President's Report March 2005

A Letter from the President

Dear Members

Neidhardt Ring

"At Adelaide we heard three splendid young Australians, Stuart Skelton and Deborah Riedel as the incestuous twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, and Lisa Gasteen as Brunnhilde — and we'll be reminiscing about her to our grandchildren, just as my generation grew up envying those who heard Birgit Nilsson or Kirsten Flagstad." That's how Paul Levy, writing for The Times of London, described Lisa Gasteen's triumphant Brunnhilde in the Neidhardt Ring , and I think that he got it right.

Her triumph stands shoulder-to-shoulder with many others. The Ring in Adelaide was first and foremost a triumph for Stephen Phillips and the team at the State Opera of South Australia, who conceived the idea in the afterglow of the 1998 Strosser Ring with Jeffrey Tate, and brought it to glorious life in the face of many obstacles, the consequences of which may yet impact on the future of SOSA itself.

It was overwhelmingly a welcome triumph for Elke Neidhardt and her creative team. She told Wagner's story in a way that was just right for our current Australian context, where Ring cycles are uncommon and audiences are not all longing to be challenged in the way that many of their northern hemisphere counterparts are. This was done with a mixture of great set pieces - the water, the two great truck scenes of Wotan's Office and the WunderBar, the giant ring and the ring of fire, Fafner's mechanical arm on steroids - and of magical moments of emptinesses with space and light - the end of Act 1 of Die Walkure, the forest of balloons in Siegfried, and many more. Parochialism aside, this Neidhardt Ring was probably the best new Ring anywhere in 2004, and certainly better than many restaged Rings which were tarted up and put on around the world last year to cash in on the sudden thirst for staged cycles.

Ms Neidhardt would not have been true to type had she not been irreverent and vulgar on occasion, and she was. One measure of how much you loved or hated the production would be the number of such moments for you. Not every moment of this Ring production was one of unalloyed joy for every member of the audience, and for some of those seeking a more traditional telling of the story with whom I spoke, alas, every moment was a fresh hell. I think that Ms Neidhardt would agree that she is now perhaps too old to be an enfant terrible , but if there is an award for the eminence gris terrible , it belongs to her. I'm sure the rumours that the Vassals referred to her as "Mrs Hitler" are true, but Vassals are like that these days.

It was a triumph for the singers and chorus, many of whom may not have experienced such prolonged and enthusiastic ovations before. Not far behind Lisa Gasteen's stellar Brunnhilde stands the crowd favourite of John Wegner, who revelled in the physicality of his role, and his new-found hair. Not all singers were of the same standard and quality - some were disappointing, and others were a revelation - but this is not the place to name names.

Can I indulge myself by describing one moment when the direction and the singers came together in an unexpected revelation for me? At the end of Act 1 of Gotterdammerung, Siegfried in the guise of Gunther penetrates the magic fire, seizes the Ring from Brunnhilde,and forces himself on her. (That's a euphemism.) This scene has never worked for me, in productions or on video. Neidhardt's Siegfried, in his tarnhelm (an S&M leather hood probably supplied by one of the sex shops of Hindley Street ) simply stood squatly before Brunnhilde, who sang in terror "Stammst du von Menschen? Kommst du von Hellas "¦" ("Are you mortal? Have you come from hell "¦.?) and the hollow defeated terrified sound with which Lisa Gasteen invested these words won me over to her more than all the other greater moments of her role. At this moment, for me the production and artistry synthetised in the way that only Wagner's music-dramas can. From an almost casual event, a revelation.

It was also a triumph for the Richard Wagner Society of South Australia, which organised three extremely interesting Pause Days with lectures and recitals Wagnerian and related.

It was a triumph of sorts for the happy burghers of Adelaide , who may have been more interested at the time in the cricket and allowed the moment to pass them by. Sadly, it was not a triumph for Adelaide 's sellers of books, CDs and DVDs, who left over 5,000 visiting Wagnerites with nothing to charge on their VISA cards as they wandered the streets forlornly searching through second-hand bookshops for something to sate their aroused shopping genes.

It was also a triumph of judgement for those who at various stages over the past few years have held the financial purse-strings and could have ended this Ring before it was born. This story of the mandarins of the arts funding world, along with representatives of the state government of South Australia, may never be heard other than by rumour, but their decisions to continue funding the project, for whatever reasons they were made, were a vital precursor to this glorious occasion. During the euphoria of the Ring there were rumours about the production being sold overseas to help offset the huge debt that it had created, but nothing more has been reported in the press. It may be some time before we hear cries of "Nach Adelaide!" again.

If you want to see the Neidhardt Ring revived anytime soon, for example, in 4 years time (i.e., 2009), write to Hon Michael Rann, Premier of South Australia and Minister for the Arts, Parliament House, North Terrace, Adelaide SA 5000 and tell him so. The state government will need to provide the initial funding, even if the production ultimately covers all its costs, and without this kick-start nothing will happen.

There was some disappointment that no DVD was to be made of the production. Instead a CD will be available using a remarkable new technology and at a remarkable price, and I'm waiting for that to hit the shops. However, the desire for a visual memento on DVD proves the impact that this production had on those who saw it.

There have been many reviews with many superlatives, and as I'm trying to give them up (superlatives, that is) I won't try to compete with them. Despite this outpouring of critical comment, I have yet to read a review which discusses the use of gas in Nebelheim, or the prisoners hooded Abu Grahib style being hunted in Act 3 of Gotterdammerung, and I hope that these and other symbols in the production aren't overlooked in the discussion.

One theme which many reviews have picked up - a sporting one - is that this production has "lifted the bar" for opera production generally in Australia . It has shown a standard of artistic excellence and intelligence by which all opera future productions will be judged. While the pocket-handkerchief stage in the Opera Theatre (the small venue in the so-called "Opera House" where operas are staged in miniature) cannot compete with the scale of the Adelaide Festival Hall stage, it must compete with the intelligent production values and use of light and space which was a hallmark of the Neidhardt Ring . Productions like the 2004 "Norma" should never see the light of day again.

And now for the rest of the news "¦

This is our first Newsletter for 2005, which sees our Society's 25th anniversary and the 100th issue of this Newsletter.

Our first meeting for 2005 will be on Sunday 20 February at the new time of 2pm . Those of you who are addicted to the earlier starting time of 1pm can come early and help with the arrangements of chairs, nametags, and tables for afternoon tea.

Of course a 2pm start means that we will no longer be having afternoons where complete operas are shown on DVD or video. Instead, where they occur, audio-visual reproductions will be in the context of scheduled talks and recitals. I am currently looking at a number of short videos (generally around 1 hour) relating to Wagner productions (such as Tony Palmer's production of Parsifal with Placido Domingo) which we can show at the end-of-year function, were such short videos have become something of a tradition.

In addition, please pencil in your diaries that, on Sunday 31 July or Sunday 7 August, we hope to host an interview and recital with a special guest artist. Initial discussions are taking place thought Miriam Gordon-Stewart, and we're hopeful of making a definite announcement about this unique opportunity by the AGM in May. If everything works out, this will be a truly wonderful way to celebrate 25 years.

Alas, the only Wagner so far scheduled for performance in Australia in 2005 is a concert performance of Tristan und Isolde in Brisbane on Saturday 30 July, with Lisa Gasteen in the role of Isolde.

Roger Cruickshank 25 January 2005