Newsletter Vol 20 No.3 November 2016




Much of this issue is taken up with reports of productions at the Bayreuth Festival this year. We have three accounts differing in perspective and viewpoint; together they make interesting reading. Our allocation of two pairs of tickets for 2017 is meagre to say the least, given the current reduced demand for tickets as operagoers look to alternative venues. Details of our forthcoming events can be found on page 3, and Ian Robertson writes about two Wagner biographers who will be of particular interest to our members.

Also enclosed are information and a booking form for the residential study course entitled ‘The Years in Exile; 1849-1862’, 15–18 September 2017 at Gartmore House, and details of the ballot for Bayreuth tickets in 2017.

This is my last Newsletter: at the AGM in December we will be proposing Maureen McLennan as the new Editor. She is already on the Committee and I have been glad of her company there. She will be an excellent choice and I am confident that in bringing a fresh mind to the enterprise she will enjoy the role as much as I have, as we embark on the next twenty years.                                                            [RA]                                                                                                                                


Bayreuth Festival 2016


We have three reports: the first from our Scholar Rebecca Godley, and two from members who attended this year’s Festival. These have been shortened for space reasons; full versions will be available on our website.

—  The moment you set foot in Bayreuth, you can feel the electricity of the Festspiele around the town. The theatre, with its unique acoustic, is like nothing I’ve experienced before; the soft dynamic that this acoustic affords the singers, while allowing them to ride over the orchestra, is a joy to hear. Regardless of my seating in the theatre, I had a clear view of the stage and missed nothing vocally, which is a true testament to Wagner’s vision.

The first of the productions was a modernised staging of Der Fliegende Holländer, conducted by Axel Kober and directed by Jan Philipp Gloger. In this updated depiction Senta and the female chorus are workers in a fan factory. The Bayreuth chorus were outstanding, both in Parsifal (see below), and in this production with its dynamic control and wonderfully focused sound. I was especially delighted with the performances of Andreas Schager (Erik), Christa Mayer (Mary), and Benjamin Bruns (Steersman), all of whom sang with a bel canto technique and yet with a bite that carried easily over the orchestra, all with a strong dramatic intention.

On the following night audiences were delighted by a truly mesmerising production of Parsifal. No detail was considered too insignificant and each set was outdone by the one which followed it. In particular, the depictions of an Eden-like scene in Act 2 and, even more so, the finale of Act 1, were beyond anything I have experienced in the theatre before with a screen being lowered in front of the stage and a projection transporting the audience on a journey through the planets and stars of the universe, all set to some of Wagner’s most breathtaking music. I also felt that the decision to depict the story within modern-day Iraq was a brave yet poignant choice, giving the production another facet to its already very moving portrayal.

The standout performances for me came from Georg Zeppenfeld as Gurnemanz and Elena Pankratova as Kundry. Both singers were sublime in their vocal production, diction and dramatic depiction and I felt inspired by their performances. Klaus Florian Vogt fitted the part of Parsifal physically and in temperament but for me his singing lacked the depth that the production needed. A highlight was the flower maidens’ scene featuring the female chorus, which had me entirely captivated and enchanted.

On my final evening in Bayreuth I attended Götterdämmerung. Director Frank Castorf’s vision appeared just as intricate as Wagner’s own composition with many connotations towards the human condition and the greed of Man. The conductor Marek Janowski and the orchestra surpassed my expectations (which were high to begin with!). One truly felt they were in the presence of some of the greatest players in the world. The singers were excellent, and in particular mezzo-soprano Marina Prudenskaya as Waltraute exhibited some of the best singing I have ever had the pleasure to experience live.

Finally I must thank the Wagner Society of Scotland for affording me this unique opportunity. As I strive to forge a career in this ever-tricky industry, this opportunity will remain a notable point in my resolve to continue crafting my instrument and, beyond this, to work towards my greatest potential as an artist.  — Rebecca Godley

—  My tickets were for Tristan on 17 August, and Holländer the next day. I'm not a great fan of Katharina Wagner, and I found her Tristan irritating and confusing. Acts 1 and 2 were hellishly boring, but Act 3 seemed to be from another interpretation altogether — Samuel Beckett's or Sartre's hell. No criticism of the performers, however, and Christian Thielemann can certainly grasp this score with two hands and more.

Jan Philipp Gloger's Holländer, by contrast, seemed rather quaint. I liked the quirkiness, the fan-factory for the spinning, the Amazonian boxed capitalism and the faux-naif love-redemption. Paula M. Bortnichak and Edward A. Bortnichak have done the deeper exegesis, in the festival programme and elsewhere.

