecessary distraction. One thing was certain, namely that the orchestra, under the baton of the dynamic David Robertson, played beautifully. And in my opinion, the orchestra is by far the most important component in any Wagner opera. No matter how great the production and/or the singers might be, if the orchestra is not up to par then it almost inevitably becomes a failed performance.

Many of our members attended the afternoon tea function which we hosted at the Goethe Institute on the Sunday between the two Tristan performances. The occasion provided an unusual opportunity for Wagner lovers from around the country, as well as New Zealand, to mingle socially. It was a resounding success. Indeed, we have since received very enthusiastic expressions of thanks from both the Victorian and the Queensland Wagner Societies.

It was particularly fascinating to hear David Robertson speak about the experience of conducting Tristan. He was extremely generous with his time, and answered a number of questions from the floor. One interesting aspect of his talk related to the positioning of the singers behind the orchestra during the performances. A number of audience members commented, after each performance, that the singers should have been at the front of the stage. I thought exactly the same after the first performance, until I heard the maestro's explanation, which is simply this. If the singers are at the front of the stage, then the orchestral players cannot properly hear them, and are entirely dependent upon the conductor as to the volume at which they play. Accordingly, there is a significant danger of the orchestra drowning out the singers. However if the singers are behind the orchestra, then the players can hear when they are singing softly, and can reduce their volume accordingly. This makes a great deal of sense, and many people - including me -changed our attitudes after hearing it.

At our next event, only three weeks later, Sir David McVicar came and answered questions which had been devised by our vice-president, Colleen Chesterman. He also answered numerous questions from the floor. It was another fascinating afternoon. Sir David, of course, was the director of the current Glyndebourne Mastersingers, which has had rave reviews. He travels the world to direct opera, but - most interestingly - he refuses to go to Germany. This is because of the overwhelming fad in current German opera to have productions which are way out simply for the sake of being way out. As a result, what is happening on stage often has little to do with the words or the music. This is certainly the case with the current Ring production in Bayreuth. Nevertheless, the orchestra and singers in Bayreuth are still superlative, which is why I am making my pilgrimage there yet again. I shall report back in the next Quarterly.

I cannot, though finish this Letter without mentioning two other important events.

Firstly, our Patron Simone Young has finished her decade as General Manager of the Hamburg State Opera and Music Director of the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra. As President of the Wagner Society in NSW and on behalf of our Members, I want to wish our Patron all the best for the next stage in her career and look forward to having her address the Society during a future visit to her home town. *

Secondly, I would like to extend the Society’s congratulations to Member Warwick Fyfe, who has been awarded the Stuart and Norma Leslie Churchill Fellowship in 2015 to obtain tuition in Wagnerian vocal technique from Wagner specialists of international status in Germany, the USA, and the UK. It's certainly a very significant recognition of his talent. We wish him well with his studies and hope to hear the results in the 2016 Melbourne Ring Cycle.

*According to Andrew Taylor’s report in the Sydney Morning Herald of 15-16 August 2105,Simone Young considers that “There have been some very tough times. We had to ride outthe financial crisis of 2008 which threw everybody’s planning into disarray.... But I am leaving the house both financially and artistically stronger than when I arrived.” Taylor also reports Ms Young reeling off “an impressive-sounding set of statistics....500 the opera house, about 50 new productions, more than 30 different operasperformed each year. She has ruled a very large institution, with an orchestra of 128 musicians, a 70 voice chorus, an ensemble of 20 full-time singers plus a revolving door ofguest performers. We are...a production house, which means we build all our own sets, we make all our own costumes. We don’t outsource any of these things....We’re dealing with a workforce of about 700 people.” It is also important to remember that our Patron’s practical, everyday achievements have been recognised with an impressive range of awards: “Simone Young was awarded an Honorary Doctorate at the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne, the“Chevalier des Arts et Lettres” in France as well as the Goethe Medaille in Weimar and theBrahms Prize in Schleswig Holstein. The magazine “Opernwelt” named her “Conductor of the Year” in October 2006 when she also became Professor at the University for Music andTheatre in Hamburg.” (Source: www.hamburgische- Taylor also reports Ms Youngas saying of her future: “I’m drastically reducing the amount of opera I do and doing moreconcerts....I’m also travelling more....So the change of balance between concerts and opera really makes a difference.” EDITOR

Jane Mathews


December 2015
Welcome to the fourth Quarterly for 2015.

2015 has been another busy year for your committee - indeed for the Society generally. We have mounted a number of events and concerts during the year, which have included some fascinating speakers and wonderful singers.

The two principal events since the last Quarterly ended up being completely different. The first, on 13 September, was to have involved the composer and music commentator Andrew Ford, talking about composing after Wagner. Unfortunately, because of a major accident on the M5, our speaker was stuck for hours on the expressway and was unable to attend. This all happened much too late to cancel the event, so instead of listening to a speaker we socialised over an extended afternoon tea. Andrew's talk has been re-scheduled for Sunday 19 June next year.

The other event, on 11 October, involved Neil Armfield—the director of the Melbourne Ring Cycle—talking about the production generally, as well as the plans for next year's performances. Neil had only just returned from working with the Chicago Lyric Opera, and was extremely open and forthcoming in answering questions, first put to him by Colleen Chesterman and then by various members of the audience. His answers were very illuminating, particularly about the environmental aspects of the production. Both these events are described in more detail later in this Quarterly.

Our extremely active Events Sub-committee has already organised some fascinating events for 2016, which are set out in COMING EVENTS 2016 of this Quarterly.

As I am sure you all know, the catering for our events is now shared amongst our members. I have been extremely impressed at the quality and variety of the food which has been provided, and I would like to give my heartfelt thanks to members who have taken it upon themselves to assist us in this very important respect. We will continue to need this assistance next year, and we would be extremely grateful if members would consider continuing to help us in this manner.

Finally I would like to remind you that membership of the Society needs to be renewed as from 1 January next year. A membership form is at the back of this Quarterly.

I wish you all a very happy festive season, and look forward to seeing many of you at our 2016 events.

Jane Mathews