The first talk by Our Patron Sir Charles Mackerras, 12 October 1981

By Dr Sue Kelly, Member no.4

A large gathering of members heard our Patron, Sir Charles Mackerras, give a very interesting talk on “Wagner in Concert” at the Women’s Hospital, Crown Street, on 12 October 1981, which was organised by Peter Bone. It followed the triumphant performance of ‘Götterdämmerung’.

Wagner Society Foundation President Dr Leonard Hansen introduces guest speaker and Wagner Society Patron Sir Charles Mackerras

The whole problem of Concert vs. Staged Opera is a vexed one, but a degree of historical perspective was introduced by Sir Charles who noted that “arrangements” of many works were common in the past, e.g. Reduced Orchestration of Operas, some even approved by Wagner for his own works - after all, before wireless or records, what did people do for music? (Piano duet arrangements of Mozart Symphonies were a favourite evening entertainment at Wahnfried, according to Cosima Wagner’s Diary). This is not to suggest that the Australian opera should “think small” however.

Sir Charles did feel that some operas were more suited to concert performance than others, perhaps those where the Plot Absurdities were more marked than usual (dare one say Bel Canto) or where the often very fine music would not otherwise be heard, such as some early Verdi. A concert performance has sometimes given a whole new lease of life to some music.

No one should think that a concert performance just involves a ‘run through’; problems of positioning singers requires a lot of thought, such as the Valkyries in the Melbourne concert who were elevated and to the side of the main singers. The chorus presented a special problem, with difficulties of entry not apparent when the work is done on stage and the action is being followed by the singers. Apparently there had been some criticism of the dress of the singers in the Melbourne and Sydney performances and reasons behind the choice were discussed.

We were left in no doubt that words were as important as the music (homework should be done) for full enjoyment and appreciation of Wagner. For this reason, being able to follow a libretto in a concert is a big plus. Sir Charles then went on to talk of the crucial importance of the Leitmotif — central to an understanding of the concept of The Ring. He spoke of Wagner’s constant inventiveness in this regard from simple to complex themes, all held together and developed in some cases over many years. He made the excellent suggestion that in future concert programmes the libretto could contain the words in German and English and the appropriate leitmotif could be indicated beside the words. This would be a boon for all Wagner lovers and (I believe) confound the sceptics with the sheer skill and beauty of Wagner’s achievements.

The role of the producer was mentioned in question time and in every case Sir Charles believed the music and the composer come first. Gimmicks did not find favour with him. He spoke briefly of singers needing to specialise when singing Wagner – in a sense they would find other singers difficult. The wonderful conversational aspect of the singing was stressed. Wagner’s orchestration, he feels strongly, helps rather than hinders singers.

In summary, it was a fascinating talk from an informed and dedicated Wagnerian —- we hope the first of many such talks. We are indebted to the Administration of Crown Street Hospital for making the venue available and for providing supper afterwards.

Sue Kelly, Member no.4