President's Reports 2017

March / June / September / December 2017

March 2017

Welcome to the first Quarterly for 2017. 

As you all probably know, we had no events at the end of last year because many of our members were at Opera Australia’s Melbourne Ring Cycle. I was there for all three cycles, and this time it was an overwhelming success. The most significant improvements arose from the cast changes. The new singers were significantly better than in 2013. In addition, it was a much more harmonious team than before, and the interaction between the various singers, and therefore the acting generally, was much better. This made a huge difference, and the enthusiasm of the audience, at all three cycles, was palpable. All in all, it was a terrific experience.

Two days before the first Melbourne Ring Cycle, there was a concert performance in Hobart of much of Tristan and Isolde, with Stuart Skelton (Tristan), Nina Stemme (Isolde), Monika Bohinek (Brangane), and the TSO conducted by Marko Letonja. It was the only performance in Australia by the amazing Nina Stemme, and the whole experience was quite breathtaking. All three of them sang wonderfully. There was no Kurvenal or King Mark, so they had to cut out certain portions, including most of the third Act. But the way they did this was seamless. The orchestra played superbly, and the wonderful accoustics in the Federation Hall made you realise how we really need those accoustic repairs in the Sydney Opera House. The place was full of Sydneysiders, including many of our members.

We have had two events this year. The first was on 4 February. Dr Graham Bruce, the president of the Queensland Wagner Society and a long time Wagner lover, had managed to acquire from the German Film Library the DVD of a fascinating film by Joachim Herz of the Flying Dutchman. This was unique in my experience. The opera was not taking place on a stage, but was performed as a film normally is - with actors rather than singers in the various roles, moving in and out of rooms and buildings. They were miming to the sound track of the opera, which was magnificently played and sung by top singers with the wonderful Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. All in all it was a truly unique experience. The second event was the third lecture by Rosamund Bartlett in her trilogy on Wagner in Russia. From all reports, Rosamund’s account bringing the history of Wagner into the 21st century was very well received. Colleen Chesterman has written a brief report on both the film and the talk that you can find later in this Quarterly.

We have some terrific further events lined up for the rest of the year, and I hope to see many of you there. Just a reminder that these days we are dependent on our members to contribute food at our functions. You have done a great job thus far. Long may it continue.

This will be my last President’s letter. At the AGM in April this year I will not be standing for re-election. I will have been president of this wonderful organisation for seven years, and it is time to move on and for someone else to take over. It has been a great experience, and I will be continuing to take an active role in the society and to attend its functions. So I look forward to seeing you during the year.

Jane Mathews

Jane Mathews giving the Wagner Society in NSW’s 2017 AGM her final report as President
Jane Mathews giving the Wagner Society in NSW’s 2017 AGM her final report as President (photo, courtesy Florian Hammerbacher).

June 2017
I am delighted to be able to write this letter as the recently-elected President of the Wagner Society in NSW. It is a great honour. I was elected to the management committee as Secretary in 2011 and then after two years became Vice-President. We have been very fortunate as it has been a harmonious committee and we have had some great successes with our excellent program of activities for Wagner’s bicentenary in 2013, our support of artists in Opera Australia’s Ring, our program of workshops and presentations and our support of young artists. We had a wonderful example of the latter with the young soloists who sang after the AGM; in particular, I appreciated the powerful singing of Laura Scandizzo in Senta’s ballad, hitting the high note with ease.

We have two new members for the committee, Mailis Wakeham and Florian Hammerbacher. Both have been enthusiastic volunteers at meetings. Florian gives advice on the Goethe technology and, along with Leona Geeves, who established our Facebook presence, manages the site. Mailis takes photographs for the Quarterly and has distributed flyers. Catering and clearing up are shared tasks and we really appreciate the contributions of Society members, many of whom provide delicious treats for the afternoon teas, We would love to hear from any others who are prepared to help.

