A Page from the History of Wagner in Australia

By Phillip Bennett: Member no. 925

As part of the Newsletter's ad hoc project to record aspects of the history of Wagner performances in NSW and people's personal experiences within that larger history, I am pleased to bring you a reminiscence from Mr Phillip Bennett, retired of Taree:

Growing up in a small country town during the mid to late 1940's wasn't exactly an ideal place to develop a love for the music-dramas of Richard Wagner. Books on the subject would have been almost non-existent, as were recordings. There certainly weren't any society lectures and I doubt if many people in the town would have heard of Richard Wagner let alone be familiar with his music.

However, fate played its hand in my case with my father having among his collection of acoustically recorded and electrically recorded 78 RPMs the complete Act 1 of Wagner's Die Walkure recorded on eight 12 inch recordings in 1935 by Lauritz Melchior, Lotte Lehmann and Emanuel List with the V.P.O. under Bruno Walter and a single 12 inch recording of the Prelude to Die Meistersinger under Beecham. My father had no real interest in Wagner's music and actually had been given the recordings. His operatic interests were entirely Italian. Also, among his books was a 1922 first English edition of Gustave Kobbe's Complete Opera Book, which was to become indispensable. Then later, thanks to my elder brother in 1948 developing a passion for collecting rare old recordings of operatic arias resulted in my becoming familiar with many Wagnerian 'arias' and singers.

In our family in those days, playing and listening to music was as natural and everyday as was eating and I don't recall any deliberate attempt to make us listen - we just did. By the time I had started high school in 1947 I knew quite a number of Italian arias and singers from my father's record collection and by the early high school years I had developed a deep interest in the music of Act 1 Die Walkure and had played the recordings so many times that I virtually knew the music, in essence, of the full act. There weren't any librettos so the literal translation was out of the question.

As my father's musical interests were mostly in concertos with an interspersing of Italian arias, I turned to Kobbe. Kobbe's descriptive life of Wagner was excellent and the outline of Act 1 of Die Walkure was so wonderfully detailed in the actions of the characters, the motives and the orchestral descriptions that I could not have wanted for more. My self-inflicted interest in Wagner had begun.

One of the first Wagnerian recordings my brother purchased in Sydney was quite an historical one. It was the Parsifal Prelude to Act 3 - the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra conducted by Siegfried Wagner, Richard Wagner's son and recorded in the Wagner Theatre in Bayreuth and issued with the approval of Siegfried Wagner. The total playing time for both sides was 5 minutes and 35 seconds. I would not have known who Siegfried Wagner was at that time but I had read about Bayreuth in the Kobbe.

Snippets of Wagner were becoming known to me through recordings and I was hearing the voices of some of the legendary Wagnerian singers. Then a set of fourteen 12 inch 78 RPM Black Label HMV recordings of an abridged compilation of the three acts to Die Walkure was purchased. The principal singers were Walter Widdop, Gota Ljungberg, Frida Leider, Florence Austral and Friederich Schorr. There were three orchestras and conductors and the labels were numbered in sequence as the opera progressed. We now had a complete (of sorts) Die Walkure and the detail of the work in Kobbe was, for me, out of this world.

Kobbe had many photos of Wagnerian singers of the distant past and there were three I particularly became interested in: Lilli Lehmann was a singer I especially longed to hear. She met the Wagners in 1872 and was Woglinde (a Rhinemaiden) in the first performance of The Ring at Bayreuth in 1876 and later became a great Brunnhilde. Jean de Reszke was declared 'the greatest Tristan heard at the New York Metropolitan Opera' and his brother Eduoard de Reszke was a renowned Hagen, Hans Sachs and King Marke. In time I would get to hear all three.

In November 1950, Eugene Goossens staged Die Meistersinger at the Conservatorium of Sydney. I had turned sixteen in October and would now be seeing a Wagnerian opera. Renee Goossens, in her memoir Belonging, may have adored the looks of the tenor Alan Ferris who played Walter, but I remember I was enthralled by the voice of the bass baritone James Wilson who played Hans Sachs. Then, in June 1953 Eugene Goossens staged Die Walkure. I was now to see my second Wagner opera. James Wilson was Wotan and Alan Ferris was Siegmund. Goossens had found the ideal Sachs and Wotan in James Wilson.

I listened to a lot of short wave radio broadcasts in those days and heard quite a few concerts from countries around the world. The greatest thrill for me was in late 1954 when I tuned into Bavarian Radio and heard a performance of Lohengrin from Bayreuth. Many years later I realised it would have been the second year of Wolfgang Wagner's 1953 production that I heard with Nilsson, Windgassen, Varney and Uhde.

Over time, my collection of recordings, books and videos of Wagner has become quite extensive and I value them greatly. However, my pride and joy is a 10 inch 78 RPM recording lasting 2 minutes 23 seconds of the voice of Jean de Reszke, " the greatest Tristan heard at the Metropolitan". The transfer to disc from a scratchy and almost inaudible cylindrical recording, made on 19th March 1901 from the wings of the Metropolitan of a fragment of the forge scene from a performance of Siegfried, was made over forty years after the performance. My copy was purchased through an auction in the USA about 15 years ago.

Getting to know the works of Richard Wagner, nearly 60 years ago, could not have been achieved for me without the old recordings. Although my first introduction was from the 1935 recordings, to hear the extracts from recordings made in the late 1920's, then even 1904 and up to the 1940's, had set me on the path to a full love and comprehensive understanding of the greatest of the operatic composers. "Compared to this, we are mere mandolin pluckers". (Giacomo Puccini after studying the score to Tristan und Isolde.)

Phillip Bennett

And just to put Phillip's comments into a broader historical context, the period 1923 to 1934 saw a number of other Wagner performances at the Con. In his memoirs, The Distant View [The Currawong Publishing Company Sydney 1943], W Arundel Orchard - for many years Director of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music [August 1923 - July 1934 - successor to Con founding Director, Henri Verbrugghen - August 1915-January 1922, who beat, among others, Engelbert Humperdink!] - lists numbers of performances of music from Wagner operas: Die Feen Overture on 19-8-1931, as well as concert performances of: Die Walkure, Act I on 13-3-1929, Act 3 on 11-3-1931, Parsifal (excerpts from Acts 1, 2, 3) on 11-3-1931, Die Meistersinger, Act 3 on 1-4-1931, Smithy song from Siegfried on 28-11-1928, the Rhinemaidens' song from Der [sic] Rheingold on 18-6-1932, Gotterdammerung - Closing Scene on 25-7-1934 [p.253].

According to the Con's website, there were "interesting" times during and after Orchard's reign: "However, at times during the later part of the stewardship of Verbrugghen's successor, Dr Arundel Orchard (Director 1923-1934), there were tensions with another emerging professional body, the ABC Symphony Orchestra (later to become the Sydney Symphony Orchestra), driven by the young, ambitious and energetic Director General of Music for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, Bernard Heinze.

"It was during the administration of the next director, Dr Edgar Bainton (Director 1934-1948), that the Conservatorium forged another professional association with the world of opera, with the foundation of the Conservatorium Opera School in 1935.

"But it was under Sir Eugene Goossens (Director 1948-1955) that opera at the Conservatorium made a major contribution to what Roger Covell has described as " the most seminal years in the history of locally produced opera...", producing works such as Verdi's Falstaff and Othello, Wagner's Mastersingers and The Valkyries, Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande and Goossen's own Judith  (with Joan Sutherland in the title role)."

Phillip Bennett, Member no. 925

Newsletter No. 99