Wagner in Australia – the crucial years
Richard Wagner arrived in Australia (metaphorically speaking) on 18 August 1877, one year after the first Bayreuth Festival, when Lohengrin was performed at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Melbourne by William Lyster’s Royal Italian and English Opera Company. Melbourne in those days was the largest, most prosperous and most cosmopolitan of colonial cities, courtesy of the gold rushes. The 1877 opera season also included Aida which was, at the time, Verdi’s latest opera. Lohengrin on the other hand was thirty years old and had long been surpassed by Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, and the entire Ring, and yet how avant-garde it must have seemed to those Melbourne audiences! It was sung in Italian, with the principal singers coming from Europe and the United States. The music was under the direction of Alberto Zelman who, lacking a copy of Wagner’s orchestral score, simply took a piano version and orchestrated it himself. Zelman had arrived in Australia six years earlier from Trieste via India and, although he had conducted operas in northern Italy, it seems that he had never actually seen or heard a Wagner production. On his arrival in Sydney, he had joined the Cagli-Pompei Royal Italian Opera Company and toured the Australasian colonies, eventually coming under Lyster’s management. His son, by the way – also called Alberto Zelman – founded the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Soon after the Lohengrin performances, a local resident Emil Sander wrote to Wagner to inform him of this noteworthy event – a fact recorded by Cosima in her diary. The entry for 21 October 1877 reads: ‘He receives a letter from a theatre director in Melbourne, according to which Lohengrin last month made its ceremonious entry there, too.’ The following day, Wagner replied to Sander as follows:
My very dear Sir,
I was delighted to receive your news, and cannot refrain from thanking you for it.
I hope you will see to it that my works are performed in ‘English’: only in this way can they be intimately understood by an English-speaking audience. We are hoping that they will be so performed in London.
We (that is, I and my family) were extremely interested to see the views of Melbourne which you sent me: since you were kind enough to offer to send us more, I can assure you that I should be only too delighted to receive them.
Please give my kind regards to Herr Lyster, and, however remote your part of the world may be, continue to be so well-disposed towards
Your most grateful servant,
Sander omitted to mention that the music heard by Melbourne audiences had been orchestrated by Zelman!
William Lyster, the producer, was a colourful Irishman and soldier of fortune. Dublin-born, he had lived in Calcutta for a while, served as a volunteer in the Kaffir war in South Africa and joined an ill-fated expedition to Nicaragua where he took part in several battles before forming an opera troupe in the United States with his brother Frederick as conductor and himself as musical director. In 1861, he set sail with a full chorus and orchestra to gold-rich Melbourne. The company’s repertoire was said to include over thirty operas. Performances were given in Melbourne, other Victorian centres, Adelaide, Sydney and throughout New Zealand. During a hunting expedition in 1867, Lyster accidentally shot one of his tenors and, soon afterwards, the company returned to the United States where it was eventually disbanded. In 1870 he came back to Melbourne to pursue new operatic ventures including Lohengrin, which was repeated in New Zealand at Dunedin in November 1877.
The next impresario of note to Wagnerians was George Musgrove, who had arrived in Melbourne from England at the age of twelve in 1866. He worked for a time for Lyster (to whom he was related by marriage) and for the American, J C Williamson. In 1900, under his auspices, Tannhäuser and The Flying Dutchman were given their first Australian premieres (Tannhäuser had 28 performances and the Dutchman 10). In the same season, there were 32 performances of a new production of Lohengrin. So, in 1900, 70 performances of Wagner’s works were given in Australia, divided between Melbourne and Sydney.
On Saturday 4 May 1907 – a famous day in Australia’s operatic history – Musgrave staged Die Walküre for the first time in this country. 12 performances were given in German, including a few in Melbourne that had standing room only. The conductor was Gustave Slapoffski, half English and half Russian by birth, and completely English by upbringing. He claimed he had had a lot of trouble getting permission from Cosima Wagner to perform the opera, which sounds odd since the rights to Walküre, like all the Ring dramas, had been sold by Wagner himself to both Otto Wesendonck and Ludwig II at different times. In later years Slapoffski maintained that the opening night of Walküre had been the proudest night of his life.
