Newsletter Vol 19 No.1 April 2015




‘Opera as Drama’ is a well-worn theme, and forms the title of a celebrated book, but ‘Opera as History’ is a less familiar notion. Wagner is not the first name that comes to mind in this connection (among his contemporaries Verdi comes closer to the mark) but there is at least one historical Wagnerian figure to be reckoned with, and we heard about him in January. Our member Gordon Shiach spoke to us about the historical Hans Sachs and explored the actual world of the Mastersingers; coincidentally an article by Lucie Skeaping appeared in the February issue of Opera magazine on the same topic. For this Newsletter Gordon has contributed a short reflection on the theme.

In February Jane Schopf, Programme Director for Opera Studies at Rose Bruford College, gave us a penetrating talk on Wagner’s first completed work, Die Feen (the focus of earlier Society events in 2004 and 2009). A story that included a ring, a sword, a forbidden question, and redemption through love ...  It all sounds so familiar, and a hint of things to come, but we hear it all too rarely. As Voltaire said, ‘the best is the enemy of the good’. We will no doubt hear more about this at the study course on ‘The Young Wagner’ in September, together with another mythologised historical figure from medieval Europe: information about the course was circulated with the December Newsletter and is given again below.  [RA]


Impending Vacancies for Secretary and Treasurer of the Society


Nadine Harrison has indicated that she will stand down as Secretary at the 2015 AGM in December, and will assist a successor in taking over the post. Scott Wilkinson will stand down as Treasurer at the 2016 AGM and wishes to have a successor in place at the 2015 AGM. Volunteers are needed to fill these posts to ensure the smooth running of the Society; those interested should contact Dale Bilsland ( /  0141 942 0935).


The Young Wagner — his first three operas:  Monday 14th to Thursday 17th September 2015

Places are still available on the residential Study Course at Gartmore House, Stirlingshire. Derek Watson, BMus., LRAM, will consider the early life and music of Richard Wagner, taking his story to 1842 when the 29-year-old had his first success with Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes [after Bulwer-Lytton].  Along the way we'll look at highlights of Die Feen [The Fairies, after Gozzi] and Das Liebesverbot [The Ban on Love, after Shakespeare].  Sessions will be illustrated with visual material, musical examples, and recorded extracts.

For booking details and application form, please contact Nadine Harrison, Secretary (contact details at foot of page) or see here.




Forthcoming Events


All events take place at Edinburgh Society of Musicians, 3 Belford Road, EH4 3BL (by Dean Bridge). Admission £7 members, £15 non-members.


Sunday 19 April 2015 at 7.30 pm

In Italian or English? The first performances of Wagner's operas in Scotland — Iain Fraser


Iain Fraser, who with his brothers Peter and Stephen co-founded the website OperaScotland, will speak about its origin and development and some of the discoveries they have made in relation to the early performances of Wagner’s operas in Scotland, pushing the performing history back earlier than previously assumed. The productions and performance styles provide a fascinating contrast not just with the present day but with each other. Iain also reveals some of the personalities involved, offering a glimpse of Scotland’s neglected operatic history.


Sunday 24 May 2015 at 7.30 pm

Wagner, the Father of modern conducting philosophy in Scotland — Chris Gray


Chris Gray writes:

‘Wagner's 1869 essay 'Über das Dirigieren' made a revolutionary statement about the changing roles and responsibilities of the conductor, moving conductors away from generations of administrative functionality to a future with unquestioned musical control. Wagner's desire to place the conductor at the epicentre of musical performance started a period of development that led directly to the creation of a language and grammar for modern conductors. My talk will consider how the history of conducting led to Wagner's emergence as a master conductor, and will look at his essay and the period of exploration and discovery that followed. 

‘My interest in Wagner has spanned my entire musical life, having played his works as a young double bass player, experiencing the Meistersinger Overture at the age of 16, and then taking part in the adventures of the Ring Cycle at Scottish Opera and Lohengrin under Runnicles at the BBC SSO some years later. As a conductor I have had the opportunity to explore many of his works with both young amateur and professional orchestras. 