Beyond the Festspielhaus I was dismayed by the sterility of the new Richard Wagner Museum, and more so of the renovated Wahnfried itself, cold and unfriendly, as if no-one had ever really lived there. On the other hand, having new access to the 1930s Siegfried Wagner-Haus was fascinating, if a bit chilling. The restored art deco fireplace in the room where Hitler dined and where Syberberg conducted his interview with Winifred is now an unsettlingly lasting monument to those ghastly times.   — David Cormack

—  A new production of Parsifal is always a much anticipated event but a new production of Parsifal in Bayreuth is really something very special indeed. Having seen the two last productions at the Festspielhaus — Christoph Schlingensief’s ‘Rotten Rabbit’ and Stefan Herheim’s complex picture of Parsifal and Germany in the 20th and 21st centuries — the anticipation was immense. In this new production the orchestra and chorus were superb and the singers were also of the highest quality. As Parsifal, Klaus Florian Vogt — Bayreuth’s favourite tenor, tall, slim, blonde, with a beautiful bell-like tone which makes him wonderful both as Lohengrin and as Parsifal, was excellent. Georg Zeppenfeld’s powerful, articulate Gurnemanz was outstanding; Elena Pankratova’s imprisoned Kundry and Ryan McKinny’s Amfortas were admirable.

However, this production was not without its problems. The producer Uwe Erich Laufenberg, head of the Staatstheater in Wiesbaden, was a late replacement for Jonathan Meese who was dismissed officially because his concept was too expensive. The conductor Andris Nelsons then resigned following (we believe) a disagreement with Christian Thielemann; fortunately Hartmut Haenchen was available (he conducted the revival of Tannhäuser at Covent Garden) and produced a competent if pedestrian performance.

The production is set in Mosul in present day Iraq, the knights as a Christian community at risk trying to help the local inhabitants, the flower maidens first dressed as nuns, then in burkas then as belly-dancers, Parsifal as a youth with the latest haircut, a soldier in full combat uniform, an IS warrior and finally a besuited civilian. There is a magic moment in Act 1 during the transformation scene with the use of beautiful video interludes by Gérard Naziri to present a world view, but much of the direction is mundane, fussy, and unoriginal. There are many irritating idiosyncratic moments: for example, in Act 1 Amfortas is presented as both Christ and the Grail and his wound is opened to provide blood for the knights/monks to drink; in Act 2 Parsifal appears in complete military gear complete with rifle and grenades, Amfortas enters and is seduced by Kundry, and Klingsor is obsessed by crucifixes and flagellation; in Act 3 Parsifal has so many costume changes one wonders how he has time to sing. Finally participants on the stage of all faiths throw their Holy relics into Titurel’s coffin together with a broken spear while Parsifal, replete in black suit and patent shoes, sings of the Grail directly to the audience while the lights in the Festspielhaus all come on.

So will I apply for tickets next year? Of course I will. Producers, productions, even conductors, come and go but the wonder of the music remains for ever and the acoustic and magic of Bayreuth cannot be resisted.   — Joy Millar


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. Please note the earlier start time on 4 December and the afternoon meeting on 12 March.


Sunday 4 December 2016 **6.30 to 9.00pm**

AGM and Members’ Christmas Social

As indicated in our August Newsletter, we will hold our 20th AGM on Sunday 4 December 2016 at 6.30pm. After the AGM, there will be a buffet and drinks and time to socialise, and we hope that our scholar Rebecca Godley will tell us about her experiences in Bayreuth. This event is for members only with free admission.


Sunday 22 January 2017 at 7.30 pm 

The Coaching of Wagner Singers — Derek Clark

As a member of Welsh National Opera’s music staff in the 1980s, Derek Clark helped prepare the casts of several Wagner operas, work he continued at Scottish Opera where he was assistant to Sir Richard Armstrong for their production of Parsifal in 2000 and for the 2004 Ring cycle. He has since gone on to coach many other singers in Wagner roles. In this talk he will discuss the problems, as well as the joys, of working with singers in preparing them to perform this repertoire.

Derek Clark was born in Glasgow and studied at the RCS, the University of Durham and the London Opera Centre. He joined WNO as a repetiteur and Staff conductor in 1977, and has been Head of Music at Scottish Opera for the past 18 years, conducting a wide repertoire from Handel to James MacMillan. He is a respected guest coach at several colleges and also works as an accompanist, composer, and arranger. Since 2011 he has been Music Director of the Dundee Choral Union and since 2014 Director of Music at Helensburgh Parish Church.


Sunday 19 February 2017 at 7.30 pm

Wagner and Schopenhauer — David Gosling

Wagner ‘discovered’ Schopenhauer in 1854 and subsequently said that the philosophy of Schopenhauer ‘exercised a decisive influence on the whole course of my life’. This talk provides an introduction to the elements of Schopenhauer’s philosophy that Wagner found attractive and critically examines the extent to which Schopenhauer’s ideas can be found in Wagner’s operas.

