President's Reports 2014

March / June / September / December 2014


March 2014

Welcome to the first Quarterly for 2014.

I hope that our members had a very happy and fulfilling 2013, which included such a rich abundance of Wagner offerings from all over the world...the sort of offerings that are likely to come only once in a century.

This year will be somewhat quieter, but we still have some very special events planned, including another seminar by Antony Ernst in August, this time on Wagner’s musical legacy. I don’t think that anyone who was at Antony’s seminar on the Ring last year will forget his amazing knowledge, erudition and delivery....with barely a glance at his notes!

We started this year on a high note in our February meeting, with three of the performers from the Melbourne Ring taking us backstage and giving us different perspectives on that amazing event.

Speaking of the Melbourne Ring, I am a member of the New York Wagner Society, and receive its regular magazine. The latest one, dated February 2014, contains a lengthy review of “the Ring Down Under.” The reviewer described it as “one of the best Rings anywhere for a very long time...”’ high praise indeed!

I’m afraid that the Bayreuth ticket situation remains unchanged. Wagner Societies are no longer given an allocation of tickets from the box office. However, our membership of the Friends of Bayreuth gave us access to two tickets to the Ring and associated operas later this year, which were gratefully taken up by two of our members.

Your Society is continuing to support a number of scholarships and opportunities for aspiring young singers. Most recently, we have sponsored a major prize (the NSW Wagner Society prize) in the Elizabeth Connell scholarship, which was set up in recognition of that superb Wagnerian soprano, and is organised by the Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge Foundation. Applicants will enter into heats firstly at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden (judged by Dame Anne Evans and Dennis O’Neill), then at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (judged by Jane Eaglen and James Morris). The finals will take place at the Sydney Conservatorium in September. We have also sponsored a young bass baritone, Christopher Richardson, who participated in the Lisa Gasteen National Opera School at the end of last year. Christopher gained greatly from the experience. His letter of thanks is set out later in this Quarterly. He will be singing for us at our AGM on 25 May.

Finally I must mention the very special Arthur Rackham books, which were donated to the Society, incredibly generously, by one of our members. They are described in detail later in this Quarterly, but I wanted to emphasise how unique they are. I have never seen illustrations quite as vivid as these, particularly given that the books are now over 100 years old. For those of you who enjoy antiquarian gems, I cannot recommend these too highly.

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

 

June 2014
Welcome to the second Quarterly for 2014. 2014 is, for obvious reasons, a quieter year than was last year. Nevertheless, we have some very special events planned for the year. We have already started on a high note. After our first event, involving cast members from the Melbourne Ring, we had meetings in March and April consisting of fascinating expositions from the two Dr Davids: Dr David Schwartz talking about family dysfunction in the Wagner clan, and Dr David Larkin talking about the two Richards: Wagner and Strauss. These talks are described in detail later in this quarterly, so I will not go into them here, except to say that the personal feedback from members who attended the functions was, on both occasions, full of unmitigated enthusiasm.

On 25 May, we had the Society’s Annual General Meeting, which was attended by a number of members. The President’s report was, I am afraid, considerably shorter than usual, as I had returned from overseas only the day before. But I gave a brief description of our activities in 2013, many of which were, not surprisingly, geared towards the Melbourne Ring at the end of the year. The Society’s financial statements for 2013 were approved. They show the Society to be in a very solid financial position. No controversial issues were raised at the meeting, and all the items on the agenda were passed without dissent. As to the committee for the coming year, we have one new committee member: Barbara de Rome, in the place of Paulo Montoya. And Mike Day has replaced Paulo as secretary for this year. I would like to record my thanks to Paulo for his contributions to the Society.

Immediately after the AGM we were treated to a wonderful recital by bass baritone Christopher Richardson and lyric tenor Matthew Reardon, accompanied by virtuoso pianist David Curtain. Your society had sponsored Christopher to attend the Lisa Gasteen National Opera School in December last year, an experience that he described as “transformational” and “career- changing”. It was also the first time that we have had duets included in a recital for the Society – a welcome innovation. After the musical performances, we enjoyed a special afternoon tea with champagne and wine, to celebrate the Master’s 201st birthday three days earlier.

