President's Report September 2014

Welcome to the third Quarterly for 2014.

I am currently in Bayreuth, the Wagner shrine. As a result, I am afraid that I have missed some of our Society's more recent events. I am extremely grateful to other committee members for providing their descriptions and their very perceptive insights into these events, as shown later in this letter.

As with last year in Bayreuth, the Government's decision to cease ticket allocations to Wagner Societies has significantly affected the demography of the audience, particularly during the third Ring Cycle. In the old days, this was the cycle to which English speaking societies were invariably given tickets, with the result that a very significant proportion of the audience was English speaking. The New York Wagner Society used to organise fascinating lectures on the morning of each opera, which were attended by hundreds of people. Now the lectures have been discontinued, and the great majority of the audience appears to consist of Germans.

This is the second year of the Castorf Ring. It is a very strange production, but I have to say that many of us who were also here last year have considerably preferred it this year. This must at least partially be because it no longer holds its shock value for us. Also, although it is much the same cast, the singing is generally of a higher order than last year. In particular, Wolfgang Koch has been an outstanding Wotan/Wanderer, and Oleg Bryjak a terrific Alberich. Interestingly, during their confrontation in Act 11 of Siegfried, they looked like mirror images of each other, which makes sense, given that the Wanderer had earlier described himself as "Licht Alberich." Tomorrow evening we finish with Gotterdammerung. Catherine Foster has been in great voice as Brunnhilde, so we have high expectations, at least relating to the musical aspects of the work.

Wagner Society Meeting 15 June 2014 –Prof. Michael Ewans Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s Parsifal (2004): a landmark in Wagner production

Committee Member Nick Dorsch has kindly given me his brief assessment of this function as an introduction to Professor Ewan’s précis of his talk that is reproduced below, along with his answers to some questions on the day.

Following by coincidence an earlier showing on this day of the DVD of Act 1 of the recent Met Opera Parsifal, featuring Kaufmann, Pape and Dalayman, we were treated to a very interesting talk by Prof Michael Ewans. He pointed out that with its obsession with racial purity and its rejection of sensuality and femininity, this work was extremely racist, anti-Semitic and sexist. Its very location in Spain, with the pure Grail knights to the North (the Christian area) and Klingsor’s castle in the South or Islamic area, lends weight to this.

The production includes an outstanding cast and conductor, with Matti Salminen as a non-boring Gurnemanz! Michael showed several extracts from this fascinating production, with many instances of unusual settings and costuming. Most interesting was Act 3, with its ending where Kundry does not die, but she and Parsifal walk slowly off towards a blinding light, followed by several of the younger knights. This implies a rebirth for at least part of the grail fellowship rather than continuing on as the same old decadent, decaying group with a new leader after the problems of Amfortas and Klingsor have been sorted out. (Could it be also an answer to the question of who was Lohengrin’s mother?!) A really thought-provoking production and presentation. Behind and Below the Stage, 20 July 2014 - Roger Press, Assistant Director, Melbourne Ring Cycle and Marnie Sebire, French horn player with the Melbourne Ring Orchestra Our newest Committee member Barbara de Rome has generously sent me her comments to pass on to you, with some additional comments from our Editor, Terence Watson.

It is already seven months since The Ring Cycle was staged in Melbourne and yet there is still much to say about it. We had two speakers to contribute their experience from behind and below the stage. Roger Press was assistant director to Neil Armfield for the production. In his opening remarks, Roger paid tribute to John Wegner, who was to sing Alberich, but had to withdraw because of illness, but only after forming the conception of the character for this production.

In his presentation, Roger focused on the practical challenges of the design elements of the production. Occupational health and safety issues factored strongly in a number of the major visual elements of the staging. The Valkyries all had to have specific training to manage the safety harnesses that attached them to their swings. The sharp eyed in the audience may have noticed the additional Valkyrie whose sole job was ensuring that all harnesses were properly fastened and unfastened as required. She had been a circus performer and had undertaken special training. The Valkyries had to be ready in their swings high above the stage and out of sight of the audience. Several found this found rather terrifying and this could be detected in their white knuckle grasp of the ropes. Roger also revealed that a plan to have Brunnhilde and Sieglinde together on one of the swings was only discounted on the day of the first performance of Die Walkure.

The cherry pickers which carried Fafner and Fasolt put undue weight on the stage floor. The floor had to be strengthened to support them. Union rules require that only trained operators can use this machinery and that is after a three day course. Fortunately, Roger was able to negotiate a deal which allowed Jud Arthur and Daniel Sumegi to undertake just a morning’s training to enable them to operate the lever in the up and down mode only. They were not allowed to operate in any other direction.

