Is There a Believer in the House?
[ Issue 10 ]

Is There a Believer in the House fascinates Emily Bronto

Bikwil is pleased to present Is There a Believer in the House

Is There a Believer in the House?

In Is There a Believer in the House Tony Rogers recalls some of his favourite personal memories of Wagner's music.  Particularly the opening concert at the Sydney Opera House in 1973.

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Is There a Believer in the House? — Tony Rogers


Enthusiasm for Wagner with me began innocently enough, in the late 1940s. Perhaps it was the theme to a Saturday afternoon racing programme on the radio, perhaps some other show (a radio serial?) — the exact memory is gone now. I was eight or nine years of age, already learning the piano, and the music sounded quite exciting. In those days many a piece of classical music was used as the signature tune for radio programmes, ABC and commercial alike, such as extracts from composers such as Tchaikovsky, Suppé, Weber, Johann Strauss, etc.

In this case, despite the '40s aversion to all things Teutonic among the Australian community, the radio was playing Rienzi — the tutti passage about five minutes into the overture. Of course I didn't know it was Wagner then, but I liked it and tucked the vague recollection away.

I suppose I became a confirmed Wagner addict about ten years after that, when I was at University, and so over the last 40 years there have been several Wagnerian experiences that I'll never forget. Such as the following:

My purchase in the 60s of Klemperer Conducts Wagner, the LP set of the best orchestral excerpts played by the Philharmonia Orchestra . . .
My purchase in 1970 of the Decca Ring (Solti et al.) — 21 LPs . . .
The weekend later that year when I listened to same in its entirety with a couple of equally insane friends . . .
The performance of Die Walküre with Rita Hunter I went to in 1983 at the Sydney Opera House . . .
The showing at the State Theatre a couple of years later of the Richard Burton TV epic on Wagner’s life . . .
My surprise 60th birthday present of the fabulous Ring Disc . . .

But what I want to relate here is none of those episodes, but another one — the most significant and memorable live musical event in my life, after which most have been anti-climactic. This issue of Bikwil has at last afforded me a fitting opportunity to revisit my enduring memory of a certain Saturday night in 1973.

My laudatory narrative is of a building as much as of Wagner's music. It too starts in the 1940s, when the director of the Conservatorium and later the conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Eugene Goossens, began trying to persuade the NSW Government to build a dedicated opera house in Sydney. Premier J.J. Cahill finally agreed to make available the Bennelong Point tram depot site just as soon as trams were abolished from Sydney's streets. Goossens, for his part, had long been convinced that this breathtaking harbourside position was an ideal spot for the opera house Sydney sorely needed.

To older Sydneysiders the history of the difficult birth of Australia's most famous building is well known.

First, there was the excitement of the 1955 international competition for its design. I clearly remember sitting with my mother in the kitchen of our flat pouring over the short-listed designs as announced in the newspapers the following year. She took an instant liking to one — originally rejected by the judges, mind you — that had been submitted by some Danish architect with a strange name. Mainly, though, she wanted me to be there on the first night, whatever the shape of the building:

"When the opera house is opened, make sure you go to the first opera there. And tell your children and grandchildren — this is history."

Then there were the interminable problems with costs and egos and technical delays. It was 1959 when construction belatedly began on the Jørn Utzon creation, and not until 1973 (20 October — the official “birthday”) when our "splendid winged folly" was eventually opened by the Queen. In those intervening 14 years friends and I often went down to Bennelong Point to watch its progress from the observation deck they'd erected opposite, along the Botanical Gardens fence.

At long last ($100 million later), tickets for the first performances became available. If you wanted to attend a première, you had to decide between a real live opera on 28 September (Prokofiev's War and Peace) — it was an opera house, after all — and a concert the following night.

Well, for some reason the ABC had decided to make the first Concert Hall performance an all-Wagner affair, so my own choice wasn’t too difficult at all. I got two tickets early on the first day they went on sale, and went with one of those mad friends I mentioned.

Fancy the ABC being able to get for the opening of our beautiful new music auditorium, not only a great expatriate Aussie conductor, Charles Mackerras, who happened to treasure Wagner with all his heart, but also the foremost Wagnerian soprano of her day, Birgit Nilsson. Amazing piece of advance booking, I'd say. I'd love to know the full story — about whose idea it was to feature Wagner, about who approached whom, and so on.

A quarter of a century ago this year, it was. Nineteen seventy-three, September 29. The Gala Opening Concert. The souvenir program I bought that night is one of my most cherished possessions. The paper it is printed on is discolouring now, but what visceral memories it conjures up for me:

. . . the gleaming white temple all lit up at night like some down-under Taj Mahal, the waters of the Harbour lapping at its feet on three sides (the fourth side always but a temporary mooring, waiting to cast off whenever the sails catch the right breeze and decide to float the whole thing out to sea), the first walk up those oddly but deliberately spaced exterior stairs, the wonderful, knockout John Olsen mural Five Bells in the northern Concert Hall foyer, the bright purple colour of the seats in the Concert Hall itself, the organ pipes, the 18 acoustic rings above the orchestra platform . . .

