President's reports 2020

March / June / August / September / December 2020


March 2020
I trust everyone is safe after the terrible fires, smoke storms and floods. (Remind anyone of Götterdämmerung?)

I’m delighted to confirm that our esteemed Patron, Maestro Simone Young AO will become Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in early 2022.

The Society started off 2020 with a very fine concert on 27 February in memory of our late Past President the Honourable Justice Jane Mathews AO. It came about due to the generosity of her friend Maestro Anthony Negus. He and his wife Carmen and our Artists’ Liaison Leona Geeves did a wonderful job organizing 5 outstanding young singers performing romantic works accompanied by Anthony. Attendance was excellent and it was a good example of the Society’s aims in action – promoting the music of Wagner and his contemporaries and fostering young talent. Proceeds from the concert will go into our sponsorship fund. In the last year the Society gave over $20,000 to young performers to help with travel and tuition. This money has been raised from subscriptions and profits from the many events we hold plus generous donations from members. Thank you everyone for supporting our aims.

2020 is a very exciting year for Wagner lovers with performances of Lohengrin and Das Rheingold in Melbourne and Tristan und Isolde and the Ring in Brisbane. The Society is discussing ways we might be able to help with on-going sponsorship of young NSW performers taking part in the Melbourne Opera’s Ring, which is being conducted by Anthony Negus.

Although we in Sydney are missing out on Wagner Opera performances the Society is providing backup with talks about the works plus other interesting recitals and talks by singers and creatives. Details may be found in the Quarterly.

This month we have the ever-popular Antony Ernst followed in April by the exciting singer/director Tabatha McFadyen – not to be missed.

Our Annual General Meeting is coming up in May and we are hoping some members will step up and nominate for a position on the Committee as some current members will be retiring. You will receive emails about this in due course. You need to be a financial member to attend so please ensure your membership fees are up to date.

After the AGM Peter Bassett will talk about Lohengrin followed by bubbles and cake to celebrate Wagner’s birthday. I hope to see you there.

I was saddened to learn of the passing at age 85 of Janet Wayland, a proud member of the founding days of the Wagner Society in NSW with Len Hansen. The Society has sent its condolences to the family.

President Colleen Chesterman


June 2020
2020 has been a difficult year so far, with some unexpected and unfortunate interruptions to our program.

We had planned a number of events but were frustrated by Covid-19 regulations preventing the Society from holding meetings. We have missed out on a talk by Tabatha McFadyen and on presentations by Antony Ernst and Peter Bassett, two highly regarded experts on Wagner. We were unable to have our AGM on 10 May accompanied by our celebration of Wagner’s birthday (though at 6 pm on that day a number of members joined together on Zoom to drink a toast to him).

We will now look forward to an important celebration of the achievements of the Society. In September we will commemorate 40 years since the first pioneers met in Bayreuth and decided to form a Wagner Society in Sydney. We will mark this significant event with a special meeting on September 27, at which cake and champagne will be served.

Thanks to the sterling efforts of Lis Bergmann, with input from Leona Geeves and Marie Leech, the Wagner Society in NSW now posts material on YouTube. It includes lists of artists supported by the Society, videos taken by individual members and information on recordings and performances of particular interest to anyone interested in Wagner’s compositions. This site also features performances of Wagner operas, currently Tannhauser and The Flying Dutchman.

I would like to take this opportunity of signalling that at the next AGM (the date of which is still unknown) I will be stepping down as President. It has been a privilege to hold this position and I have greatly enjoyed working with Committee members to do as much as I could to promote the interests of the Society.

President Colleen Chesterman


Annual Report, 9 August 2020

This report will be my last as President of the Wagner Society in NSW. I have greatly enjoyed my period of three years in this position, particularly because it has been a pleasure to work with the enthusiastic and energetic people who have constituted the Committee.

In my opinion, we can look at our Society with some pride. We have a firmly committed group of members, including both founding members and members who have recently joined. In addition, our monthly meetings are almost invariably well attended, and we have been able to provide significant support to a number of talented young Australian singers who have aspired to perform in Wagner’s operas.

It is very sad indeed to have to record here the death on 31 August 2019 of the immediate past President, the Hon Jane Mathews AO. As members will know, she devoted enormous time and energy to the affairs of the Society over many years. She was also a most generous donor to the Society and to numerous other institutions engaged in enriching Australia’s musical life. It was most gratifying that the Society was able to take up the kind offer of a close friend of hers, Anthony Negus, to organise a concert in her honour. This took place before a large audience on 27 February. The Society is most grateful to Maestro Negus (who performed as both accompanist and soloist), his wife Carmen Jakobi, the five young singers who took part and the Society’s Artists’ Liaison Officer, Leona Geeves.