Dr David Gosling is a retired educationalist and lecturer in philosophy and a member of the Manchester Wagner Society. In recent years he has united his philosophical interests and his passion for Wagner in this project to investigate the true extent of Schopenhauer’s influence on Wagner’s work.


Sunday 12 March 2017 **at 2.30 pm**

The Heir of Beethoven — Kevin Stephens

Wagner thought that his later scores could be seen as symphonic. Looking at the idea of musical development in Mozart and Beethoven we see how Wagner adapted his technique in his later works. There is a special focus on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a work which Wagner knew extremely well, and its influence on his approach.

Kevin Stephens was educated at the Universities of Birmingham and Newcastle and has worked as music lecturer, writer and music critic, music administrator and festival director. He has recently retired as modular author and tutor at the Rose Bruford College Opera Studies Degree after 19 years.



Wagner : Two Notable Biographies  —  Ian Robertson

Of the vast literature on Richard Wagner two most distinguished single-volume, highly contrasted, and very readable biographies deserve especial mention.  Both biographers are prominent figures in the musical culture of Scotland.

Derek Watson is remarkable for his wide-ranging talents as writer, Thespian, musicologist, and teacher.  His numerous series of lectures on opera, illustrated by his own vocalisation and piano-playing, attract a wide, knowledgeable, and devoted audience.  Especially noteworthy are his residential courses on Wagner’s operas.  He was for many years the mainspring of this Society.

Derek Watson’s Richard Wagner : A Biography presents, over just 352 pages, a vivid, witty, and remarkably comprehensive account of the composer’s colourful life.  It is lavishly embellished by well-chosen illustrations.

Hans Gál, who lived from 1890 to 1987, was an Austrian of Jewish descent whose musical compositions embrace virtually every genre.  He was, inter alia, a protegé of Eusebius Mandyczewski, Furtwängler, Richard Strauss, and Fritz Busch.  Gál was obliged to flee Europe from the Nazis, was befriended by Donald Tovey, came to Edinburgh and then was for many years on the Music faculty of Edinburgh University.  He was one of the founders of the Edinburgh Festival in 1947. 

Gál’s book Richard Wagner was first published in 1963 in German, then subsequently in an English translation by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler.  This book has a most interesting structure which differs greatly from that of Derek Watson.  Part I ‘The Life of an Adventurer’ is strictly biographical.  Part II ‘The Man and his Music’ then analyses Wagner’s compositional evolution across that life.  All of this is conveyed within 208 pages.  As Schönzeler aptly observed, Gál had “a style very much of its own, which lends all his writings a peculiar attraction and fascination”.

Gál’s biography is much briefer than Watson’s and far less detailed.  Yet it offers some crucial insights. Both of these books can be read and re-read with continued, indeed increasing, edification and entertainment.  I know, because I have done just that.

Derek tells me he knew Hans, his wife and daughter.  Though never a pupil of Gál, he learned a lot from their friendship and mounted performances of some of his chamber works with the composer present.  He does not recall any conversations about Wagner, but several about Brahms, Webern, and Tovey.  There have been a number of recent CDs making some of Gál’s wonderful music available to all.

Derek Watson.  Richard Wagner : A Biography.  Dent & Sons  London, Melbourne and Toronto, 1979.

Hans Gál.  Richard Wagner.  Translated by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler.  Gollancz London and Stein and Day New York, 1976.



News in Brief

●  Our former Bayreuth Scholar, soprano Anush Hovhannisyan, was nominated to represent the Royal Opera House in the Stella Maris International Vocal Competition, on board MS Europa, where she won the main prize and two further prizes from the international jury (go to

●  Oper Leipzig will be staging The Ring in the New Year: Das Rheingold on 7 January 2017 at 7 pm, Die Walküre on 8 January at 4 pm, Siegfried on 12 March at 3 pm and 25 March at 5pm, Götterdämmerung on 26 March at 5 pm. For further information and other productions go to

●  Saffron Opera Group will continue their Ring Cycle with a concert performance of Siegfried at Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden on Sunday 12 February 2017 at 2.30 pm. For further information go to

●  Kasper Holten makes his farewell as Royal Opera’s Director of Opera with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, conducted by Antonio Pappano with Bryn Terfel and Johannes Martin Kränzle, on seven nights from 11 to 31 March 2017. For further information go to

●  Information about opera performances in Scotland can be found at, and for information elsewhere see the links tab on our website.


Dale Bilsland
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John Anderton
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Peter Stuart
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Newsletter Editor

Maureen McLennan
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