Remembering the first decade

By Leona Geeves, Member no. 87

Thinking back over the 40 years of the Wagner Society in NSW made me realise that it has been part of my life for almost the whole of that time – at first in attending events and more lately organising those events – talks and concerts, and seminars, and promoting young singers and working out the processes by which we can assist them, by approving the applications for funding from young and emerging singers and creatives.


I think my first knowledge of the Wagner Society came when I saw an ad in the Herald for a session – lecture with piano examples, on I think Wagner themes, at the AMP Theatrette at Circular Quay (now sadly demolished). It was led by the wonderful musician, Werner Baer MBE (who had worked with my father at 2CH and later at the ABC.) He was an eminent musician and composer and one of the Jewish refugee composers). His session had, I seem to recall, pianist Bill Lloyd playing the Leitmotifs.

Early Days: Concordia Club

I recall lengthy recorded sessions (vinyl LPs of course) combined with much coffee and possibly alcohol at the German Concordia Club, at Stanmore, near Newington. These were organised by committee member, Jean-Louis Stuurop. They were great sessions of wonderful music and camaraderie and interesting committed people. And I think over time I would have heard all the mainstream Wagner operas.

Earliest Days: The Print Room

In March 1982, I met Richard King at his gallery, The Print Room, - the Wagner Society HQ – Dowling Street, Woolloomooloo, when my late father, popular historian Philip Geeves, launched the Robert Emerson Curtis book of sketches on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. There was such a crowd that we all gathered in Dowling Street and my father launched the book from the upstairs verandah! This was a happy introduction to the then Wagner Team and HQ, and I joined up gladly. My membership number is 87, and it would have been 1982 when I joined.

The programs in the early years of the Society were intense but maybe that was because it was before the days of the internet and streamed services, and life was simpler. The program embraced talks, seminars, recitals, receptions, dinners and opera performances both in Sydney and the Eastern seaboard. There were two tours to Bayreuth, organised by Neutral Bay Travel, but I will leave those for another time.

The Print Room hosted many events, often revolving around Wagner performances in Sydney. Donald McIntyre was in Australia to play Hans Sachs in the 1988 Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. But he had been at an event earlier at the Print Room. The new German Vice Consul had been invited as a guest to one of these events. The President was introducing the guest of honour and acknowledging various people including the new German Vice Consul – he nodded to an older distinguished man, who looked a bit confused, and kept nodding towards him. Finally, a young smartly dressed woman introduced herself as the Vice Consul. It was very funny.

Other venues we patronised were the Goethe Institut, until it had renovations in the 1980s when the Society had to acquire a range of venues, such as the Opera Centre on Elizabeth Street, the Metcalfe Auditorium at the State Library of NSW, and the Church in the Marketplace at Bondi Junction. The annual dinners took place in a range of large hotels in Sydney, including the Menzies at Wynyard, the Sebel Townhouse in Elizabeth Bay, and the Southern Cross (now The Vibe, near Central).

Talks And Seminars

The Society celebrated the return of various singers from Germany and we heard tenor, Connell Byrne, who was returning for a season with the Tasmanian Opera Company in 1983, talk on the challenges facing a tenor in Wagnerian roles. We also heard him sing on another occasion.

In 1983 there was a reception for Kenneth Neate (formerly known as the Singing Policeman), an Australian Wagnerian tenor, who had had a long career in Germany, had sung at Bayreuth and was Professor of Voice at the Richard Strauss Conservatorium of Music, Munich. Ken was returning to Australia to judge the Metropolitan Opera Auditions. He spoke about the ‘Wagner Voice’ at the Print Room, in Woolloomooloo.

In the very early days the Society’s then Patron, Sir Charles Mackerras, spoke on ‘Love or power – The fatal choice’, at the Qantas Theatrette in George Street. Some years later, local author, Nancy Phelan launched her biography of Sir Charles; Charles Mackerras : a musicians’ musician.

We saw videos of Wagner performances and interviews with singers and directors. We had interesting seminars on every popular Wagner opera and some Strauss ones as well, such as in 1985, on Strauss’ Elektra including such speakers as Richard Toop (Conservatorium); ‘Richard Strauss – the man and his music;’ ‘Aspects of Greek Drama’ by Professor Michael Ewans (University of Newcastle); ‘On performing Elektra’ by Richard Armstrong (conductor, Welsh National Opera) demonstrated by aspects of the 1982 film of the opera with Leonie Rysanek.

There was a 1987 seminar on Lohengrin: - ‘Cuts and Omissions in Performances’ by Dr Leonard Hansen ‘A Musical analysis of Lohengrin’ by Professor Dennis Hennig ‘Myths of the Holy Grail and the Swan Knight’ by Professor Andrew Riemer with a panel discussion on the Lohengrin production comprising as well Maestro Stuart Challender and Elizabeth Connell. The Swan’s farewell was sung by Virginia Lamb, followed by a reception for Elizabeth Connell.

