President's Report December 2010 -February 2011

Dear Members

Happy New Year, and welcome to our first Newsletter in 2011. (Click READ MORE for the Report)

Functions in 2011

New Year is the one time when we can allow ourselves a few moments of romantic indulgence, as we gaze across the misty landscape of 2011 and beyond, like the unknown and over-dressed young man in Casper David Friedrich's famous painting 'Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer' (Wanderer above the Sea of Fog). Cynics will tell you that the poor man was blind, and that with his next step he plummets cane and all onto jagged rocks below, but not every story has a happy ending.

For our Society, I hope that 2011 will be an important year on our way to the milestone of 2013, when we will celebrate both the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner's birth and the Armfield Ring in Melbourne.

Our first function for 2011 is on Sunday 20 February, when David Larkin will give a talk entitled 'Cui bono? The Liszt-Wagner relationship reconsidered.' (In case your Latin is a little scratchy, Wikipedia tells us that cui bono means 'to whose benefit?', literally 'as a benefit to whom?'.) In its own right, 2011 is the 200th anniversary of Liszt's birth, an anniversary without which Wagner's life could have ended very differently in 1849.

David Larkin teaches courses in musicology and music analysis at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, with the music and aesthetics of Richard Strauss, Wagner and Liszt his main research interests.

On Sunday 20 March, Dr Terence Watson will speak on 'Rousseau and Wagner: musician-philosophers', which forms a chapter of his forthcoming book on Wagner.

Tony Palmer was to have toured Wagner Societies in Australia and New Zealand from mid-March to mid-April this year, visiting Sydney from April 1 to 4. Unfortunately his tour has been postponed, and we will let you know when it is rescheduled. Mr Palmer recently released a special commemorative 25th anniversary edition of his epic film 'Wagner' starring Richard Burton and Vanessa Redgrave, and in 2009 released a new documentary 'The Wagner Family'. He was hoping to show these to audiences in Australia and New Zealand during his tour.

On Sunday 17 April Brendan Carmody, the inaugural winner of the 'Berlin New Music Opera Award' will talk about his three months in Europe, including working with Barry Kosky at the Komische Oper Berlin.

Sunday 22 May is the 198th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner, and will be our Annual General Meeting, a recital by Rachel Bate, and a birthday celebration for RW.

Bayreuth 2011 - the 100th Bayreuth Festival

We have been fortunate to obtain 12 sets of tickets for the 2011 Bayreuth Festival. The performances and dates are:

Meistersinger - Wednesday 24 August 2011

Tannhauser - Thursday 25 August

Lohengrin - Friday 26 August

Parsifal - Saturday 27 August

Tristan und Isolde - Sunday 28 August

As a number of the original applicants have withdrawn their applications, we have sets of 5 tickets available to members only. If you're interested, please contact Roger Cruickshank on 0414 553 282.

News from abroad

In my letter to members in Newsletter 118, I reported that Jessica Pratt had received excellent reviews for her performances in the title role of Rossini's opera Armida at the Garsington Opera in Oxfordshire, UK. Jessica has now debuted at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in the role of the Queen of the Night in Mozart's Die Zauberflote, under the baton of Sir Colin Davis. Although the season began on 1 February, I haven't yet found a review of Jessica's performance in a major paper, but I'll let you know when I do.

In 2010, Miriam Gordon-Stuart debuted in Bayreuth in the role of Helmwige. In October last year, one of our most peripatetic members Elizabeth Gordon-Werner, saw Miriam sing the role of Ellen Orford in Britten's opera Peter Grimes in Bremerhaven, one and a half hours by train from Elizabeth's home in Hamburg. Elizabeth reports that 'Miriam was wonderful - a great actress as well as having a lovely voice.' Miriam is also the current odds-on favourite for the role of Sieglinde in the Armifield Ring in Melbourne in 2013. If this rumour is now official, I've missed the confirmation.

James Roser, a young baritone whom the Society helped in 2009 with tuition in Europe, has been living in Berlin, working regularly with staff at opera houses and with a number of pianists and singers on some of the major song cycles in the Lieder repertoire. James will be in Germany for the remainder of the year, and will give the Society a talk and recital when he returns to Australia in 2012.