Many members might not know about it - I didn’t before becoming President of the Society – but there is an International Association of Wagner Societies, generally known as the “Verband”. We have long belonged to it, but it has become extremely German-centric over the years. It holds annual Congresses, in Germany or Austria, but only accredited representatives of Wagner Societies can attend and vote. Until very recently, these congresses were held only in the German language. It offers nothing to its members – no activities other than the annual congresses – and has never operated as a linking organisation, so as to give member societies information about each other’s activities etc. To continue our membership this year would have involved paying a fee of 2 Euros per member, a total of approximately $1,000. Accordingly, we followed many other international societies, including the New York Wagner Society, and discontinued our membership. I have recently met with representatives of the UK and Southern Californian Wagner Societies, who are seeking election to the board of the Verband in an endeavour to make it more relevant for international societies. If they succeed, and the Verband appears to be becoming a truly international organisation, particularly one which provides a link between individual Wagner Societies, I have told them that we, the NSW Society, would be more than happy to re- join the organisation.

Finally I should again mention the Arthur Rackham books. They are quite exceptional, and I would be amazed if there was not some member who would covet them. I will bring them to the next Society event so that members can see for themselves how special they are.

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

 

September 2014
Welcome to the third Quarterly for 2014

I am currently in Bayreuth, the Wagner shrine. As a result, I am afraid that I have missed some of our Society's more recent events. I am extremely grateful to other committee members for providing their descriptions and their very perceptive insights into these events, as shown later in this letter.

As with last year in Bayreuth, the Government's decision to cease ticket allocations to Wagner Societies has significantly affected the demography of the audience, particularly during the third Ring Cycle. In the old days, this was the cycle to which English speaking societies were invariably given tickets, with the result that a very significant proportion of the audience was English speaking. The New York Wagner Society used to organise fascinating lectures on the morning of each opera, which were attended by hundreds of people. Now the lectures have been discontinued, and the great majority of the audience appears to consist of Germans.

This is the second year of the Castorf Ring. It is a very strange production, but I have to say that many of us who were also here last year have considerably preferred it this year. This must at least partially be because it no longer holds its shock value for us. Also, although it is much the same cast, the singing is generally of a higher order than last year. In particular, Wolfgang Koch has been an outstanding Wotan/Wanderer, and Oleg Bryjak a terrific Alberich. Interestingly, during their confrontation in Act 11 of Siegfried, they looked like mirror images of each other, which makes sense, given that the Wanderer had earlier described himself as "Licht Alberich." Tomorrow evening we finish with Gotterdammerung. Catherine Foster has been in great voice as Brunnhilde, so we have high expectations, at least relating to the musical aspects of the work.

Wagner Society Meeting 15 June 2014 – Prof. Michael Ewans Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s Parsifal (2004): a landmark in Wagner production
Committee Member Nick Dorsch has kindly given me his brief assessment of this function as an introduction to Professor Ewan’s précis of his talk that is reproduced below, along with his answers to some questions on the day.

Following by coincidence an earlier showing on this day of the DVD of Act 1 of the recent Met Opera Parsifal, featuring Kaufmann, Pape and Dalayman, we were treated to a very interesting talk by Prof Michael Ewans. He pointed out that with its obsession with racial purity and its rejection of sensuality and femininity, this work was extremely racist, anti-Semitic and sexist. Its very location in Spain, with the pure Grail knights to the North (the Christian area) and Klingsor’s castle in the South or Islamic area, lends weight to this.

The production includes an outstanding cast and conductor, with Matti Salminen as a non-boring Gurnemanz! Michael showed several extracts from this fascinating production, with many instances of unusual settings and costuming. Most interesting was Act 3, with its ending where Kundry does not die, but she and Parsifal walk slowly off towards a blinding light, followed by several of the younger knights. This implies a rebirth for at least part of the grail fellowship rather than continuing on as the same old decadent, decaying group with a new leader after the problems of Amfortas and Klingsor have been sorted out. (Could it be also an answer to the question of who was Lohengrin’s mother?!) A really thought-provoking production and presentation. Behind and Below the Stage, 20 July 2014 - Roger Press, Assistant Director, Melbourne Ring Cycle and Marnie Sebire, French horn player with the Melbourne Ring Orchestra Our newest Committee member Barbara de Rome has generously sent me her comments to pass on to you, with some additional comments from our Editor, Terence Watson.

It is already seven months since The Ring Cycle was staged in Melbourne and yet there is still much to say about it. We had two speakers to contribute their experience from behind and below the stage. Roger Press was assistant director to Neil Armfield for the production. In his opening remarks, Roger paid tribute to John Wegner, who was to sing Alberich, but had to withdraw because of illness, but only after forming the conception of the character for this production.

In his presentation, Roger focused on the practical challenges of the design elements of the production. Occupational health and safety issues factored strongly in a number of the major visual elements of the staging. The Valkyries all had to have specific training to manage the safety harnesses that attached them to their swings. The sharp eyed in the audience may have noticed the additional Valkyrie whose sole job was ensuring that all harnesses were properly fastened and unfastened as required. She had been a circus performer and had undertaken special training. The Valkyries had to be ready in their swings high above the stage and out of sight of the audience. Several found this found rather terrifying and this could be detected in their white knuckle grasp of the ropes. Roger also revealed that a plan to have Brunnhilde and Sieglinde together on one of the swings was only discounted on the day of the first performance of Die Walkure.

