The Ring in Australia
[ Issue 10 ]

'The Ring' in Australia delights Emily Bronto

It's no wonder that Bikwil makes a song and dance about 'The Ring' in Australia

The Ring in Australia

Tony Rogers in his history of The Ring in Australia briefly looks at the very few performances in this country of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.

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The Ring in Australia — Tony Rogers


Ok, the truth, please. Is the 1998 Adelaide production the first Aussie performance of Wagner’s four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, or isn’t it? Wasn’t there one early this century? What about the Australian Opera’s venture in the 1980s? And surely there’ve been concert performances?

Taking the last question first — yes, there have been numerous concert performances of parts of the Ring. In relatively recent times at the Sydney Opera House, for example, concert performances of Götterdämmerung were given in the late '70's conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras with Rita Hunter, Alberto Remedios and Bruce Martin. And in 1996 the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Edo de Waart gave concert performances of Das Rheingold, followed by Die Walküre in 1997.

As for staged performances, Australia has seen very few of any of the four Ring music dramas, let alone a complete cycle. One I remember personally was the Carlo Felice Cillario/Rita Hunter performance of an Australian Opera cut-down version of Die Walküre in 1983. This was intended to lead eventually into a complete Ring by the Australian Opera. The idea received a great boost when the German Ambassador to Australia announced that Germany would be donating $1m towards a Bicentennial staging of the whole tetralogy. The AO subsequently did put on Das Rheingold, which is said to have been a terrible flop. From then on, the whole project was doomed and never surfaced again.

And, of course, over the years numerous Ring extracts have been performed in recital in Oz. The most celebrated of these marked the 1973 opening of the Sydney Opera House. I myself was in that audience, and have more to say about the occasion in Is There a Believer in the House?

But for the definitive answer on whether there had ever been a full Ring on stage in Australia I just had to find out from the experts. Bill Gillespie (Artistic Director) and Stephen Phillips (General Director) from the South Australian Opera were both kind enough to email me with plenty of information to fill out the historical perspective.

Well, there was an earlier staging of the Ring in Australia. The British Quinlan company brought a production here in 1913. One cycle was staged in Melbourne, and two cycles in Sydney. The singing was in English, not German. All of the scenery, costumes and props were imported, as were all the singers and the orchestra. There were no known Australians in the cast or in the touring company.

Now, when The State Opera of South Australia launched its $8m Ring project at Adelaide’s Festival Theatre, they were careful to state that this would be the first complete Ring produced by an Australian company, and that it was the first ever to be sung here in German.

But guess what? Some parts of the media failed to make these distinctions, and many people are still under the impression that this is the first production of any Ring in Oz.

There will be some "imports", though. The most prominent is Jeffrey Tate, who is currently principal guest conductor at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Orchestre National de France, as well as principal conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra. Others include Pierre Strosser, director (it was he who devised the original 1994 French production on which the Adelaide Ring is based), and three singers in the leading roles — Edward Cook (Siegfried), Janis Martin (Brünnhilde), and John Keyes (Siegmund).

Yes — the whole production (with its ten shipping containers of stage set) is that of the Théâtre du Châtelet, in Paris. Despite the size of the set, Strosser’s concept plays down the spectacle and avoids taking the traditional mythical symbols too literally — i.e. the Rhine, flying horses, giants, dwarves, dragon, etc.

Anyway, by now Australian Ring fever has reached its peak. In fact, as early as last March, when Bill and Stephen wrote to me, 95% of the $1,000 seats had already been sold, two-thirds of them to overseas visitors. They have come from places like Belgium, Brunei, Canada, Finland, Fiji, France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Mauritius, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Some of them, I understand, are wealthy enough to do little else but peregrinate the planet watching the Ring. Not content with the once-in-a-lifetime dream of going to Bayreuth that you and I might entertain, their love of the work takes them on a perpetual pilgrimage wherever Alberich raises his ugly head. A Los Angeles ophthalmologist, Dr. Sherwin Sloan, for example, will attend his 47th Ring in Adelaide!

The usual glitterati will be present, like Leo Schofield, Margaret Whitlam, Donald McDonald and Elizabeth Evatt. I was interested to learn, too, that Bob Willis, former English test cricket captain, is here both for the Ashes and the Wagner.

By the sound of it, Adelaide is making the whole thing a real Wagner Festival, with a special rose being grown (“Magic Fire”), and a special exhibition of jewellery being arranged (the “Ring Collection”). Adelaide’s Lord Mayor has even given permission for Meeting House Lane, behind the Town Hall, to be renamed Richard Wagner Gasse (= Lane) for the duration of the Festival. This will be a central meeting-place for Ring lovers.

In keeping with the Bayreuth tradition, the last three operas of the Ring are having one-hour intervals, during which much gourmet dining and wining will take place, presumably at a gourmet price.

Naturally, the media coverage has been proceeding apace ever since the venture was announced in 1995. This has included numerous performances of the Ring on radio, mainly in excerpts, but also in full, such as on Sydney’s 2MBS-FM.

Inescapably, there’s been academic interest too, with a flurry of seminars, art installations, book exhibitions, etc. One 1997 conference was A Glimmer of Gold, a three-day affair at Adelaide Uni. Speakers included Leo Schofield, English critic Barry Millington, Wagner singers Lauris Elms and Rita Hunter, and Roger Parker, who worked on the historic Decca Solti Ring recordings. The conference was later covered by Julie Copeland on ABC Radio National, with Millington giving insight into how you can actually detect musical evidence in the Ring of Wagner’s anti-Semitism.

Later in 1997 a half-day seminar entitled Wagner on the Couch was held in Sydney. Its purpose was to provide a “critical, historical and psychoanalytical perspective” on the mind of Wagner. Speakers were John Milfull, Professor of European Studies at the University of N.S.W., music critic John Carmody, OA director Elke Neidhardt and psychiatrist Robert Kaplan.

Another talk show (also running for three days at Adelaide Uni) is this month’s International Wagner Symposium. The keynote speakers are Professor John Deathridge from London, Barry Millington again, Professor Dietrich Borchmeyer from Heidelberg and Dr. Georg Oswald Bauer from Munich.

Another shrink-rapt lecture (this time featuring Dr. Ronnie Taylor and Robert Gibson) is The “Madness” of Richard Wagner, to be held by the RANZCP Section of Psychotherapy at the State Library of NSW, 10 December, 7.30 p.m. Book via (02) 9684 0888. $10.

So much for the setting. On with Bikwil’s response to the music.

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