During the second half of 2019, particularly interesting presentations were given at Society meetings by Dr Antony Ernst (a regular presenter to us), by the Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton, by the well-known Australian conductor Simone Young AM (who is our patron) and by Society member Robert Mitchell, who was for many years a member of Opera Australia’s chorus. We also received ‘feedback’ from those Society members who attended the Bayreuth Festival 2019 and the year finished with a Christmas concert at which two young singers and a pianist performed for us.

The first half of this year promised to deliver similar delights, but the coronavirus pandemic intervened shortly after the memorial concert for Jane Mathews. We were forced to postpone or cancel a further talk by Antony Ernst (on The Ring), talks by Peter Bassett (on Lohengrin) and Warwick Fyfe (about his first performance as Wotan) and a presentation by singer/director Tabatha McFadyen. The annual celebration of Wagner’s birthday on 10 May had to take the form of a toast to him drunk by several members on Zoom. The hopes entertained by several members (including myself) that we could attend the Bayreuth Festival 2020 were dashed when its cancellation was announced.

I wish to convey special thanks to three Committee members for their work over the past year. Lis Bergmann has devoted a great deal of time and energy to improving both the Society’s communications with its members and its website. Mike Day has further enlarged and enhanced the content and layout of the Quarterly. Esteban Insausti has taken on a number of tasks, including dealing with the Bayreuth Festival Box Office, the Friends of the Festival and the International Association of Wagner Societies (the ‘Verband’), with regard to both the acquisition of tickets and the follow-on from the Festival’s cancellation.

This expression of gratitude is additional to the thanks that I owe to all who have served on the Committee during my time as President and to the many individuals who have contributed in a number of ways – for example, by providing tasty finger-food – to members’ enjoyment of our meetings.

Colleen Chesterman, President


September 2020

Dear members and friends,

This is my first letter to you as President, the 10th in our 40 year history. I am very honoured to have the opportunity to lead this Society into its fifth decade . But at the same time I approach my tenure with trepidation in a time of pestilence, of societal change, a time when known structures are being questioned, certainly challenged. A time of revolution perhaps, a circumstance the Master may have revelled in. Into this environment of masks and isolation and dark theatres, your new Committee is wrestling with how best to continue our tenet under such circumstances. Expect Zoom Events. What else we might offer is under discussion and planning as I write. We are also keen to properly celebrate our milestone, in person, within an appropriate timeframe.

Despite the negative aspects of the current situation, particularly in cultural terms, it has been a very rich time to wallow in a panoply of Wagner productions presented on various internet platforms. Productions both new and historic have been streamed or made available by just about every major company on the planet. I hope that most of you have and continue to take advantage of this smorgasbord of Wagneriana. The  good news, and we need good news, is that major opera companies around the world are finding ways to present live productions. In Germany, parking lots and loading docks are being used as quasi theatres. It is only a matter of time before we will be able to go back into theatres. Opera Australia, quite understandably, had to cancel the Brisbane Ring, but has been exemplary in announcing new dates for the production to take place a year hence. Personally I am really looking forward to a digital staging of the Ring and what images and world that technology will be able to conjure for us. Not to mention what kind of Alberich our very own Society member Warwick Fyfe will come up with this time around.

Now is a time to support The Arts and in particular singers – this is a core function of the Society. Your Committee is looking at ways of doing more to support individuals as well as future projects such as the building up over several years of the Melbourne Opera Ring (also deferred due to the Covid pandemic) to be conducted by the wonderful Maestro Anthony Negus.

Usually the President’s letter includes a list of the achievements and events that defined the preceeding period. Due to the late scheduling of the AGM most of that is covered in Colleen Chesterman’s last President’s Annual Report published in the following pages which I commend you to please read. So instead I would like to use this space to say a little about me, as well as attempt to explain why I have been a member of the Society for some 33 years (joined in 1987 – member number 433). To do that I need to explain how I arrived at being obsessed with the music dramas of Richard Wagner. I was aware of the music from an early age but not the scenography and dramaturgy. This came later as I became obsessed with theatre. The trigger for diving headlong into the world of Wagner productions and set design in particular was the 1976 Centenary exhibition of models from Bayreuth. I clearly remember going to the Opera House with my father where we spent the best part of a couple of hours looking at those magical models whilst listening to slabs of Wagner. I was sold. As  an architecture student I was fascinated by the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (still am). I was also filled with dreams of becoming a set designer, flirted with NIDA for over 30 years, getting accepted once (1982) and rejected once (2016). Thank goodness that I kept my head and stayed a jobbing architect.

