President's Report September 2008

Dear Members

There's been a change to our programme for the rest of the year. Unfortunately, our planned meeting at the Opera Centre in November, which was to have been hosted by Ms Sharna Flowers, has been cancelled. Sharna was to have returned to Opera Australia from maternity leave in July, but for personal reasons was unable to do so. We wish her and her family well.

Our next function is on Sunday 19 October, when Associate Professor Goetz Richter, Chair of the Strings Unit at the Conservatorium of Music, Sydney, will speak on Wagner and Nietzsche. When great friendships sour, the consequences are often bizarre, and we shall undoubtedly hear an extract or two from one of the more famous results of Nietzsche's split from Wagner's circle, Nietzsche's new favourite opera, Carmen.

Our final function for the year is our Christmas party on Sunday 30 November.

Past Functions

(1) July - Peter Bassett 
On Sunday 20 July, Peter Bassett gave a fascinating talk on that "other' Sachs opera, Albert Lortzing's comic opera Hans Sachs, and its influences on Wagner's Die Meistersinger. Peter's talk, richly illustrated with pictures from the period and extracts from both works, showed the connections between Lortzing's and Wagner's circles, and the coincidences between the two works. While it's unlikely that Wagner attended a performance of Hans Sachs, which was written and first performed in 1840, he was fond of the music of Lortzing's Zar und Zimmermann, and used to play and sing extracts for his own amusement. Die Meistersinger was first sketched in 1845, but not finished in 1867.

The presence of quarter of a million pilgrims gathered nearby, Tannhauser-like, at the final gathering for "World Youth Day', and the attendant road closures, had none of the feared impacts, and after our function a group of us took Peter to a performance of Englebert Humperdinck's recently-rediscovered four-hand piano arrangement of extracts from Parsifal, in the Utzon Room at the Opera House. Two of the four hands were provided by Simone Young, with Elke Neidhardt providing the narration in German. This was followed by a lively meal with 10 members of the Society at a nearby restaurant, to celebrate Peter's birthday.

(2) August - Lisa-Harper Brown and Warwick Fyfe, with Stephen Mould 
On Sunday 31 August, Lisa Harper-Brown and Warwick Fyfe gave a wonderful recital, accompanied by Stephen Mould at the piano, of various solo arias, and duets for soprano and baritone. Highlights for me included a sublime rendition of Dvorak's "Song to the Moon' from Rusalka, which Lisa had sung in 2002 at the recital she gave to the Society with Stuart Skelton, and a delightful early Wagner aria in French, which Warwick had prepared specially for the recital. (It was composed for money in one of Wagner's many dark moments in the French capital, before he found a more reliable source of income from borrowing.)

Duets for soprano and baritone are rare but often splendid, and Lisa and Warwick sang the Aida-Amonasro and Senta-Dutchman duets, one of which required Warwick to hurl Lisa rather violently to the floor at one point, a well-rehearsed move which they both survived.

Lisa was in Sydney to cover the role of Donna Anna in an Opera Australia production of Don Giovanni, in which Warwick sang the role of Leporello, and she organised the recital and programme for us. Unhappily, it was poorly attended, with at best 10 Society members among the 37 at the recital, for a variety of reasons. We had some difficulty securing a venue, and we were only able to confirm the use of St Stephens Uniting Church in Macquarie Street, which is frequently used for concerts and recitals because of its bright acoustic, a week or so before the recital. Lisa's husband Michael Paget, who was in Berlin at the time, designed a flyer which Lisa and friends handed out to the audience at performances of Don Giovanni, but despite this effort and the private efforts of members and other music societies, the recital didn't attract the audience that singing of this standard should be able to command. An American tourist, who had been given a flyer at the Opera House, expressed her amazement at the quality of the singing, and the absence of an audience.