The cherry pickers which carried Fafner and Fasolt put undue weight on the stage floor. The floor had to be strengthened to support them. Union rules require that only trained operators can use this machinery and that is after a three day course. Fortunately, Roger was able to negotiate a deal which allowed Jud Arthur and Daniel Sumegi to undertake just a morning’s training to enable them to operate the lever in the up and down mode only. They were not allowed to operate in any other direction.

Roger told us that the stuffed animals were in part intended to reflect the understanding emerging in the mid-19th century that the natural world was starting to break down and so many cities set up natural history museums to preserve specimens before they disappeared. He explained that, just as Wotan had collected and displayed his precious collection of endangered animals in Valhalla (the animals were lowered into and retracted from scenes to match Wotan’s entrances and exits). He also chose to protect his favourite daughter, Brunnhilde by enclosing her in a similar protective case. The challenge for the team was managing the level of heat from the gas operated flames on Susan Bullock as she lay in the case. She had to contend with a significant level of heat as she lay there, while we enjoyed a very powerful and satisfying ring of fire image.

Another challenge for Roger and the team was timing. The scene where the gold (gold covered iPhone boxes) is piled up to hide Freia had to be precisely timed so that it ended in time with the music. While it appeared to be random, in fact the placement of the boxes was rehearsed many times. Timing was also crucial with the rotating circular walkway. The singers needed to be positioned at the front of the stage when they needed to sing. He also praised the role conductor Pietari Inkinen played in galvanising the orchestra, the production team and the performers – as well as Inkinen’s skill in matching the timing of the music to the precise demands of the production, especially the turning of the great spiral in Die Walkure. Roger also elucidated the meaning of the “Sea of Humanity” featured in the production, pointing out that its first appearance was intended to suggest a petri dish with the beginning of life that quickly evolved to human life.

Roger acknowledged that working on The Ring was an extremely challenging, but exciting period of his career which he hopes to be able to do again. [As a kind of Wagnerian coincidence, Roger was also the director responsible for restaging for Opera Australia the famous Wagner director Harry Kupfer’s production of Otello; perhaps Roger could agitate for his Wagner productions to be transferred to our stages – I’m sure our Members would be happy to help?? Ed.]

Marnie Sebire, a member of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, brought three gleaming instruments to show and play for us: A normal French horn and bass (in F) and tenor (in B flat) Wagnertuben (Wagner “tubes”—ie tubes of metal— not tubas, as they are often called in English; a better term is “horn.” A donation from the Wagner Society in NSW supported Opera Australia’s purchase of one of the horns. Marnie demonstrated the three instruments, showing both her skill and the difference in their pitch and timbre. She explained that Wagner wanted an instrument that would fill in what he heard as a gap in the timbres between the trombone and French horn. He was seeking “A sound that could demonstrate the nobility of the Gods.” From the player’s perspective, Marnie lamented that, as a hybrid instrument, it is never fully in tune, but she hopes that the new ones on order for the Sydney Symphony will be improved! Marnie then shared with us her sense of trepidation that, as well at being the eighth French horn in Melbourne, which gave her the responsibility of starting the whole Cycle, she also had to play the Wagnertuben!

Marnie informed us that Wagner never finalised his notation for the Wagnertuben in The Ring Cycle. The website dedicated to the Wagnertuben [your Editor kids you not!] describes this confusion as follows:

In the score of Die Walkure...the tenor tubas are written in E-flat and the bass tubas in B-flat in an attempt to cater to the band instruments [French horns, etc] that first played the parts and also to the limitations of the players: the parts were thus considered more comfortable for reading. However, the keys of B-flat and F were to be retained in copying the orchestral parts and the music had to be transposed into these keys.

This was the start of the tangled issue of transpositions in writing for the Wagner tuba. Wagner, however, had a change of heart and the parts were not transposed but notated exactly as they had been written in the autograph manuscript. Was this simply indecision on his part or an uncertainty as to the employment and transposition of the new instruments? Wagner evidently preferred E-flat/B-flat notation....

While there is now a fully corrected score used in Bayreuth, the Melbourne performers and conductor had to work out the correct notation. You can read more at www.wagner-tuba.com/wagnertuba_melton/trials_transpositions.htm

Beyond the Twilight of the Gods: Wagner’s Musical Legacy Antony Ernst—Saturday, 23 August 2014—Colleen Chesterman Regrettably, I wasn’t able to attend Antony Ernst’s seminar, but, as Colleen Chesterman’s précis shows, it was clearly another great success for Antony and the Society.