The initial reason I joined the Society is one most of you may relate with – getting tickets to Bayreuth. The idea to join was facilitated by George Fleischer, a wise Viennese, who liaised, on behalf of the ABC, with a group of young people known as The Youth Concert Committee (more on that in the future perhaps). Over time that initial selfish reason expanded to an appreciation of the wider aims of the Society which is the enjoyment of participating in a venture to better understand the work of Richard Wagner and supporting the artists who bring his music and drama to life. My involvement and engagement with the Society has been sporadic but intensified over the last few years, coinciding with the acceleration of Ring cycles being accumulated. Also a number of key members of the Society begun to prick my conscience and recruitment into the Committee quickly ensued. Some of these key members I am pleased to call my friends, some for most of my adult life. Leona Geeves, for instance was an early introduction to the Society by our late mutual friend Robert Lloyd (also a member). Whilst Dennis Mather and Robert Mitchell were both my teachers at Fort Street sometime last century (sorry gentlemen). A large part of being a member of the Society is its people, its membership, as much as it is about Richard Wagner. In that vein I hope to get to meet all of you at some stage in the future.

Happy listening. Stay healthy. And best wishes,

Esteban Insausti


December 2020

Dear members and friends,

The end of this Covid Year 2020 is fast upon us. Whilst we may not be totally back to a pre-pandemic “normal”, culturally we are seeing 2021 seasons being launched, and subscriptions renewed. Let us hope that we can start 2021 in a positive manner with live music at its core.

From the Society’s point of view 2020 is difficult to sum up. We started the year with a spectacular concert led by Anthony Negus in memory of Jane Matthews but then everything fell silent due to travel and meeting restrictions. Fear of the contagion together with the suspension of a normal social, working and cultural life hit hard. Everything, theatre, concerts, opera was cancelled, stopped. I sincerely hope that everyone has managed to endure this hard period and dipped into the many Wagnerian wonders that were on offer online.

Your Committee was no less affected and carried on as best it could via zoom and email. Whilst we struggled to understand what we could do given the uncertainty of when we could get back to “normal”, we managed to rally in the last quarter with three zoom events. Tabatha McFadyen, David Larkin and Warwick Fyfe were magnificent and took to the zoomsphere like the pros they are. I thank them on behalf of the Society for their entertaining presentations.

The upside of this upside down time has been, paradoxically, the opening up of the world via online platforms and formats. We can now have talks from people on the other side of the world. Of course a live event is preferred but the alternative hasn’t turned out too badly and it has offered the opportunity for some dear friends from afar to join in the talks. So when we can get back to the beloved Goethe we hope to be able to zoom future events for those members that cannot come in person.

As you will read in the Quarterly, beautifully put together by Mike Day (thank you Mike), we have curated events for the first half of 2021 some of which we hope to be live events. We are casting our themes wider next year with talks on Wagnerism, from the best selling book by Alex Ross, and scenography as well as some well known Valkyres to kick the year off in style. Our 40th anniversary celebrations, whilst deferred to late February, still fall within the establishment period of the Society. That should be quite an afternoon and I look forward to meeting some of the founding members at that event. With greater certainty of conditions through the course of 2021 we will be able to plan with more confidence and hopefully for greater numbers.

By the time you read this you will have received a number of email communications from the Committee on opportunities to support FARA and Melbourne Opera’s Das Rheingold. We are particularly pleased to get behind Das Rheingold because it will be Warwick Fyfe’s first Rheingold Wotan (carrying the flag for NSW) and the first step in a new Ring production (hopefully to be staged in its entirety in 2023) but also because it is the first independent production of the Ring since 1913. Melbourne Opera has championed Wagner and they need our support both with money and with our presence in the theatre. Similarly with FARA. We need to help the singers that have been affected by mass cancellations. I urge all members to consider helping if you can.

Looking forward into 2021 I am optimistic that culture will emerge from this dark interruption with vigour. There is some Wagner to be enjoyed on Australian stages in 2021, not least OA’s deferred Brisbane Ring. However, we must not be complacent that The Arts will survive. As has been seen earlier this year several key institutions came within a hair’s breadth of being lost. Hence our call for support and vigilance.

Being the final communication for 2020 I now take this opportunity to thank your Committee for their hard work and dedication to the cause. In particular I’d like to single out Lis Bergmann who has turned our communications and website into a thing of beauty, and Leona Geeves without whose knowledge, connections and tenacity we would have a much poorer programme of young singers to sponsor and promote via our recitals. Thank you both.

Finally, on behalf of your Committee, I wish you all a safe and healthy end of 2020 and look forward to seeing you at our many events and in the theatre through 2021.

Esteban Insausti

Wagner Society in NSW Inc.