Australia’s first Wotan in those 1907 performances was Julius Rünger who performed the role in Melbourne. In Sydney, the Wotan was Hans Mohwinkel.
Bayreuth practice was followed scrupulously in terms of audience experience, with three fanfares being sounded outside the theatre before the doors were closed and no further admissions allowed. The auditorium was darkened and attention focused on the stage. Newspaper reports commented on the difference in singing and acting styles between Wagnerian opera and its Italian counterparts, including the naturalistic style of the former and its appeal to the intellect.
Our first Brűnnhilde was Johanna Heinze. Assessments of her at the time were mixed, with one critic suggesting she was perhaps a trifle too feminine for a war-goddess. In Sydney, on one occasion, she presented Musgrove with a doctor’s certificate just minutes before the curtain was to go up. Act One passed without incident but since there was no cover Brűnnhilde for Act Two, the audience was treated to The Flying Dutchman instead.
People were amazed that the Walküre orchestra had been increased to 50, with the result that it overflowed from the pit into the stalls area. The Argus reported that the musicians had risen admirably to the challenge of Wagner’s music, especially since, in the past, the Rhinegold itself wouldn’t have bought a Melbourne orchestra capable of mastering the work’s ‘myriad sinuosities’.
The scenic wonders were commented on (very realistic rocks and clouds) as was the presence of a real if somewhat decrepit horse which was startled when Brűnnhilde brandished her spear in its face and tossed its head, knocking off her helmet. Fricka was described as entering in her ram-drawn ‘go-cart’ – presumably, the meaning was different in 1907.
Our first Sieglinde was the American soprano Sara Anderson who was regarded as an outstanding exponent of the role. Unfortunately, the Siegmund, Karl Studemund, was lampooned in The Bulletin as resembling ‘a large house on very insecure piles’.
The Dublin origins of the first man to bring Wagner to the Australian stage, William Lyster, have caused some confusion about the nationality of another early impresario, Thomas Quinlan whose opera company brought the first complete Ring to Australia in 1913. Quinlan is often referred to as being Irish but in fact was born at Bury in Lancashire, now part of Greater Manchester, where his father was a railway clerk. He studied to be both a baritone and an accountant (a useful combination), and began music management in 1906, touring Enrico Caruso, Fritz Kreisler, John Philip Sousa and Nellie Melba, amongst others.
In 1910, Sir Thomas Beecham created The Beecham Opera Comique Company and he chose Thomas Quinlan for his manager. In 1911, Quinlan decided to set up his own company, noting that the provinces and ‘the dominions beyond the seas’ had never had the chance of hearing grand opera on the same scale as Covent Garden. The Quinlan Opera Company was formed in Liverpool, and Quinlan supervised everything, casting the operas himself and viewing every act of every opera before it was presented to the public.
The company rehearsed in London for five months before touring the provinces, making a visit to Ireland (which might be the origin of the Irish connection) and then setting off for Australia for the 1912 season. In February 1912 they performed in South Africa on their way to Australia, and on arrival in Melbourne they established a record that remains unbroken: four Australian premieres in eight days.
The Quinlan Australian tour was limited to just ten weeks (five in Melbourne and five in Sydney) but fifteen operas were presented, including Tristan, Die Walküre, Aida, La bohème, Carmen, Lohengrin, Madama Butterfly, Faust and La traviata. The artists were mostly British, with two returning Australian singers. The company travelled with 163 personnel, including a permanent orchestra of 55, a chorus of 60, and three conductors.