Roger told us that the stuffed animals were in part intended to reflect the understanding emerging in the mid-19th century that the natural world was starting to break down and so many cities set up natural history museums to preserve specimens before they disappeared. He explained that, just as Wotan had collected and displayed his precious collection of endangered animals in Valhalla (the animals were lowered into and retracted from scenes to match Wotan’s entrances and exits). He also chose to protect his favourite daughter, Brunnhilde by enclosing her in a similar protective case. The challenge for the team was managing the level of heat from the gas operated flames on Susan Bullock as she lay in the case. She had to contend with a significant level of heat as she lay there, while we enjoyed a very powerful and satisfying ring of fire image.

Another challenge for Roger and the team was timing. The scene where the gold (gold covered iPhone boxes) is piled up to hide Freia had to be precisely timed so that it ended in time with the music. While it appeared to be random, in fact the placement of the boxes was rehearsed many times. Timing was also crucial with the rotating circular walkway. The singers needed to be positioned at the front of the stage when they needed to sing. He also praised the role conductor Pietari Inkinen played in galvanising the orchestra, the production team and the performers – as well as Inkinen’s skill in matching the timing of the music to the precise demands of the production, especially the turning of the great spiral in Die Walkure. Roger also elucidated the meaning of the “Sea of Humanity” featured in the production, pointing out that its first appearance was intended to suggest a petri dish with the beginning of life that quickly evolved to human life.

Roger acknowledged that working on The Ring was an extremely challenging, but exciting period of his career which he hopes to be able to do again. [As a kind of Wagnerian coincidence, Roger was also the director responsible for restaging for Opera Australia the famous Wagner director Harry Kupfer’s production of Otello; perhaps Roger could agitate for his Wagner productions to be transferred to our stages – I’m sure our Members would be happy to help?? Ed.]

Marnie Sebire, a member of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, brought three gleaming instruments to show and play for us: A normal French horn and bass (in F) and tenor (in B flat) Wagnertuben (Wagner “tubes”—ie tubes of metal— not tubas, as they are often called in English; a better term is “horn.” A donation from the Wagner Society in NSW supported Opera Australia’s purchase of one of the horns. Marnie demonstrated the three instruments, showing both her skill and the difference in their pitch and timbre. She explained that Wagner wanted an instrument that would fill in what he heard as a gap in the timbres between the trombone and French horn. He was seeking “A sound that could demonstrate the nobility of the Gods.” From the player’s perspective, Marnie lamented that, as a hybrid instrument, it is never fully in tune, but she hopes that the new ones on order for the Sydney Symphony will be improved! Marnie then shared with us her sense of trepidation that, as well at being the eighth French horn in Melbourne, which gave her the responsibility of starting the whole Cycle, she also had to play the Wagnertuben!

Marnie informed us that Wagner never finalised his notation for the Wagnertuben in The Ring Cycle. The website dedicated to the Wagnertuben [your Editor kids you not!] describes this confusion as follows:

In the score of Die Walkure…the tenor tubas are written in E-flat and the bass tubas in B-flat in an attempt to cater to the band instruments [French horns, etc] that first played the parts and also to the limitations of the players: the parts were thus considered more comfortable for reading. However, the keys of B-flat and F were to be retained in copying the orchestral parts and the music had to be transposed into these keys.

This was the start of the tangled issue of transpositions in writing for the Wagner tuba. Wagner, however, had a change of heart and the parts were not transposed but notated exactly as they had been written in the autograph manuscript. Was this simply indecision on his part or an uncertainty as to the employment and transposition of the new instruments? Wagner evidently preferred E-flat/B-flat notation….

While there is now a fully corrected score used in Bayreuth, the Melbourne performers and conductor had to work out the correct notation. You can read more at

Beyond the Twilight of the Gods: Wagner’s Musical Legacy Antony Ernst—Saturday, 23 August 2014—Colleen Chesterman

Regrettably, I wasn’t able to attend Antony Ernst’s seminar, but, as Colleen Chesterman’s précis shows, it was clearly another great success for Antony and the Society.

 Antony presented his talk to over 80 members and friends. For well over 5 hours, speaking as usual without notes and with many musical examples, he considered how composers came to terms with Wagner's musical innovations. We heard of Bruckner’s adoption of heavier musical forces, of Verdi’s retreat into silence after Aida until after Wagner’s death, of Humperdinck’s brilliant adaptation of Wagner’s chromaticism to interpret a Brothers Grimm folktale Hansel und Gretel.

So much influence: from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, based on Norse myths, to Chausson’s Pelleas et Mélisande. He showed how Wagner transformed stage design, influencing theatre designers Alfred Roller and Adolphe Appia. Emphasising the impact of wars and economic depression on opera, he suggested that, in the 20th century, Wagner's major influence has been on film scores, from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times to Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings. He asked what would have happened had Wagner been shot on those Dresden barricades in 1848? And answered it with a summary of how much poorer our musical culture would have been.

The Hon Justice Jane Mathews