We had a group booking for that Lohengrin at the opera house. Often allied to seminars we had group bookings at concerts and staged performances of Wagner in the Concert Hall. These became like a mini-Bayreuth and instead of the overpriced buffets provided by the SOH, members and friends took their own hampers and camped on the steps of the opera house discussing the finer points of the performance over pâté and cheese and other culinary delights.

A 1989 seminar on Die Walküre with speakers, such as Dennis Hennig - the score - - Professor Andrew Riemer - the myths on which the Ring is based - Discussion panel - speakers plus Donald Shanks and John Wegner, chaired by member Arthur Carter (who also produced the Wagner Society programs on public radio station, 2 MBSFM (now Fine Music).

Another seminar, this time on Tannhäuser with speakers: Werner Baer MBE who discussed the opera and some musical aspects - John Clifton-Everest - ‘The German lure of the Venusberg’ and the wonderful Sandra Hahn who sang Elizabeth’s Greeting and Elizabeth’s Prayer.

We were all very excited when the Government of Western Germany gave Sydney a bicentennial gift in 1988 of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. We had a seminar with the following speakers: Dennis Hennig, (Conservatorium of Music): Analysis of the opera - Dr Ken Moulden (Department of Germanic Studies, Sydney University): Analysis of the libretto - Brian Taylor (Department of Germanic Studies, Sydney University): Historical mastersingers - Sir Charles Mackerras: The opera’s demands on a musician and how he would be approaching conducting the opera. - Dr Leonard Hansen introduced members of the cast: Helena Doese, Eva, Paul Frey, Walter, John Wegner, Nightwatchman, and Reinhard Heinrich, costume designer, and Heather Begg. This was followed by a champagne reception.

This continued onto an annual dinner at the Menzies Hotel, at Wynyard, where we had Reinhard Heinrich as a guest of honour, (he sketched my portrait on a menu, when I asked for his autograph). John Wegner sang and was outrageously funny. The Society had sponsored him as a young singer and he greatly valued the connection and we became like his Sydney family. We had earlier had Michael Hampe, from Cologne Opera, speaking to us - he was the director on that production. That same year at the Christmas party the delightful John Wegner, talked to us about his time in Europe as winner of the 1987 Bayreuth Scholarship, for which we were a major sponsor.

Over the years, we had talks by Arthur Carter and Michael Tesoriero playing old recordings of Wagner singers; Noel Staunton, Technical Administrator, Australian Opera; baritone and opera tour leader, Robert Gay on ‘Liszt and Wagner’; Prof. Andrew Riemer - ‘Wagner’s Ring: How German is it?’ Moffatt Oxenbould, Artistic Director, Australian Opera, on the AO’s Wagner repertoire, Alison Gyger (Jones) talking on Wagnerian opera in Australia, and Simone Young. Active member, Arthur Carter and Ramon Josey also spoke on ‘Wagnerian Singers in Australia’; Robert Gay gave a presentation on Wagner’s early operas: Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi. Wagner Lieder weren’t forgotten and member and musician, Dorothy McCormack, spoke eloquently about them.


1980s: L-R: Mary Watts [member], Leona Geeves [87] & Peters Cousens [member] at an Annual Dinner [photo, courtesy of Leona Geeves].
1980s: L-R: Mary Watts [member], Leona Geeves [87] & Peters Cousens [member] at an Annual Dinner [photo, courtesy of Leona Geeves].

There was a memorable dinner at the Wentworth, where the Society’s Honorary Life membership was bestowed on Leonie Rysanek, who was in Sydney to sing Tosca, with her husband, Ernst-Ludwig Gausmann.

The 1985 annual dinner celebrated Rita Hunter, who sang and entertained guests with amusing tales about productions and her life. She was awarded Honorary Life Membership of the Society for her services to the Wagner tradition in Australia. Werner Baer MBE accompanied Rita on the piano and performed a transcription of ‘Happy birthday for Richard’. And Michel Arnould, our Secretary, who worked in fashion, created a flowing hot pink kaftan for Rita and gifted it to her.

Another dinner, in 1986, was for tenor Ronald Dowd, who sang Tannhäuser’s narration, accompanied by Werner Baer MBE, and later, talked about the early days of opera in Australia and his exploits throughout his long career.

Other dinners celebrated iconic local Wagnerian artists, such as Raymond Myers, Robert Allmann, Conal Coad, and John Pringle, and opera administrator, Moffatt Oxenbould. By the mid 90s the dinners had morphed into lunches and Wagner’s birthday luncheon guest of honour was politician and music lover, Bob Carr at the Ritz Carlton.

Leona Geeves, Member no. 87
Past Vice-President
Honorary Life Member
Artists' Liaison

Wagner Quarterly 161, June 2021