Important though the 1912 Quinlan tour was, the following year’s tour remains without parallel in Australian operatic history. In 1913 the Ring as a whole was staged in Australia for the first time. Quinlan had set out with the goal of performing nine Ring cycles around the English-speaking world in sixth months, an ambition that was frustrated only by strikes in New Zealand and poor attendances in Canada. However, the 1913 Australian tour was an extraordinary success and deserves to be better appreciated. The company performed 25 different operas in just under eight weeks in Melbourne, including two Ring cycles and the national premiere of Die Meistersinger. In Sydney the original season of seven weeks was extended to nine because of the New Zealand strike, and included another Ring cycle plus extra performances of Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung. In all, nine of the major Wagner operas were staged – all except Parsifal, then the exclusive preserve of Bayreuth. All of the major Puccini operas written at the time were performed: Manon Lescaut, La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West; four of Verdi’s most popular operas: Rigoletto, Il trovatore, La traviata and Aida; other staple operatic fare: Cav & Pag, Barber of Seville and Marriage of Figaro, and an assortment of French works, including Louise, Samson and Delilah, Carmen, Faust and most notably The Tales of Hoffmann which alone was given fifteen performances. So, 25 operas in just 17 weeks. The efforts of our modern opera companies pale by comparison!
All operas in 1913 were given in English. For the Ring, the orchestra was enlarged to 65 and the chorus to 70. Some cuts were made, notably in Götterdämmerung (but not the Norns’ scene). Top price tickets were four guineas for the cycle, but individual Ring operas were interspersed with other works. So, for instance, between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung there were performances of Aida, Tales of Hoffmann, Tannhäuser and Louise. The decision to do a second Ring cycle in Melbourne followed the publication in The Age of a petition by prominent musical identities. Quinlan obliged, but the strain on the singers affected other performances in the days following. Nevertheless, it seems to have been a remarkably happy opera company. The Bulletin reported that it was ‘said to be more free from internecine strife than most travelling aviaries. It is a kind of co-operative Commonwealth arrangement, with no stars at enormous salaries and proportionate opinions of their worth to play up when the management gets into a tight corner. The longer Thomas Quinlan can keep going the better it is for principals and understudies. A steady wage being better than a tussle for engagements, even one tenor has learnt to be at peace with another, and no soprano in the company has been caught smacking the face of any other lady who got too much applause.’
The conductor of the first Ring in Australia was Richard Eckhold who also conducted the first Meistersinger here. He had been born and trained in Germany but spent much of his career with British companies, working particularly on performances of Wagner’s works in English in the UK, the dominions and the United States. When the First World War broke out he was interned in England as an enemy alien.
The stars of the 1913 Ring were English soprano Maud Percival Allen as Brűnnhilde and American Robert Parker as Wotan, who also sang Hagen. German Heldentenor Franz Costa was our first Siegfried. Costa had difficulties with the English text but was otherwise vocally impressive and physically convincing. When war came just a year later, he ended up in the German army.
Quinlan planned to return to Australia in 1915 with an even more ambitious season that would have included the first performance of Parsifal, but the great catastrophe of the First World War put paid to that, and opera in Australia drifted into more predictable channels with an emphasis on the Italian repertoire. Die Meistersinger wasn’t seen again for 75 years, and the complete Ring for 85 years. Parsifal didn’t have its first staged performance in this country for 88 years after entering the public domain, when it was staged in Adelaide in 2001. When the ‘body operatic’ began to twitch into life again in the second half of the twentieth century, people had forgotten all about Thomas Quinlan and his contemporaries. But the truth is that Australian opera lovers have good reason to remember him, and I think that Wagnerians in particular should do more to celebrate his example.