And one last report from Elizabeth Gordon-Werner, this time on reaction to Simone Young's recent season of Gotterdammerung in Hamburg, the last step in assembling her Ring Cycle, which so many members will be attending later this year. Elizabeth saw the premier of the season on 17 December 2010, and was stunned that the orchestra, conductor and producer were all booed. She reported that 'The Hamburg Abendblatt's assessment of Gotterdammerung was cutting. The header read 'Wagner's 'Gotterdammerung': Apocalypse without Wow' and finished with the sentence 'Jetzt beginnt, schneller als gedacht, die Gottinnendammerung in der Staatsoper Hamburg.' (Now begins, faster than we imagined, the Twilight of the Goddess at the Hamburg Opera.)' As Elizabeth commented, 'How difficult it is to stay on a pedestal.'

Stephen Fry's documentary 'Wagner and Me'

The Orpheum theatre in Cremorne (Sydney) will be showing a documentary film made by Stephen Fry entitled 'Wagner and Me' in limited release from 3 March. Fans of Stephen Fry will need no encouragement to see this film, which builds on some of the themes first developed in Mr Fry's appearance on the English television show 'Who do you think you are?'

The film was originally screened in August last year on BBC4, and since then has become something of a cult classic, like its maker. It has its own serious website - - and YouTube is awash with spoofs of the programme, some of which are remarkably inventive.

Quite what Mr Fry's legions of admirers will make of all this Wagnerism, I'm not sure. Nor can I begin to guess how Herr Wagner's own legions will react to Mr Fry's unique perspective as he attempts (as the movie trailer says) to 'save the music he loves from its dark and troubled history'.


Last September, I had the pleasure of attending a Ring Cycle in Lubeck, around 60km north-east of Hamburg. The old city of Lubeck is on an island in the Trave River, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has a population of some 215,000, and is the largest German port on the Baltic Sea. So much for the tourist brochures.

In the clichà ©d tradition of small places which do things well despite being overshadowed by a more famous neighbour, Lubeck is said to 'punch above its weight' in many areas, including opera performances. It may not have the financial and artistic resources of Hamburg's eagerly awaited Ring Cycle under the baton of Simone Young, but Lubeck's Cycle was no less an extraordinary artistic and musical achievement.

I'd like to share with you some random and personal recollections, views and details of the Cycle and other things, many more of which may find their way into a coherent review on our website in due course.

Tickets to the whole cycle ranged from 72 to 172 Euro (at that time, A$120 to $290). Naturally, my friends and I splashed out on the premium tickets, but worried until the tickets arrived that they were so cheap that we might only be going to Rheingold. The argument you hear about this kind of pricing is that it's only possibly because opera is heavily subsidised by the German government. Since poor American mortgage lending practices triggered a global financial crisis, this is no longer true, if it ever was, as the number of opera companies closing down across Germany shows. And a country which spends A$46 million to buy one vote for a game of soccer is hardly on high moral ground when denouncing subsidies.

The opera house itself is small, until the curtain goes up. In the stalls, where we sat, there are only 15 rows of seats. All up, counting the balconies and 3 tiers of circle, the capacity of the Grosses Haus Lubeck is 780. Not all seats were filled - I had never seen empty seats at a Ring Cycle before - and some seats were taken by musical instruments, with the harps occupying the balconies, and with video cameras, which recorded every performance.

Nothing of this small-scale, cosy atmosphere prepared me for the shock of seeing the stage area when the curtain went up. Size, as Lady Bracknell might have opined, really is everything when it comes to stage area. It was huge, vast, immense and cavernous, but I cannot say how many Olympic-size swimming pools (our national unit of volume measurement) it would have contained. As an indication, during Rheingold there were a number of containers on the stage, and many more floating in the vast space above it. (In the early stages above the Rhine, it really was a construction site.) These are adapted to work as offices and sheds on the site, and chillingly, the Giants take Freia into one overnight while Wotan and Loge go down to rob Alberich of his gold. There is no doubt in this production that the Giants rape Freia, although the inference is subtly drawn.

Not so subtle is the scene at the end of Gotterdammerung, when Hagan's thugs (alas, we Vassals aren't a nice lot in this production) rape Gutrune offstage, and to ensure that none of us has missed the point, she returns with blood smeared generously over her thighs. She needs to have a little motivation, it seems, to kill Hagan at the end of the show, saving the Rheinmaidens the bother of dragging him down into their watery depths. As Hagan had speared her own beloved husband in the back, so Gutrune thrusts a spear (which Brünnhilde has conveniently dragged around all night) into Hagan's side, proving perhaps that what goes around, comes around. Or that opera producers who laboriously stage a Ring Cycle one work a year over 4 years have by the end run out of ideas and out of interest. Perhaps they have a Lulu to stage?

