The Wagner Society - 20 Years On, by Richard King

Through the wonderful synchronicity of life, a chance remark opens doors and creates a new realm of experience. Dr Leonard Hansen, making his first visit to Bayreuth in 1980, asked the Lufthansa staff if they knew of other Aussies making the pilgrimage, preferably someone who had been there before. My friends at the airline mention Murray Smith and me as regular visitors, although we were not booked for that year. We already knew Leonard through our work, but we were unaware of his interest in Wagner. During his visit to our gallery, we discussed starting a Society in Australia with the principle aims of promoting Wagner's work, of encouraging singers and musicians, and of demonstrating to our friends at the (then) Australian Opera that there was an audience for Wagner's music dramas. 

I had been a member of the British Wagner Society since 1966, but I had failed to obtain any Bayreuth tickets through them. A chance remark at dinner one evening with a friend from Lufthansa enabled me to obtain tickets by flying with that airline. I suggested to Leonard that he obtain a copy of the British Society's constitution and talk with the "Friends of Bayreuth" people during his visit to Europe. We would launch our society on his return.

Leonard was very enthusiastic and convened the first meeting in Bayreuth with several Aussies he had met on the trip. From memory, these were Betty Berryman, Reg and Betty Maloney, Margaret and Clare Hennessey, and Leonard's life partner, Michele Arnould. The gallery, "The Print Room", became our venue for events and the registered office of the Society. At that stage, the thought of incorporation had not been developed, although we were aware of the legal implications should anyone injure themselves while on our premises or participating in an event.

It was a time of "much enthusiasm". Our first public meeting was publicised mainly by word of mouth and a small advert in the Sydney Morning Herald, attracting about thirty people. Many gave extra money to become "foundation members". A few weeks later we had public screening of Wagnerian documentaries at the AMP theatrette at Circular Quay. The crowd was so big that many were turned away. The Society was born.

It became a standard joke that we had a business called the Wagner Society and a hobby called The Print Room! We had lectures by our patron, Charles Mackerras (later Sir) picnics, theatre parties, fundraisers, and recording afternoons at the Concordia (German) Club and the gallery. Annual dinners were arranged on or near the Master's birthday.

The membership continued to expand and our reputation, too. Knowledge of our existence and endeavours began to spread interstate with various people taking on the task of forming their own state Societies. As far as I know, all are still in existence and thriving, as is our group. Our friends at the Australian Opera began to realise we were a force to be reckoned with. One evening, for example, a group of us went to a restaurant at Darlinghurst frequented by the Opera's top brass and singers. As we walked in, Moffat Oxenbould said" Look out! Here's the Wagner mafia!"

We sponsored the Bayreuth Scholarship, but later provided the airfare for the Scholarship winner. Sponsorship of headline singers in AO productions also gave the Society a high profile by being acknowledged in the programs and, often, by having "flyers" placed on the seats, thus encouraging more people to join. Leonard would often match, dollar for dollar, the amount the Society would donate to AO productions. He dearly loved the Society, giving all his spare time to running it, as did our Committee members. There was always a lot of paperwork, as well as the constant demands of making good contacts.

Our guests of honour at our annual dinners regaled us with song or repartee. Werner Bauer, for example, gave very generously of his time and experience, accompanying our singers and finishing with a rendition of Happy Birthday as though composed by Wagner himself.

Leonard became unwell in the late 1980s and stood down as President. I succeeded him for a number of years. The indomitable Olive Coonan then followed and, through her tenacity, continued our steady growth. The Goethe Institut in Woollahra became our second home. Jessie Anderson's memorable spreads of fine food in excellent quantities have passed into folklore. Jessie and Keith have retired to the country, as have I.

When Leonard was President he would not keep the Committee members disciplined and on the subject. He loved hearing about everyone's experiences of all subjects. On the other hand, Olive would only allow a short time to outline the agenda item; no one was allowed to interrupt. The Chairman of the British Society sat in on a meeting one evening. Leonard later asked him how our meetings compared with theirs. The visitor said he was amazed by the amount of material the Committee got through in such a short time. Olive would say of me: "He doesn't even butter you up, before he tells you off!" By and large, we had great fun at these meetings with only the odd occasion when "ideologies" clashed.

No Committee members were reimbursed. When a member would continually criticise or complain about our way of working, I would always invite them onto the Committee. Our secretaries have done a wonderful job of keeping minutes, typing correspondence, etc. Keeping the membership records was a particularly onerous task. The ticketing for theatre parties and Bayreuth was very time consuming. All those who have resigned or passed on over the years gave their all. We were very fortunate to have such great people on board.

As I used to say at many gatherings of members and friends, there are people being born into the physical realm and then dying without ever experiencing the spiritual journey of Wagner. To me, life would not have been complete if I had never turned the handle and opened the door to something so life enhancing. Here's to the Wagner Society in NSW (and like Societies elsewhere)! May it continue to grow and prosper!

(Clare Hennessey asked me to write this memoir and if I have not mentioned someone, who should have been recognised, please forgive; it is not intentional.)

Richard King, Member No. 15
Past President
Honorary Life Member