Quinlan was primarily an opera impresario, but Sir Benjamin Fuller was what used to be called a showman. Ben Fuller was the Cameron Macintosh of his day – and more. He controlled more theatres at one time than any man in Australia, with shows ranging from Punch and Judy and vaudeville to grand opera. There were times when he juggled hundreds of acts between Perth and New Zealand. In 1934 he invested heavily in an imported English grand opera company, though he personally knew little about opera. The repertoire ranged from Die Fledermaus to Die Walküre and included the Australian premiere of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. Lady Fuller chose the costumes which came largely from the Met. The orchestra was set at 46 but augmented when necessary. Most of the principals were imported from Britain, including the Australian dramatic soprano Florence Austral, singing in opera for the first time in her homeland. This extraordinarily ambitious exercise formed part of Melbourne’s centenary celebrations and was intended as a springboard for a permanent touring opera company. The intention was that, following the Melbourne opening, the company would perform for more than eighteen months, twelve in Australia and six in New Zealand, consisting of not only extended seasons in the big cities but also visits to provincial cities. A repertoire of 26 operas was listed, from which 20 were to be selected. In the end, only 15 were performed. Siegfried was on the list but never performed, and there was talk of including Götterdämmerung and lots of wishful thinking about mounting a complete Ring but this didn’t eventuate. Fuller’s hoped-for support from the Federal government never came and, sadly, neither did audiences. Sir Ben’s operatic adventure cost him £30,000 and Australians wouldn’t see another major opera season until 1948. However, the tour was significant from a Wagnerian perspective in that 13 performances of Die Walküre were staged along with 12 performances of Tristan, 13 of Tannhäuser, 4 of Lohengrin and 11 of The Flying Dutchman.
The star was undoubtedly Florence Austral, who was born Florence Wilson although her family’s original Swedish name had been Lindholm. She adopted the stage name of Austral in 1921. Her association with Wagnerian roles began in London and she quickly made a name for herself in Britain where she shared roles with Frida Leider, in Germany as a principal artist of the Berlin State Opera opposite Friedrich Schorr, and in the United States with the conductor Fritz Reiner. Melba called her ‘one of the wonder voices of the world’.
The Wotan in the 1934 season was Australian expatriate Horace Stevens. He gave a performance described by The Age as one of ‘masterly dramatic power, deep insight and appropriate realism’. The eight locally recruited Valkyries included the ‘well-known Sydney golf champion, Joan Hammond’. In Melbourne, the orchestra (presumably expanded from the basic 46 players) was said to be too occupied with technical problems to be able to give full expression to the music – not exactly a ringing endorsement. Quinlan’s decision to bring his experienced orchestra with him had obviously been a wise one.
The staging drew special praise for the way in which the director, Charles Moor, set the principal figures as sharply lit silhouettes against the gloom, using broadly decorative poses for the principals and quick, darting movements for the Valkyries. The performance, with cuts, lasted from 7.45 pm until shortly before midnight. One Melbourne critic was highly enthusiastic about the whole experience, but his Sydney counterpart concluded that ‘for the Australian taste and climate these Ring operas are too long’. It was a sweltering January and the singers, done up in furs and drapery, perspired profusely.
A couple of weeks before the end of the Sydney season, the company faced insolvency. Ticket prices were slashed and Fuller was on the point of appealing to the Government to subsidize the venture. In the end, it was fellow impresario J C Williamson who came to the rescue by providing His Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne for a return four-week season. Thus ended the last major opera season before World War II and once again, hopes of seeing a complete Ring in Australia had come to nought.
If the staging of a complete Ring seemed beyond the realm of possibility, concert performances and radio broadcasts of the constituent parts of the Ring were not. In 1936, Das Rheingold was broadcast by the ABC in two parts, with Austral as Fricka, setting a precedent for John Culshaw’s use of Kirsten Flagstad as Fricka in the great Decca recording of 1958.
In 1939 the Australian dramatic soprano Marjorie Lawrence, who had become a famous Brünnhilde in Europe and America but was rarely heard in her native land, made a concert tour of Australia, performing at her birthplace of Winchelsea in Victoria and in Melbourne and Sydney. At a performance broadcast by the ABC she sang the closing scene of Götterdämmerung and, according to the press the next day, ‘the Town Hall rocked on its foundations with the thunders of appreciation.’