The outstanding singer of the cycle was the glorious Brünnhilde of the young American soprano Rebecca Teem. She too has her own website ( where you can hear her immolate with a few screeches to a rather lacklustre piano accompaniment. This is a pale imitation of the wonder we saw and heard in the flesh in Lubeck, but it gives a glimpse of what I hope the full DVD version will show abundantly - a wonderful actress, and a glorious voice. Nothing about her physical appearance prepared me for the vocal power and intelligence she mustered in that role. Remember the name - Rebecca Teem!!

At the start of Act 1 of Gotterdammerung, Rebecca and Siegfried and their family of 10 or 12 kinder of a certain cutesy age are enjoying domestic bliss as Siegfried prepares for his journey. Perhaps daddy is going to catch the morning train? Another child arrives, 8 or 10 years old, and with his slicked-down black hair, toothbrush moustache and lederhosen, we know we're not in Kansas any more. So do the other children, who quickly line up in terrified serried ranks until Rebecca shoos the Child Adolf away. (During the interval, I asked someone who had driven up from Munich for the performance whether German opera viewers were tired of having the Nazi era rammed down their throats when opera producers ran out of ideas, and he replied politely that it was meant to be 'ironic'.) Child Adolf makes one more head-banging appearance, when Rebecca was at her weakest moment after Waltraute's home visit, wearing a Wolf's Head over his own and tormenting her. Such subtlety.

When Siegfried in the guise of Gunther comes to take Rebecca by force to the Gibich, Hagan's thugs murder the whole screaming bunch of kinder surprises, and not a moment too soon. I'm making a list of other operas where Hagan's Boys could rid us of cutesy children's choruses, and Carmen and La boheme are up there at the top.

The production was suitably modern regietheatre. Rheingold was brimming full of interesting images and ideas, and after that it went downhill. (Will M. LePage's Great Big Machine for the NY Met go the same way, I wonder?) The character of Loge was particularly well drawn, and as with the other actors the actions matched each word and each musical cue. Unhappily, the actor who sang Loge was short, fat and ugly, with curly hair and particularly distinctive glasses, which still doesn't explain why I was regularly approached during intervals by people who assumed that I had sung Loge. It's not flattering at my age to be mistaken for a tenor!!

After Rheingold, the ideas began to fail. By Siegfried, the whole conceit was in the stage machinery. A giant revolve, like one of those circular Vache cheeses with segments in foil, was our stage, and when it was spinning happily along our hero could jog through each of the separate revolving sets when the ideas dried up. One was a rather well equipped bar, where Mime mixed drinks. Another of the dried up ideas was the decayed body of Sieglinde, seated in an arm-chair and wrapped in a blanket, past which her son jogged happily as she revolved across our stage. The Woodbird was a rather voluptuous nurse and spectacularly gifted soprano, under Wotan's control, who carried a giant hypodermic needle and injected people with gallons of a substance which turned them into the Living Dead of many a B-grade movie, Nosferatu among them. Did it mean anything? Did I care? Alberich suffered this fate and hadn't found the antidote when he came to pester Hagan during his Watch in Gotterdammerung.

In Rheingold, while Erda was warning Wotan to give up the Ring (and Wotan was wondering how many children she could bear him), three wonderfully clad slender women in the style of Hindu goddesses draped in spectacular costumes glided majestically across the stage. These were the Norns in happy times. By Gotterdammerung, they have become the most degenerate bar girls, entertaining Hagan's thugs in one of his local establishments. Or were those the Rheindaughters? Actually, it didn't matter.

Melbourne Ring Cycle - 2013

I would like to thank Ms Maureen Wheeler, a major donor to the Melbourne Ring Cycle in 2013, for agreeing to give our Members an insight into her introduction to Wagner's music and how that led to her to joining the ranks of tragic 'cyclists' scouring the globe for another 'fix' of the potent brew that Wagner concocted in The Ring Cycle. We are privileged that Ms Wheeler has taken the time to write the article for our Newsletter (see below). Many of our Members have shared Ms Wheeler's 'road-to-Damascus conversion,' and will find as well as finding much to think about in her assessments of the various Cycles she has attended over the last few years.

And there, gentle reader, my reminiscences must end. Ring Cycles are a magic elixir for Wagnerians, and this one for all its faults was pure ambrosia. It was an overwhelming undertaking brilliantly executed, and a deeply satisfying and difficult experience. I hope that Neil Armfield's 2013 Ring will be that for all of us, and more.

Roger Cruickshank