President's Report July 2010

Dear Members

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 pro­bono 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." Opera Foundation Australia will continue to administer the "Berlin New Music Opera Award", 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" 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", 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." 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