In 1977, Peter Hemmings was appointed General Manager of the Australian Opera and, near the top of his list of desirable projects was a new production of the Ring. Richard Bonynge, who was the AO’s Music Director at the time, had reservations about whether Australia had singers who could do justice to this work. He had become familiar with the Wagner repertoire at Covent Garden during the 1950s, with singers of the calibre of Kirsten Flagstad, and when Joan Sutherland had sung several Wagnerian roles: Helmwige, Woglinde, the Woodbird and Eva. Planning began anyway, and consideration was given to Mark Elder conducting and David Pountney directing. The new Ring was intended to commence in 1979. The General Manager, conductor and director were adamant that the performances should be sung in English even though this would immediately rule out most of the world’s great Wagnerian singers. For a variety of reasons, the management of the Australian Opera descended into chaos during those years and Peter Hemmings’ appointment was terminated in late 1979. In March Das Rheingold had indeed been performed, not on stage but in concert in the Sydney Opera House, using Andrew Porter’s translation and featuring Donald Shanks as Wotan, Raymond Myers as Alberich, Margreta Elkins as Fricka and Robert Gard as Loge. The cast was entirely Australian. Englishman Mark Elder conducted. In his review in the Sydney Morning Herald, Roger Covell wrote: ‘It was an interesting and musically encouraging event, sung in English as if in preparation for the stage performances which ought to follow….It was fitting that there should be a celebration, 125 years after Wagner finished the score of Rheingold and 110 years after its first performance, but it was not fitting that the celebration should look like an oratorio’.
Successful concert performances continued: Die Walküre with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in August 1981 and Götterdämmerung with the SSO in October 1981. The Melbourne Walküre was conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras (honoured elder brother of our valued member, Professor Colin Mackerras) and featured Rita Hunter as Brünnhilde, Raymond Myers as Wotan, Nance Grant as Sieglinde, Robert Gard as Siegmund and Lauris Elms as Fricka. Götterdämmerung in Sydney, also led by Sir Charles, saw Rita Hunter once again on the concert platform, John Weaving as Siegfried and Bruce Martin as Hagen. Both concerts fanned enthusiasm for more Wagner performances in Australia and, especially, fully staged ones.
Richard Bonynge decided that a new production of Die Walküre in German should be staged in 1983, which over time might be expanded into a complete staging of the Ring. Initial discussions were held with Welsh National Opera about the possibility of collaboration on their new Ring being directed by Göran Järvefelt. However, there were differing ideas about casting Rita Hunter (who by then had made Australia her home) as Brünnhilde, and the collaboration never happened.
Work on the 1983 Walküre got seriously under way with a consortium of German business firms providing significant funding towards a staging the four operas over several years culminating in a complete cycle for the Australian Bicentennial Year. Sponsorship of $1m was also provided by the Federal Republic of Germany. But there were huge risks, centred largely on the limitations of the stage and pit of the Opera Theatre of the Sydney Opera House. Stuart Challender made a reduction of the score for an orchestra of around 70. Carlo Felice Cillario was invited to conduct, Andrew Sinclair to direct and Desmond Digby to design the sets and costumes. Moffatt Oxenbould, who was then Artistic Administrator, describes the resulting performances as follows: ‘The eventual outcome was respectable and even encouraging – but not what we had hoped for. Bruce Martin gave a majestic, mature performance as Wotan, and Rita Hunter asBrünnhilde sang with expected authority, but was neither convinced nor convincing dramatically. Margreta Elkins as Sieglinde, Jon Weaving as Siegmund, Clifford Grant as Hunding and Lauris Elms as Fricka all tried hard to give complete performances, but in the event their strengths were principally vocal. The group of eight Walküren was vocally uneven and there was a degree of self-consciousness working on an impressive but awkward set for the final act. The orchestra responded to the attention Carlo lavished on the rehearsals and Stuart Challender’s reduction of the score was masterly, but the total impression was small-scale and lacked the epic breadth the work needed. The reasons were misjudgements by the creative team as much as the limitations of the pit and stage, so we all took to using phrases like ‘it promises well’ and ‘maturing and improving’ to cover our disappointment and an early unwillingness to acknowledge that the whole venture was a well-intentioned miscalculation. The public and press acknowledged the quality of most of the singing but were not so complimentary about the production and design. A number of devoted Wagnerites, having experienced Ring performances overseas, were sceptical about our ability to imaginatively complete the tetralogy with the resources we had available and particularly because of the limitations of the Sydney Opera House orchestra pit and stage.’