Antony presented his talk to over 80 members and friends. For well over 5 hours, speaking as usual without notes and with many musical examples, he considered how composers came to terms with Wagner's musical innovations. We heard of Bruckner’s adoption of heavier musical forces, of Verdi’s retreat into silence after Aida until after Wagner’s death, of Humperdinck’s brilliant adaptation of Wagner’s chromaticism to interpret a Brothers Grimm folktale Hansel und Gretel.

So much influence: from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, based on Norse myths, to Chausson’s Pelleas et Mélisande. He showed how Wagner transformed stage design, influencing theatre designers Alfred Roller and Adolphe Appia. Emphasising the impact of wars and economic depression on opera, he suggested that, in the 20th century, Wagner's major influence has been on film scores, from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times to Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings. He asked what would have happened had Wagner been shot on those Dresden barricades in 1848? And answered it with a summary of how much poorer our musical culture would have been.

The Hon Justice Jane Mathews President

 

December 2014
It has been a big year for your Society. Not quite as big as last year, the bicentenary, when there was a giant surge of Wagner events and performances. But we have definitely maintained the momentum. The last events of the year at the Goethe Institute and the Mosman Art Gallery were well attended, and–if the feedback I personally received is any indication–they were very much enjoyed.

One of our most unusual and entertaining functions this year was given by Dr James Wierzbicki on the topic of the Ride of the Valkyries. We are privileged that he has agreed for his talk (in a version slightly edited by our Editor) to be reproduced in this issue of the Quarterly, along with a small selection of the many and varied Valkyrie images he showed.

Our final function of the year was a recital by Anke Höppner, accompanied by pianist David Miller, at the Mosman Art Gallery of Wagner-influenced songs by Alexander Zeminsky and Arnold Schönberg. However, the guests sprang a welcome surprise on the audience by finishing their demanding recital with the Liebestod or Verklärung from Tristan und Isolde. This recital was a wonderful link between the final part of Antony Ernst’s seminar earlier in the year in which he focussed on the influence of Wagner on later composers and the 2015 performance by the Sydney Symphony of that opera.

In my September report I referred to the fact that there were many fewer English speaking people attending the third Ring Cycle in Bayreuth than in previous years. This is largely because the Wagner Societies around the world are no longer receiving the bulk allocation of tickets which we used previously to receive. In this regard there might be a small spark of light at the end of the tunnel, but at least in the short term the situation is unlikely to change.

Your Society continues its membership of the Friends of Bayreuth, and this provides us with two tickets each year, generally taking in all the operas which are performed that year. But this is only a small proportion of the tickets which were previously made available under the old regime. As a result, I have been asked to inform members how they can obtain tickets to Bayreuth without waiting up to ten years.

I should say at the outset that the queue has considerably decreased over recent years, which I suspect is at least partially a reaction to the newer productions, some of which have not been met with great enthusiasm. I should add here that the musical standards remain very high. But even with the reduced delay, people who book through the box office are likely to have to wait a number of years before obtaining tickets.

One way of reducing this delay is through joining the Friends of Bayreuth. The joining fee is 260 euros, with an annual fee of 205 euros. If you apply for tickets through the Friends, you will be likely to receive them about every second year. You can join the Friends by going to the website at www.freunde-bayreuth.org.

In the June Quarterly of this year I mentioned the International Association of Wagner Societies, known as the Verband. In accordance with what I said then, we subsequently declined to renew our membership for this year. Since then there have been a number of changes. Amongst other things, the organisation appears to be much less German-centric than previously. Accordingly, we have reversed our decision and determined to renew our membership from the beginning of next year. The Verband will be holding its annual congress in Dessau, Germany, in May next year and at present I am planning to attend. I will keep you informed of any further news from this organisation.

On 16 October 2014, I wrote to Members advising that, for many years, Renate and Herman Junker, long term members of our Society, have generously undertaken to coordinate the serving of refreshments at our events. We are now turning to our members to seek volunteers to assist us to provide a similar service for our events in 2015. Please see my letter later in the Quarterly.

In the meantime, I wish you all a very happy and fulfilling festive season, and look forward to seeing many of you at the wonderful series of events we have organised for next year. In this regard, I must specially remind you that the Sydney Symphony will be mounting two concert performances of Tristan and Isolde on 20 and 22 June 2015, with Stewart Skelton and Christine Brewer in the title roles. We are planning to hold a “Tristan” seminar before these performances, probably on Sunday 14th June. Keep watching for further details.

The Hon Justice Jane Mathews President