(3) September 14 - Dr Robert Gibson 
On Sunday 14 September at the Paddington Uniting Church, Dr Robert Gibson gave the first part of a talk on the life and music of Richard Strauss. Robert described the early influence of Strauss's father, Franz Joseph Strauss, principal horn with the Munich Court Orchestra. While Franz's loathing for Wagner and his music was such that he was the only member of that orchestra who refused to stand in commemoration when Wagner died, he took the younger Strauss to Bayreuth in 1882 to hear Parsifal, conducted by Wagner, as a reward for academic achievement (where the two Richards came face to face, but did not speak.) The second part of Robert's talk will be given next year, and perversely it will include a discussion on the influence of Richard Strauss on Richard Wagner.

I've always been a sucker for a good tune, and as a result of an extract Robert played at the conclusion of his talk, I now have a copy of Guntram, Strauss's first opera, which I like enough not to offer as a prize in the Christmas raffle. (This sad tendency has its limits. You may rest assured, gentle reader, that no matter what lovely tunes from Carmen Herr Richter plays in his talk on Wagner and Nietzsche, I don't expect to rush out and buy another raffle prize.)

(4) September 28 - Christopher Brodrick 
On Sunday 28 September at the Goethe-Institut, Christopher Brodrick, President of the Wagner Society of New Zealand, took us on an extraordinary illustrated journey entitled "Wagner and the Visual Arts'. The journey began for Chris a few years ago when he unexpectedly encountered Renoir's portrait of Wagner in the Musà ©e D'Orsay in Paris. (Renoir wrote to a friend that, on seeing the portrait, Wagner said "Ah! Ah! It's true that I look like a Protestant minister'). Chris's presentation came from years of research he completed on his return to New Zealand, and as well as detailed discussions of the works of four artists - Henri Fantin Latour, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Rackham and Wassily Kandinsky - included a fascinating audio-visual interlude which Chris had prepared, matching Rackham's 60-odd colour illustrations for the Ring with musical extracts from the scenes they depict, a sort of continuous visual degustation with matching music.

That evening, we had a hilarious dinner with Chris and his partner, Sylvia Dixon, where some of the day's themes were pursued in more irreverent surroundings.

Bayreuth 2009
We will be applying for tickets to the following performances at Bayreuth in August 2009: the Ring (third cycle) on Th20, F21, Su23 and Tu25, Meistersinger W26, Parsifal Th27 and Tristan F28.

On 27 July 2008, members were able to watch a direct live high definition broadcast via the internet of the opening performance at this year's Bayreuth festival of Katharina Wagner's production of Die Meistersinger. Some members who signed up for this service were unfamiliar with the picture format, which was a fixed size occupying a relatively small portion of the screen, and could not be enlarged to occupy the whole screen. (This appeared to be similar technology to the "flash' video format used by You-Tube.) There were also some adverse comments on the clarity of the picture, which compared very unfavourably with the high definition broadcasts now seen in movie theatres, for example from the New York Metropolitan Opera, La Scala and the San Francisco Opera.

At this stage we expect that another Bayreuth performance will be broadcast in 2009, and that the quality of the sound and picture will improve each year.

Flying Dutchman in Melbourne
I attended a superb concert performance of Der fliegende Hollander in Melbourne on Saturday 31 August. I thought that the Senta of Gabriele Maria Ronge, who replaced an indisposed Lisa Gasteen at short notice, was superb, and that the cast including John Wegner (Dutchman), Stuart Skelton (Erik), a heavily-pregnant Sian Pendry (Mary), and Bjarni Kristinsson (Daland) were generally outstanding. While I found Oleg Caetani's tempi a little slow, the Melbourne Symphony under his direction produced a wonderfully lyrical sound.

Ronge had previously performed the role of Senta in a production in 2004 at the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome, with Caetani conducting and Bjarni Kristinsson as Daland, so she wasn't unfamiliar with the ensemble.

John Wegner seemed uncomfortably restricted in a concert performance. This most physical of singing actors rocked backwards and forwards and shifted his weight as he stood, as if he might leap across the stage at any moment.