The production was eventually taken to Melbourne where it worked better. But while the stage of the State Theatre is large, the pit was small, designed for just 67 musicians, so Victorians also heard Challender’s orchestral reduction. Marilyn Zschau took over the role of Brünnhilde with a dreadful costume and Goldilocks wig. Other casting changes were made between 1983 and 1989: Leonie Rysanek and Marilyn Richardson as Sieglinde, Alberto Remedios as Siegmund, Heather Begg and Rosemary Gunn as Fricka, Donald Shanks was Hunding and Donald McIntyre was Wotan. Horst Hoffmann sang Siegmund.
In 1984, the Australian Opera turned its attention to Das Rheingold, which proved a fateful decision. Again, to quote Moffatt Oxenbould: ‘Rheingold’s first night was one of those performances one would like to forget, but never can, because the memories of a horribly bad performance remain so vivid. … Much of the singing was excellent and aspects of the sets and costumes admirable, but the fairly literal view of the story-telling that had more or less worked in Die Walküre assumed ludicrous proportions with the magical effects, transformations, giants and dwarves of Rheingold. We had hoped the various elements would come together with the addition of the orchestra, but despite Maestro Cillario’s dedication and the skilful orchestral reduction by Stuart Challender, it had to be acknowledged that the pit of the Opera Theatre was not of sufficient size to allow the Ring to be adequately performed…Members of the West German diplomatic corps and of the consortium Charles Berg had put together to sponsor the Ring were guests of honour at the premiere….Technical mishaps begat more technical mishaps and in the auditorium one could sense the disappointment and incredulity of the audience. A reception at the West German consulate was far from a celebration. We knew we had a big problem on our hands!’
After that, plans to stage Siegfried and Götterdämmerung were abandoned. But Siegfried was performed successfully in concert in Melbourne with the MSO.
When Leo Schofield was Artistic Director of the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts from 1994 to 1996 he began to develop plans to stage a new production of the Ring. He soon came under considerable pressure from local patrons and even the Victorian Government, to invite Richard Divall, then Music Director of the Victorian State Opera, to conduct it. Leo felt that Richard Divall was not the man for the job and refused. As a consequence, there was no Ring.
Between 1996 and 2000, each of the Ring operas was performed in concert at the Sydney Opera House by the SSO and Edo de Waart. Amongst the singers were South African Elizabeth Connell as Brünnhilde, Dutchman Albert Bonnema as Siegfried, American Robert Hale as Wotan, Austrian Kurt Rydl as Hagen, and German Ekkehard Wlaschiha as Alberich. There were also many fine Australian singers. It was a reminder of how thrilling it is to hear great Wagnerian voices, regardless of where they come from.
The major Wagnerian event of the 1990s was undoubtedly the Adelaide staging of three complete cycles late in 1998 – the first fully staged Ring since Quinlan’s in 1913. I was in Adelaide at the time and became involved with the preparations and excitement surrounding these performances. The production had originally been created for the Théâtre du Chátelet in Paris.
Not everyone was enthusiastic about Pierre Strosser’s rather austere interpretation, but I liked it a lot. The orchestra under Jeffrey Tate played superbly. The whole thing was a triumph and introduced thousands of Australians (including politicians and bureaucrats) to Wagner in general and the Ring in particular.
