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.
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.
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
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 . . .
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 . . .
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.
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.
older Sydneysiders the history of the difficult birth of Australia's
most famous building is well known.
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:
the opera house is opened, make sure you go to the first opera there.
And tell your children and grandchildren — this is history."
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.
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
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.
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
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 . . .
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.
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.
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
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.
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
to the Opera House opening concert.
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.
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."
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."
this is what we heard in the first half of that inspiring night:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Peter Smark in the Sydney Morning Herald (29/8/92):
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?
is another evocative quote about our iconic building, this time from one
Kimberly A. Clark at the Sydney! Travel Guide web site:
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.
can I add to that?
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