‘I currently split my life between Aberdeen where I am Depute Head of Music at the University of Aberdeen and Glasgow where I am the Director of ‘Connect’, Scottish Opera's Youth Company.’

For more information go to


Sunday 21 June 2015 at 7.30 pm

Art as Utopia: Parsifal and the East German Left — Elaine Kelly


Elaine Kelly will chart the reception of Parsifal by East German opera directors in the second half of the twentieth century. The presentation will examine the reasons behind the apathy towards the work in the post-war era, and will explore how in later decades the opera gained new resonances, a circumstance that reflects both the political stagnation of the late Cold War and the rise of Regieoper (directors’ opera) on East German stages. Productions that will be discussed include those by Harry Kupfer, Joachim Herz, Ruth Berghaus, and Peter Konwitschny.

Elaine Kelly is Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on the intersections between music, culture, and politics in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany. She has published on a range of topics, including stagings of Wagner’s operas,  and is the author of a book exploring the reception of the musical canon in the German Democratic Republic (Oxford University Press, 2014). 



Bayreuth Scholarship 2015


The scholarship has been awarded to mezzo-soprano Kamilla Kate Dunstan. Kamilla was born in Yorkshire and emigrated to New Zealand at the age of 12, returning to England six years later. She is currently studying her Masters in Vocal Performance at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, having graduated with a Bachelor of Music (Honours) at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In November 2014 she completed the prestigious Samling Foundation residential week to become a Samling Artist.


At the RCS she has covered roles including Cherubino (Le Nozze di Figaro) and Annio (La Clemenza di Tito) and appeared as La Marchande de Journaux in their production of Les Mamelles de Tiresias in March 2015.

Other appearances include Ninetta (cover) in Jonathan Dove’s The Little Green Swallow with British Youth Opera, Glasgow City Chorus (soloist), English Chamber Orchestra (soloist, St Paul's Cathedral, City of London Festival), Guildhall Opera Gallery, The Coldstream Guards, and Leeds Youth Opera. Forthcoming engagements include Dorabella in Così fan tutte with Clonter Opera in July 2015. She will be joining the International Opera School at the Royal College of Music, London, in September 2015.



The Ring of Myths: the Israelis, Wagner and the Nazis

By Na’Ama Sheffi, translated from the Hebrew by Martha Grenzeback and Miriam Talisman (Academic Press 2013 ISBN 978-1-84519-574-8  pp 215)  


A review by Nadine Harrison


Na’Ama Sheffi teaches at the School of Communication at Sapir College, Sderot, Israel. She completed her studies in modern history at Tel Aviv University and has published extensively on German and Israeli culture. Her book was recommended to me by Heath and Liz Lees when they were in Edinburgh last July. It is a fascinating, very detailed account of the boycott in Palestine (later Israel) of composers and music associated with the Nazis. After the end of World War II, Wagner was one of several composers associated with the Nazis whose works were not played in public in Israel, including Carl Orff, Richard Strauss and Franz Lehar. For a period of time after its formation, Israel also attempted to boycott any association with Germany, including imported German products, and even banning performances in the German language. In the 1950s, however, trade with Germany was eased because the Israeli population wanted German products and cars and because trade was needed for economic reasons. Music by composers associated with the Nazi regime has been included in performances from the early 1980s, with the one exception of Wagner.

After two chapters of historical background reviewing the aspects of Wagner’s work which made him controversial in Palestine and later Israel, and the story of his adoption by the Nazi regime, Sheffi describes chronologically the events from the first boycott in 1938 after Kristallnacht with the removal of the Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from a programme by the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (predecessor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, IPO) and subsequent attempts by the IPO to play Wagner’s music, notably under the conductorship of Zubin Mehta who was subject to personal racist abuse as a result. Daniel Barenboim, who conducted at the Bayreuth Festival on numerous occasions, took up the challenge in the 1990s but each time the IPO proposed to play any Wagner, there was massive protest and all the same arguments were rehearsed, often by the same people, as well as disruption of the actual performance. In general, the government abrogated responsibility to the artistic decision of the orchestra and its Board.  Despite strong arguments about the need for players in IPO to play Wagner’s music as part of their professional development, and doubt cast on some of the reports of the use of Wagner’s music in the camps, Wagner’s music is still not part of IPO’s repertoire.