A detailed study of the economic impact of the 1998 Ring undertaken by the Centre for Economic Studies of Adelaide and Flinders Universities, reported that 44% of attendees were South Australians, 44% were from interstate, and 12% were from overseas – so, 56% came from outside the State. The Ring attracted around 3,600 new visitors and provided a boost to Gross State Product of around $10 million. The $2,780 spent per visitor exceeded the usual expenditure of around $1,500 for other major events. It also made an operating surplus, something virtually unheard-of when it comes to Ring productions.
The great success of this venture fostered renewed interest in the creation of a wholly Australian Ring. The even more ambitious venture that followed in 2004 benefited greatly from a groundswell of support in the wider community and, especially, from the invaluable experience of working with Jeffrey Tate and Pierre Strosser in 1998.
The Festival Theatre orchestra pit, which is already quite large, was made even larger by breaking through the rear wall and extending the orchestra back under the stage into what is normally an instrument storage room. 133 musicians were engaged for the 2004 Ring (including relief musicians) augmenting the 80 permanent players of the ASO by another 53. Members of interstate symphony orchestras took leave of absence just to have an opportunity to play this wonderful music in a full production.
Needless to say, the practical requirements of putting something like this together were formidable. The rehearsals were divided over two years and occupied 13 weeks in 2003 and 16 weeks in 2004 – that is to say, about seven-and-a-half months (1,400 hours) of rehearsals in all. Then came four weeks of performances and a final week for dismantling. The Ring occupied the theatre itself for over five months, for which the hiring costs alone were $2.6m.
About 65% of the audience came from outside the State (including many from New Zealand, Europe, North America and Asia), and the boost to Gross State Product was estimated to be around $15 million. The final cost of the 2004 Ring was $15.14 million. Compared with similarly ambitious productions elsewhere in recent years (Los Angeles 2010, $US 31 million, San Francisco 2011, $US 23 million, and Melbourne in 2013 reportedly $20,000) this was an entirely reasonable figure.
There is always a degree of rivalry amongst opera companies for funding. Opera Australia gets the lion’s share, as one would expect for the national company, nationally funded, but the State companies compete more or less equally – unless, that is, one or other can make a case for special treatment. By winning a ‘niche company’ appellation because of the cultural tourism ‘pull’ of major Wagner productions, the State Opera of South Australia secured just such an advantage. I was in Adelaide at the time when this recommendation was made by the Nugent Committee of Inquiry and was involved in the discussions. The result was that, ever afterwards, government funding for the State Opera of South Australia has been 50/50 Commonwealth and State.
The new Ring production had some wonderful visual images and it is not hard to see why it was more sophisticated than the Australian Opera’s approach of the 1980s. The superb singing was led by our own Lisa Gasteen at the peak of her career, as Brünnhilde – as can be heard on the complete Melba recordings. No one is ever entirely happy with every detail in such a massive project – that is half the fun of doing the Ring: the search for perfection – but there is no denying that the production values for 2004 were high and that it will remain a landmark in Australia’s operatic history. Hugh Canning in Britain’s Sunday Times described it as ‘one of the most visually resplendent Rings of recent times, with spectacular use of real water (20,000 litres for the Rhine) and fire, as well as fresh, witty insights into Nibelung drama… What made Neidhardt’s Ring so memorable, however, was not the expensive scenic feats but the intelligence and distinction of her Personenregie (direction of the performers)’. Shirley Apthorpe in the Financial Times wrote that ‘it is executed with unfailing excellence. Afraid of falling below European standards, Australia sometimes surpasses them, often without noticing…. Magnificent playing from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under Fisch, whose interpretation grew as the cycle progressed, from a somewhat hasty Rheingold and a Walküre occasionally low on inner tension, to a taut Siegfried and a Götterdammerüng of gripping inevitability’. Roger Covell in The Sydney Morning Herald concluded ‘The whole cycle has amounted to one of the finest occasions in the history of Australian music, opera and theatre’.
I have to say, without hesitation, that I concur.