I would like to acknowledge the debt owed by all members of the Society to the two retirees from the committee. Our previous President, Justice Jane Mathews AO, was elected President, also in 2011. She has provided great leadership in a very active six years for the Society. Jane has been actively involved in planning our programs and has been instrumental in inviting Lyndon Terracini from Opera Australia and David Robertson from the SSO to speak to us. Her generosity to Australia’s musical organisations is widely recognized and we all benefit from this. She is also a generous entertainer during Ring Festivals and at Bayreuth. She has also represented Australian societies at the Verband, the international organization of Wagner Societies.

Our other retiree is Dennis Mather, who has been Treasurer during his numerous years on the committee. Dennis ensured that the Society was recognised by the Australian Tax Office as a charity for tax purposes, allowing members access to tax-free donations. Acting as de facto Membership Secretary, he was an important player in the turnaround in membership in 2011 from under 100 to over 300, providing us with a great base for the bicentenary celebrations.

When we were unable to obtain tickets to Bayreuth as we had previously, Dennis and Jane unified the Australian Wagner Societies’ response to this decision, attended a meeting in Bayreuth with the head of the Friends of Bayreuth and obtained support from Verband members over this issue. They also sorted out the unsatisfactory situation of membership of the Verband by ensuring that Australian Societies gained improvements relating to proxy voting.

It is typical of Dennis’ commitment that his first task in leaving the Committee this year was to sort out our allocation of Bayreuth tickets, then invite all recipients to his home for drinks so that they could meet and celebrate before arrival in Germany.

Back in 2011, our new committee decided to build on the special expertise of retiring committee members by inviting them to attend committee meetings informally when they were able. In this way we enjoyed the valuable assistance of Roger Cruickshank and Terence Watson. Now Jane and Dennis have accepted the current committee’s invitation to attend meetings.

For the rest of 2017 we have some exciting things in store. First there is Opera Australia’s Parsifal in mid August. On 30 July, David Larkin from the Sydney Conservatorium will present a workshop, with contributions from singers so that we can hear the music he is analyzing. Reading the current on-line this morning, I was impressed by David’s review of the recent Australian Chamber Orchestra concert and his musicological expertise. During the same period in mid-August there will be four performances of Lohengrin by Melbourne Opera (see details in For Your Diary in this Quarterly). On 13 August, Antony Ernst will return to Sydney and present an analysis of that opera as the ‘first music drama’.

Wagner is also appearing in other forms. On Wednesday 24 May 2017, we had a group who went to You Will Not Play Wagner at the Eternity Theatre. In England recently I spoke with playwright and Moliere translator Justin Fleming; he has written a play Dresden about Wagner’s role in the uprising, which is being performed next year in London and possibly Sydney.

I can still remember the excitement my husband Michael and I felt discovering Wagner in London in the late 1960s. We had a wonderful introduction, with Jess Thomas in Peter Hall’s Tristan and Isolde at Covent Garden, Norman Bailey and Geraint Evans in The Mastersingers of Nuremberg at the ENO and later Reginald Goodall’s conducting of The Ring Cycle in English with Rita Hunter and Alberto Remedios, at the ENO and on tour. Sadly, we did not get to Bayreuth during that period, but getting tickets from the Wagner Society in NSW was a way of fulfilling that dream. And we have continued travelling with Society friends to a range of Wagner performances.

Colleen Chesterman


September 2017
Since my last letter it has been a very demanding but exciting time for the Wagner Society in NSW. First, and most important, we have had an impressive program of performance of Wagner in Australia. The most significant of these were the three concert performances of Parsifalpresented by Opera Australia in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall in August. During the same period, Melbourne Opera presented four performances of Lohengrin at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne. There are reviews of this productions in this issue. And in early September the West Australian Symphony Orchestra under conductor Asher Fisch begins its 90th anniversary celebrations with performances focusing on Wagner. This year there were two concerts of excerpts from Wagner and contemporaries.

The Wagner focus continues into 2018. On 16 and 19 August, WASO will bring Stuart Skelton and Eva-Marie Westbroek to Perth for concert performances of Tristan and Isolde. Tristan and Isolde will also be performed by Melbourne Opera in St Kilda Palais from 2 to 11 February 2018. Opera Australia’s just announced 2018 program includes Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Melbourne at the Arts Centre from 13-22 November. A co-production with Covent Garden, the cast will include Melbourne Ring veterans James Johnson as Sachs, Stefan Vinke as Walter, Warwick Fyfe as Beckmesser, with Natalie Aroyan debuting as Eva. Exciting times for all Wagner lovers.