Na’Ama Sheffi’s argument is that Israel needs a symbol in memory of the Holocaust and that Wagner and his music provide this while affecting only a small portion of the population. Those who wish can hear Wagner performed on the radio or CD and travel to performances elsewhere but any live performance continues to be met with strong opposition both before and during the event.

This is the briefest description of an extremely detailed book which I would heartily recommend.



The Mastersingers Of Nuremberg 

A reflection by Gordon Shiach


In 1845 Wagner contemplated writing a comic opera in which Sachs would mock the pedantry of the Mastersingers’ traditional Marker, resulting in a hilarious street brawl that roused Nuremberg’s citizenry from sleep.  He then completed a prose sketch of this basic farce.  Although he took the idea little further at that time, he continued to study the history, characters and culture of mediæval Nuremberg.  In Mein Leben, Wagner wrote that in 1861 the staging of a production of Tristan and Isolde continued to run its ‘weary course like a chronic disease, whose outcome it [was] impossible to foresee’.   Reacting to this situation he started in December 1861 to write the poem of The Mastersingers, which he finished in January 1862.  During times of trouble that were to follow, Wagner repeatedly returned to The Mastersingers, ultimately completing it in full score in 1867.  This opera was no farce, having indeed been described as one of the greatest comic operas ever written.  The ultimate statement of the work may be that musical innovation cannot be disentangled from tradition.  It seemed pertinent therefore, in my talk to the Society, to attempt to discover the extent to which historical accuracy mingled with dramatic licence.


Wagner and the medicinal properties of water

Ian Robertson continues his occasional series


I have observed earlier that although numerous characters in Wagner’s operas are in apparent need of medical attention, he provides no doctors for that purpose. Even so, Wagner himself often evinced firm therapeutic opinions, seemingly derived intuitively rather than from scientific study. For a time he possessed homiletic faith in the healing powers of water. In 1851 his brother-in-law Friedrich Brockhaus suffered an accident, losing the sight of one eye. Wagner advised Brockhaus’s daughter that the patient should ‘undertake a strict water cure, under intelligent guidance. Above all let him spare no expense of time or patience [N.B. Wagner does not mention money] and I prophesy he will gradually recover completely. What is more, he will very probably regain his lost eye.’ Sadly, there is no subsequent evidence of this therapeutic miracle having been achieved.



News in brief


●  As we go to press we hear that among the casualties of the Germanwings airbus crash over the French Alps on 24 March were the German contralto Maria Radner and the bass-baritone Oleg Bryjak, returning from singing Erda and Alberich in Siegfried at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona. Both were due to sing at Bayreuth in August, Maria Radner making her debut there.


●  The April issue of Opera magazine reports that Teatro Colόn in Buenos Aires has dropped Katharina Wagner as director of its forthcoming Parsifal ‘on quality grounds’. The  theatre’s new Intendant, Dario Lopérfido, has said that he ‘wanted something artistically stronger and of higher standard’. In the same issue of Opera there is a sympathetic interview with Nike Wagner, daughter of Wieland and outsider of  the clan.


●  Further news of Anush Hovhannisyan, our Bayreuth scholar for 2013: she has appeared in two recent Royal Opera House productions, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and Madama Butterfly. At the time of writing there are two more performances of Butterfly, in which she sings Kate Pinkerton, on 9 and 11 April.



Dale Bilsland
22 West Chapelton Drive, Bearsden, Glasgow, G61 2DA
Telephone:  0141 942 0935  Mobile:  0776 691 2724


John Anderton
2 Glenlockart Road, Edinburgh, EH10 5RG
Telephone:  0131 447 1645

Treasurer & Membership Secretary

Peter Stuart
1C Pendreich Road, Bridge of Allan, Stirling, FK9 4PZ
Telephone:  0178 683 3804                

Newsletter Editor

Maureen McLennan
6 Merchiston Place, Edinburgh, EH10 4NR
Telephone:  0131 623 2920  Mobile:  0790 256 3232