While the audience was gathering — some in their best finery, but most in modest gear — I remember in particular seeing the whole extended Mackerras family file in, about ten rows in front of us. They had nearly the whole row to themselves. I'd known the twins Colin and Malcom (Charles' younger brothers) at high school, and it was good to see them once more, even if not to talk.

A vivid recollection from 1955 came into my mind, that any time I walked into a class, as like as not there would be Colin lustily singing the Ride of the Valkyries or the Meistersinger Overture. I guarantee, the Mackerrases must have been Wagner buffs from birth. I, of course, was still in my Chopin/Grieg/Tchaikovsky/Puccini years.

"Oh, yes, we've got quite a lot of Wagner on record at home," Colin used to say. "Charles loves him."

In a biography of Charles Mackerras the conductor described the family home during his childhood as being filled with music that was almost entirely Wagner and Gilbert and Sullivan. Odd that combination, perhaps, but not unique among the faithful, it would appear, since the illustrious Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad spent many hours of her last illness listening to G&S.

Since then that twofold love has abided in the Mackerras breast. As you probably know, it was Charles who in 1950, when copyright on Sullivan's music expired, created the ballet Pineapple Poll from the latter's tunes. In recent times he has conducted the Welsh National Opera in several G&S operas on the Telarc CD label — Mikado, Pirates, Pinafore, Yeomen, Trial.

Incredible as it now seems, even in 1955 the musical Mackerras family had not yet invested in one of those new-fangled microgroove radiograms, so all their Wagner bits and pieces were on 78s. Pushing their luck, there, I'd say.

Back to the Opera House opening concert.

Time seemed to drag, but eight-fifteen did arrive and the members of the orchestra began assembling on the platform, multiple harpists and all, and French horn players complete with Wagner tubas. You beauty, this band really means business tonight. After they had tuned up, concertmaster Donald Hazelwood came in, followed by Charles Mackerras, baton in hand. The applause was rapturous and long, and we hadn't heard a single note yet. We reluctantly but expectantly settled down, Mackerras raised his baton, the orchestra launched into the National Anthem, and we were away. All the promises about the Concert Hall acoustics were coming true. This was going to sound quite different to the old Town Hall, for sure.

As conductor and orchestra prepared themselves for the first item and the most electric hush I'd ever experienced at the start of a music performance descended over the Concert Hall, my mother's prophetic words echoed in my head. "This is history."

It still sends shivers up my spine, when I think of that beautiful rounded sound Mackerras and the orchestra (plus the Concert Hall acoustics) greeted us, as the first C major chord of the Prelude to Die Meistersinger rolled out towards us. A magic moment of music for me that will never be equalled. At the end of it, after the applause had subsided, my friend remarked, "It just shows what a great conductor can do. I haven't ever heard the SSO sound better."

So this is what we heard in the first half of that inspiring night:

Prelude to Die Meistersinger
Elisabeth's Greeting, Dich Teure Halle, from the start of Act II of Tannhäuser (always a fitting song of praise for a new music theatre), with much, much thunderous applause for Birgit Nilsson the second she entered on to the platform
Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde (ravishing).

If that weren't enough, after the interval, we were treated to three of the "big" numbers from Götterdämmerung:

Siegfried's Rhine Journey
Siegfried's Funeral March
Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene.

I know what a cliché it is to talk about long standing ovations, so I'll just say this about the audience response at the end of that very special concert. In the case of 29 September, 1973 in the Concert Hall at Sydney Opera House, I swear there were people in that audience, not just clapping, not just standing, not just cheering — yes, there were one or two there weeping.

The following week there were predictably enthusiastic reviews in the media, for the music, for its performance and for the Concert Hall. As complimentary as they were, none seemed to capture the essence of my own overwhelming emotions. These things, I realise, are very personal, and I wish I had better words to describe the dual impact of music and architecture on me on that unique occasion.

Since that year, of course, a great part of Sydney's mythology (to say nothing of its pride) is now inextricably intertwined with the sublime poetic mystery that rose from Goossens' dream. Please allow me a couple of quotations that bear admirable witness to this idea.

First, Peter Smark in the Sydney Morning Herald (29/8/92):

The most important thing about Utzon, surely, is how clearly he showed that a modern building could be, not just striking and suitable, but noble. He showed, as the very best architects do, that to create a building which lifts the spirit it's not necessary to reach back into the Victorian era to recreate the structures loved by our grandfathers. But of how many other buildings in Sydney can it be said that one's heart rises when you look at them?

Here is another evocative quote about our iconic building, this time from one Kimberly A. Clark at the Sydney! Travel Guide web site:

No building on earth looks like the Sydney Opera House . . . it is a presence, a part of the landscape that seems to have been there forever, and it is impossible to imagine the Harbour without it. Each time the sun shines on it just a little different than the moment before, each time the blue Harbour waters reflect off the tile and glass exterior, it seems to change personality, to change moods. Even Sydneysiders who have seen it for years are awestruck when they catch a glimpse of it through the corner of their eye.

What can I add to that?

Simply this: thank you Richard Wagner, thank you SSO, Sir Charles, Miss Nilsson. And thank you, thank you, thank you, Mr Utzon — may you and your sail-roofed masterpiece be celebrated for a thousand years and beyond.

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