New committee member Mailis Wakeham had a dramatic introduction to committee work. As members know we receive the bulk of our tickets to Bayreuth through the Richard Wagner Verband International Assembly. The 2016 meeting was scheduled to take place in Budapest in June. No committee members were able to attend, but by complete chance Mailis was to be in Budapest on the day of the meeting. So we nominated her as our representative and asked her to raise with the Verband our concern with Bayreuth ticket allocations. The Wagner Society committee was concerned that we no longer received tickets enabling members to attend all operas presented during the Festival, as had once been the case. Our colleagues from the Wagner Society of Victoria expressed concerns as they wanted better seats. People coming from Australia are a long distance from Bayreuth and usually remain in the city during the performances of all operas.

The Verband discussed these issues under the heading “Tickets for Festivals”. The meeting was advised that there had been an over-demand for tickets, an increase since 2016, and all tickets available had been provided to member societies. A committee takes on the task, which can be arduous and take a long time. There are rules in place:

• the Society seeking tickets must be registered as a company in order to join the Verband,

• and have paid their annual membership fee.

The Verband explained that as not all tickets provided by the Festspielhaus are the “best”, a mix of the best and the less good tickets is shared amongst all Societies.

In July 2017, a letter was sent to all Wagner Societies by the Festspielhaus. This introduced a new program at the Festival, called Bayreuth Discourse. It has been designed as a series of events for academic and artistic analysis of Wagner’s work and legacy. The first of these took place during the Festival this year. It was intended to provide a platform where controversies surrounding the composer and his legacy could be discussed. The 2017 theme was Wagner’s Work and National Socialism; information was provided at Another innovation for 2017 was the filming of the opening performance of Barrie Kosky’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which was then shown in more than 120 cinemas throughout Europe. I have contacted relevant Australian film distributors to see if this will be available in Australian cinemas. The final part of the Festspielhaus report indicated that one of their aims is to ensure an improved ticket allocation for members of Richard Wagner Societies. They indicate that they do not want tickets ‘to land in the hands of businessmen or on dubious internet platforms’. One suggestion is that Society members can specify membership of their local Society in their master data; forms for 2018 will be sent to members by September 2017.

Colleen Chesterman


December 2017
I am writing this after a very well received concert and party for Christmas 2017. The three singers – Laura Scandizzo, Rebecca Moret and Sitiveni Talei – gave a delightful performance of a varied repertoire of operatic arias. They were ably accompanied by Francis Greep, who also introduced many of the items. Special thanks must go to Rebecca for stepping in at short notice. She replaced Phoebe Humphreys, winner of the Wagner Society prize in the Eisteddfod, who had been compelled to withdraw on account of flu. Vice-President Leona Geeves must also be thanked for her efforts in arranging this concert.

I was delighted to receive the following email from Christopher McCabe, who joined the Society in early 2017:

Many thanks for the Concert and Christmas party yesterday, I enjoyed both immensely. It was a fitting way to end the year. The musical program was good and we had some very good singing indeed. I especially enjoyed Laura Scandizzo and took the opportunity of thanking her personally. Warm regards, Happy Christmas, and see you in early 2018.

Members attending provided a range of delicious foods. The raffle prizes included DVDs of Bayreuth productions from Universal Music, CDs of the Janowski Ring and a book on Jeffrey Smart donated by Ermes de Zan, and a book on Wagner by John Culshaw, donated by Clare and Margaret Hennessy. Also provided were a champagne tea by The Travelling Tenor and tickets to plays and concerts donated by Griffin Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Australian Haydn Ensemble, Musica Viva, Pinchgut Opera and Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

This year the Committee decided to withdraw funding from the Lisa Gasteen National Opera School as it was focusing its activities on giving their selected singers opportunities to perform with Opera Queensland and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. We believed that this could be difficult for Sydney-based singers. We also decided not to support the Elizabeth Connell Prize, as finalists were for the most part from overseas.

