President's Report December 2006

Dear Members

This is my final report for 2006. I hope this newsletter finds you all in good health, having survived the bunfight of 2006 year-end activities and ready for another scorching antipodean summer, and for 2007's Wagner treats.

Locally, so far as we can tell from the published programmes of Australian opera companies and orchestras, Wagner performances are limited to the Australian Opera's performances of Tannhauser and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's performances of the Siegfried Idyll.

The closest item of interest is in Wellington, where the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is following up the success of this year's semi-staged Parsifal performances with an all-Wagner concert on Friday, 7 September 2007, including Margaret Medlyn singing the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and the Immolation from Gotterdammerung.

Further afield, and much more colourful and exotic, the Bangkok Opera is staging Die Walkure in July 2007. Peter Bassett is leading a tour which includes a performance on Thursday 26 July. He writes "The Bangkok production emphasises the universal nature of Wagner's work by linking it to Thai experience and to the Hindu and Buddhist philosophies that Wagner regarded so highly during the last three decades of his life. The Artistic Director of Bangkok Opera, Somtow Sucharitkul, approaches the work from a distinctively Asian perspective, and the result is intriguing and surprising."


On 17 September, members who had been to Bayreuth in 2006 reported on the performances and in particular on the new Dorst/ Thielemann Ring, and on Bayreuth's new Brunnhilde, Linda Watson. Dennis Mather and John Studdert led the Ring discussion with an excellent presentation of photographs from the programmes and other sources. The general impression of Herr Dorst's production, with the theme that "the Gods are among us, but we can't see them" was very favourable, with most members rejecting the charge that this was one-dimensional production, finding it instead more multi-layered and textured than many of the overseas critics. There was general praise for Thielemann's shaping of the music and his general structure and tempi, and, despite some reservations, admiration for much of Watson's singing.

Elizabeth Gordon-Werner spoke about her very personal and favourable reaction to Christoph Schlingensief's much-maligned production of Parsifal, and read from notes she made at the time which she has since turned into an article, printed in this Newsletter. After the Parsifal performance, Elizabeth went back to her hotel room and wrote down her impressions, reactions and feelings while they were still raw, and the images and sounds were still very close to her, which makes the article very real and immediate without the distance which a more deliberate view might contain.

On 15 October, Alan Whelan gave an illustrated talk on Rienzi, Wagner's only work in the style of French grand opera, sometimes described as the best opera Meyerbeer never wrote. The story includes Wagner's only adventure with trouser roles, where, at the premiere in October 1842, his favourite soprano Wilhelmine Schroder-Devrient sang the role of Adriano, Rienzi's son. Amazingly to our ears, while writing Rienzi, Wagner also worked on The Flying Dutchman, which failed in its first season and was replaced by further performances of Rienzi, to restore the composer's popularity.

Although Rienzi was Wagner's first truly popular work, and perhaps the most popular of his works during his lifetime, Wagner experimented both with giving the opera over two evenings (as Opera Australia did unsuccessfully with Berlioz' Les Troyens) and with making cuts so that the work could be performed in a single evening. None of these experiments was sufficiently successful to induce his family to allow Rienzi to be given in Bayreuth after his death.

We all endure Emile Naumann's quote from Rossini, allegedly made to him in April 1867, that "Monsieur Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart d'heures", generally given as "beautiful moments but bad quarter hours". Alan notes that by April 1867, Rossini could only have heard music from the early and middle works, up to Lohengrin, and possibly from Tristan und Isolde. If the quote is accurate, it might most probably apply to Rienzi and not, as it is often applied by reviewers and critics, to the Ring or other late works.

On 26 November, Nigel Butterley gave a talk entitled "Faust, Mephistopheles - and composers", tracing both the sources of the legend and composers who have set it to music. Unfortunately, because of a technical problem with new audio-visual equipment installed at the venue, it was not possible to present all the musical extracts as Nigel had intended, and we apologise again for the inconvenience this caused both to Nigel and our members. The most dramatic extract which Nigel played was by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998), from his opera the Historia von D. Johann Fausten, which incorporated his earlier Faust Cantata (1983). The acclaim which greeted this late 20th century work was somewhat unexpected.