While I accept that I'm often inclined to let my enthusiasm carry me away - even Lady Bracknell was susceptible to draughts - I was surprised by the frequent comments of friends and Society members I spoke to in Melbourne, and later here in Sydney, who didn't share my enthusiasm for the quality of the singers. I accept that in any live performance there will be ugly sounds and occasional muffed notes, which is the price we pay for listening to human beings. Even the greatest singers succumb to this. But overall, although Ronge may have been affected by a cold, the performance was well beyond the ordinary, and overall quite superb.

Superb, but not perfect. I wasn't impressed by the single interval we endured, and recalled another performance many years ago in Melbourne, where an interval was inserted so that players wouldn't breach their contracts by playing more than two hours without a break. I also wasn't impressed with the male choirs, the Melbourne Chorale and men of the Victorian Opera Chorus, who for me didn't produce the depth and intensity of sound I expected from their numbers.

But the thing which impressed me least was the venue. This was my first experience of the Hamer Hall, a tragic venue more crippled by poor design than our own dear Concert Hall in the Opera House, if that's possible. Perspex Frisbees, which creates a false ceiling to allow musicians to hear the sounds they produce, hung shamefully above the orchestra, mirroring our own Perspex donuts in the Concert Hall. I was told that the air-conditioning blows air down the throats of singers, who frequently get sick during a season in the hall, or afterwards; that there is a plan to close the hall for 15 months or more to rectify the problems; and so on.

I attended two performances of the Dutchman in Melbourne. For the first, on Thursday 29 August, I secured an A-reserve seat over the internet, one of the worst seats I have had at any musical event. The rows curve in the Hamer, and the front four rows had been taken out and the stage extended to cope with the size of orchestra. This made F row alarmingly close to the front. I was four seats from the end of that row, which curved so far forward that I was virtually in line with the singers. When John Wegner rocked forwards, I lost sight of the conductor and any other singers sharing the stage at the time. The sound was an unbalanced travesty. With a touch of the Ronald Reagans, I wanted to shout out "Tear down this Hall, Mr Caetani!' But a good seat and a glorious performance on Saturday night was the best revenge.

Flying Dutchman in Adelaide in 2009?
In 2009, State Opera South Australia is rumoured to be staging performances of Der fliegende Hollander with members of this cast - John Wegner as the Dutchman and Stuart Skelton as Erik - and with Margaret Medlyn as Senta. The State Opera's 2009 programme has not yet been confirmed, but we're quietly confident that we will see Wagner again in that superbly festival city.

Although not all the opera companies have released their 2009 programmes, this looks likely to be the only Wagner production in 2009 in Australia.

2008 Bayreuth Scholar
While in Melbourne, I had lunch with the young opera director and winner of the 2008 Bayreuth Scholarship, Cameron Menzies. Over Peking Duck, Cameron and I discussed his wish to produce works which will never end up as raffle prizes, such as Gounod's Faust. During his scholarship visit to Germany, Cameron has secured contracts to work on the Deutsche Oper Berlin's production of Tannhauser, alongside director Kirsten Harms, and with the Kà ¶ln Oper and Hamburg Oper. He's agreed to give the Society a talk next year about his experiences in Germany, although he admitted to being rather intimidated by the quality and capaciousness of Warwick Fyfe's written report as 2007 Bayreuth Scholar, and is unlikely to try to match it.

Wagner programme series continues on 2MBS-FM 102.5 
The series of programmes compiled by Barbara Brady entitled "Wagner and Friends' continues on the first and third Tuesday of every month at 2.30 - 4.00 pm. These programmes share selections from Richard Wagner's music (mainly opera, with some symphonic and choral extracts) with composers who were either contemporaries or had some link with Wagner, and are presented by Gwynn Roberts. The schedule for the remaining programmes is:

(Programme 8) 21 October - Parsifal
(Programme 9) 04 November - Nature in the Ring
(Programme 10) 18 November - Power and Magic in the Ring
(Programme 11) 02 December - Love in the Ring
(Programme 12) 16 December - Birth, Death and Redemption in the Ring.

Our Society is proud to sponsor these programmes, and I'd like once again to congratulate 2MBSFM for its decision to commission this series, and to congratulate Barbara Brady for her work in compiling it.

Roger Cruickshank
9 October 2008