Instead, we developed opportunities encouraging direct applications from NSW singers, including those studying or working overseas. For example, we assisted emerging Wagnerian singers featuring in the Tait Trust’s celebration concert in London in September. I received an enthusiastic email about this from one of our past speakers, Rosamund Bartlett:

Just a quick note to say that I was very pleased to be at the Tait Memorial Trust 25th anniversary concert in London on Wednesday night, and to see acknowledgement of the contribution of the Wagner Society of NSW in the programme. A wonderful Wagner recital with Stuart Skelton and some gorgeous Australian Valkyries, and then I ran into Jane (Mathews) at the party afterwards. Ermes de Zan kindly invited me—he was on our AGNSW tour to Norway and Iceland this May.

Among the singers at that concert was Samantha Crawford, who sang a duet from Tristan and Isolde with Stuart Skelton. She received funding for lessons with Dame Anne Evans and Dame Gwyneth Jones. She returned to Sydney briefly in September and we arranged a concert for her in the home of members Ros and Tony Strong. It was a delightful evening, with Samantha not only singing a number of arias but also showing a DVD of the duet she and Stuart Skelton performed. There was a lovely moment when Australian baritone Geoffrey Chard, a friend of Ros and Tony’s, asked Samantha to take his best wishes back to Dame Anne Evans as he had sung with her during his time in England.

I recently received an email from Jacques Bouffier, who represents the interests of overseas Wagner societies on the committee of the Richard Wagner Verband International Assembly. He reported that at a board meeting held in Berlin in early November, it was confirmed that the overseas societies will be allocated 100 tickets for each of the 5 operas to be presented in 2018 and these will be for the week 23-28 August. Tickets will be divided between 11 societies this year, in proportion to their membership numbers. There will be no Ring in 2018; the operas are Der fliegende Holländer,Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Parsifal and Die Walküre (from the Castorf Ring). The absence of a Ring has resulted in a drop in requests for tickets, which is reflected in the response from our own Society. Jacques will let the Society know how many tickets we have in December. Those interested in applying for them should contact me.

We have had a great response to our trip to Perth for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra concert performances of Tristan und Isolde. Twenty members will make the journey to hear Stuart Skelton and Eva-Marie Westbroek in the leading roles.

Sadly, during the last month two long-standing members of our Society have passed away. Bill Suthers, who, with his wife Margaret, was a founder member (number 14), died at the age of 98. Gabriella Bremner-Moore, who along with her husband Michael Moore was a member of the Committee for some years, died unexpectedly after an operation. Both provided significant service to the Wagner Society in NSW, and their presence will be greatly missed.

Our 2018 program leaflet has been designed by Vice-President Michael Day and is available in this issue of the Quarterly. There are two major afternoon seminars: Antony Ernst on Tristan und Isolde in August and David Larkin on Die Meistersinger in October. We should therefore be well briefed before the performances of these operas in Perth and Melbourne. We are also delighted to be welcoming a great British Wagnerian bass, Sir John Tomlinson, to a social afternoon in February. There will be a range of other interesting presentations and concerts and we are presenting a variety of exciting DVDs.

Secretary Barbara de Rome has continued to involve many members in the preparation of afternoon teas for our meetings. This is much appreciated by all of those attending.

Jenny Edwards, with the assistance of Florian Hammerbacher, has successfully redesigned and updated our home page. All of you should by now have received instructions on how to log in. You will be able to see a much more attractive site containing a great deal of information about the Society and its events. Jenny is also getting material from members on the history and development of the Society. Photographs and newsletters from early meetings would be gratefully received.

Regrettably, Terence Watson, editor of our highly valued newsletter, The Quarterly, has indicated that he is retiring after producing this issue. Terence has been Editor since 2000 and has contributed a great deal to the Society. The Quarterly is admired by societies around the world for its articles and layout. Terence has offered to suggest some options to the Committee for ways in which the Quarterly processes could be streamlined. Some form of printed news and articles will continue to go out to members. And we are interested in hearing from members how they would like to receive the Quarterly.

Let us all look forward to 2018 being another successful year for Wagner lovers and the Wagner Society in NSW.

Colleen Chesterman