In April 2007, Nigel Butterley will deliver a further talk on the influence of the Faust legend on composers, particularly focussing on Faust and the Feminine.

Our Christmas Party was held on Sunday 10 December, and a documentary on Waltraud Meier "I follow a voice within me" was shown. Our party was a little less formal than in previous years, but still included many traditional touches, foremost among them another of Barbara Brady's legendary Christmas Cakes, which was first prize in our raffle and was won by Colin Baskerville. Our thanks to Barbara, and to Roger Hillman, head of Film Studies at the Australian National University for a copy of his book "Unsettling Scores: German Film, Music and Ideology," and to our Ravens for a CD set of the Solti "Walkure", which were also raffle prizes.

Next year's functions

We're in the process of negotiating with presenters for a number of next year's functions. At this stage we can confirm the February meeting, at which Terence Watson and others who attended the Toronto and Costa Mesa Rings will discuss the productions, singers, conductors, orchestras and venues for each of these performances. Expect some unflattering comparisons with their Australian equivalents, particularly the acoustics of our own beloved Opera House. It will be followed by a short talk by Terence: The "Problem" of Siegfried.

In April, we have Nigel Butterley's second Faust talk, "Faust and the Feminine", and in May our celebration party at the Goethe-Institut for Wagner's birthday, along with our AGM and what for many is the highlight of our year, the recital by students from the Conservatorium of Music, who have received German Language Scholarships from our Society.

Newsletter compliments

Once again, our thanks and congratulations go to Terence Watson, our Newsletter Editor, and to the high-quality bank of contributors he marshals to produce each Newsletter. I've recently received praise for the Newsletter from the Presidents of two local Wagner Societies, and from members of our Society both here and overseas.

Praise is also due to our unsung heroes, Ravens Richard Mason and Camron Dyer, who keep our calendar of future Wagner performances world-wide so up-to-date. I often find links from the websites of overseas Wagner Societies to this page of our website, allowing Wagnerites everywhere to take advantage of their research when making their travel plans.

Membership Renewals

It's time to renew your membership for 2007, and a form is provided on our website at

This year, you can send your payment electronically to our bank account, if you wish. Please don't forget to post your renewal form as well. Unfortunately, because of the high fees involved, we don't currently offer the facility to pay membership fees by credit card, but will be looking at the PayPal online payment system to see if that's viable for us.

Other Wagner performances

This year, the Richard Wagner Society of Western Australia Inc celebrated its 20th anniversary, and we congratulate them on achieving this milestone. The Society had much more than its own anniversary to celebrate, with the West Australian Opera's production of Tristan und Isolde in November being the highlight of the Wagner calendar in Australia in 2006. Reviews and members reports of the performances, and of the seminar organised by the Perth Society, have been glowing. The March edition of the Newsletter will feature some comments by members and an overview of media critiques and some comparisons with other productions. As a foretaste, we are fortunate to have a short essay by Peter Bassett in this newsletter, Image and Idea - Tristan and the Upanishads.

Bookings for Tannhauser in Sydney in 2007

Tickets for Opera Australia's re-staging of the Neidhardt Tannhauser, with seven performances in October 2007 and one in November, are apparently selling fast. Member Colin Baskerville called the box office to order an additional ticket, and was told that there were very few seats available, and that they were expected to be sold out by the end of December 2006. If this isn't part of your 2007 OA subscription, or you're planning to visit Sydney and catch a performance, you had better book now. The cast as advertised is Bernadette Cullen as Venus, Glenn Winslade Tannhauser, Janice Watson Elizabeth, Daniel Sumegi Hermann and Warwick Fyfe Wolfram.


I'd like to tell you about an internet-based video-clip phenomenon which has some interesting Wagner-related and musical items. Those of you who know your way around this world-wide waste of time will probably know about "YouTube" already, and those of you who regard the Internet with justified suspicion will be unwilling to venture there. But if you have a few spare moments over this holiday season and access to a computer, you may find this a journey worth undertaking.

