Remembering the early years

By Jenny Ferns, Member no. 34

Many years ago, last century (1967), when I was on the typical “working holiday”, a couple of years after leaving school, I was living and working in London. One evening I lined up at the English National Opera to obtain “standing room” tickets (10/-, at the rear of the stalls) for Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nuremburg”. An opera, I believed was the favourite opera of my father, in Sydney. In those days, communication was either by letters, aerogrammes, or, if you were very technologically up-to-date, by sending reel to reel tape recordings. When I gleefully explained to my father that I had been to see his favourite opera, he replied that if I had seen “Die Meistersinger von Nuremburg” sung in English, then I hadn’t seen “Die Meistersinger von Nuremburg”. Naturally, I was very disappointed.

Eventually, on my return to Sydney in 1980, I discovered that the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association) was conducting a 10-week lecture series explaining Wagner’s “Der Ring des Niebelungen”. I duly enrolled in this course, conducted by Werner Baer, in the Bathurst Street headquarters of the WEA. Those days we followed a photo-copied text, learnt about plot, leit-motiven and the poetry of the libretto. The themes were displayed on slides on a screen with an assistant helping the co-ordination from a tape-recorder and the slide projector.

Sometime later, Mr Baer announced that there would be a meeting arranged to create a Society to support the wider education of artists and audiences with, possibly, the opportunity to collectively apply for tickets to performances in Bayreuth, Bavaria, West Germany during the annual Wagner Festival. This attractive idea appealed to me. I joined a group attending, in an Art Gallery in Woolloomooloo, when Richard King and Dr. Leonard Hansen took the initiative to conscript a Committee. Mr Werner Baer together with his wife, Sybil were there together with Clare and Margaret Hennessey and Dr Sue Kelly. Otherwise I knew no-one.

As a result of this gathering many activities were planned. Events were held in the Gallery and other venues around Sydney, such as the Theatrette at the relatively new AMP Centre, Circular Quay and at the German “Concordia Club” in Stanmore. For me the most important activities were the Sunday afternoon sessions where LP recordings of the great Wagner operas were played and participants followed photo- copied bi-lingual librettos. Relatively minor social activity was included. These sessions were conducted by Jean-Louis Stuurop, a very enthusiastic, generous supporter. Later, my parents also participated in membership of the Wagner Society of NSW, enjoying the opportunity to meet other members as well as to apply for tickets for Bayreuth. One year they did have the chance to make a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, a life-long ambition of my father.

When Richard King relocated to Sussex Inlet in the mid-nineties he invited a group of members to visit him there. That was a major exodus and a very lovely “family”’ occasion. Many other functions were held with the objective of raising funds to offer prospective Wagnerian singers the opportunity to have their German lessons subsidised, or even some air-fares provided, for their further study trips to Germany. Usually a repayment came in the form of a discussion or performance opportunity at a Sunday meeting of the Society, to show members what had been achieved as a result of their support. Every year, during the function held closest to the anniversary of the birthday of Richard Wagner (22 May 1813), the gathered members hold a celebratory toast to his memory and achievements.

Over the years I have visited Bayreuth Festspiele during many summers, both alone, or with friends, having acquired tickets either through the Wagner Society of NSW or the Box Office of the Festspielhaus. I have seen most of the productions of the operas, sometimes twice. Consequently, I have stayed at several private accommodations as well as hotels, small and large. Usually I have been to lectures downtown (City Hall, Hofgarten), the American presentations at the Hotel Kongress, or at the Festspielhaus (in German) on the morning of a performance, as well as the new concept of the “Caesuras”. These are presentations in a choir rehearsal room at the Festspielhaus, in German, which describe and elaborate details of the individual productions, including manufacture of props, directorial information or backstage displays of curiosities of great interest to spectators. The long intervals during performances are for mingling or dining and are usually an opportunity to catch-up with “regulars” who may be members of the NSW Wagner Society or folk one has met along the way, from far and wide.

The traditional post-travel presentations held by the Wagner Society of NSW (usually in September or October) at the Sydney Wagner Society meetings, are a refreshing opportunity to re-live the Bayreuth experience in English, sharing ideas with like-minded folk, and newcomers, as well. It’s always surprising what details and impressions arise.

In writing this story, the immensity of the experiences spending a week or more doing Wagner-related activities during every European summer, for consecutive years (other than this one) has felt quite normal. The chances to attend other performances of Wagner in many other cities has been afforded with the help of the regularly updated, listing provided in the Quarterly of the Wagner Society of NSW, from time to time by Camron Dyer, known as “The Raven’s Reporting”. This unique facility is such a valuable reference forum, suggesting travel ideas and performance opportunities, the source of food for thought, throughout the year.

Thank heavens for the existence and continuation of the Wagner Society of NSW. Not only have the regular monthly meetings been an opportunity for endless stimulation, as well as renewed contacts of members, but also the lectures, performances, forums, film-showings and discussions have been a much valued, on-going contribution to my cultural life.

Where else could that happen?

Jenny Ferns, Member No. 34