First, YouTube is a free service. It's at As far as I can tell, young people, mostly American, with digital video cameras and too much time on their hands film each other doing pointless things and then "post" their video efforts on YouTube so that others can watch them. The clips range from the juvenile, such as the results of eating a few rolls of Mentos and then drinking Coke, or playing with matches close to one's person after a meal of beans, to the criminal, such as the activities of a group of school children in Victoria who filmed themselves setting fire to a young woman they had abused.

But in the midst of all this suspect material, there are some gems. This site is also used by lovers of Wagner and other music to post clips of opera performances. If you go to you will see Kirsten Flagstad, after an introduction by Bob Hope, singing a few HoJoToHos from Die Walkure, standing on a fake rock and poking her spear in a manner that may draw titters from a younger audience. I suspect that this is from the Ed Sullivan Show, or something similar, and dates from the early 1950s when I was still in nappies, but as I never saw her sing live, and don't recall seeing her on any film of an opera performance, this 3 minutes and 15 seconds holds me in thrall.

Then there is my current personal favourite - It's described as "Richard Wagner Lohengrin Act 3 Final. Magyar à llami Operahà ¡z Budapest Hungarian TV 2004", which by YouTube standards is a very full description, and contains 9 minutes and 11 seconds from the end of Act 3 of Lohengrin. As well as seeing a fragment from a very interesting staging, you can see and hear an Ortrud of exceptional vileness in so many ways.

And with these two examples you encounter the best and worst of YouTube. Articles about this site, which is often modestly described as a "phenomenon", say that over 100,000 new clips are added each month. At the same time, YouTube's Thought Police troll through this material deleting inappropriate and copyright items, so Kirsten and Ortrud will probably one day disappear. But until they do, they and a wealth of material you may never otherwise see are waiting for you to enjoy.

Although YouTube is free, you should probably give them your email address and register. It may make logging on and searching easier. It's anarchic, because the people who post the clips are allowed to use any tags (key words) they like to describe their material, and it is these "tags" which allow other people to find your clips - or not. A search on a "tag" such as "Callas" is as likely to produce a drag queen miming "Visi d'Arte" as it is the real thing. The Flagstad clip has four tags - Kirsten, Flagstad, Wagner and Walkure - and a search on "Flagstad" gets you four results, so it's the most direct. The Lohengrin clip has three tags - Wagner, Lohengrin and Opera - and a search on "Lohengrin" will give you 21 results. A search on "Wagner" gives over 2,000 results, but a search on "Richard Wagner" only 115, which is much more manageable. A search on "Bayreuth" gives around 300 results, and mixed in with the holiday videos from happy Burghers and clips from the 2006 German Tennis Open, there are extracts from productions by Wieland Wagner, and other delights. You just need to be a little Mime and mine for them.

On the downside, YouTube uses "Flash" technology which means that the picture size on your PC or laptop screen can't be changed, and that without some technical sophistication you can't copy the clips and keep them for later on. But if you have time to waste, this is a fertile place to waste it. So far, I have found seven different live clips of "Suicidio" from Ponchielli's La Gioconda , including Bumbry and Rysenak as well as Tebaldi and Callas, and within the confines of the little Flash screen and the best sound your PC or laptop can produce, you can compare and contrast the greatest singers of our age in performances you might otherwise never see. And that for me is a folly on which it's worth wasting a little time.

Bayreuth 2007

We've received an allocation of eight sets of tickets for Bayreuth 2007. Under our new ticketing rules, this means that the six applicants who have been members of the Society and have not had tickets to Bayreuth through the Society in the past five years have all been successful. They are Colin Jones and Paul Curran, June Donsworth, Jan Bowen, and Julie and Terry Clarke. At the Christmas Party there was a ballot for the remaining two tickets, and Monica and Aliro Olave were the lucky winners. As usual, Members attending Bayreuth 2007 will lead a discussion on the performances at our September 2007 function.

Let me wish you all a very safe and enjoyable summer holiday break, and I look forward to seeing many of you at one of our functions in 2007.

Warmest regards, Roger Cruickshank