Celebrating a decade since the premiere of Australia’s home-grown Ring Cycle.
Ten years ago this month, Australia’s first home-grown production of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung was staged in Adelaide in three cycles by the State Opera of South Australia. It was an artistic and commercial triumph, attracting two-thirds of its audience from overseas and interstate, winning ten Helpmann Awards and putting Australia firmly on the international Wagnerian map. Praised by international and Australian critics alike, it was described by one Sydney critic as ‘one of the finest occasions in the history of Australian music, opera and theatre’. Britain’s Sunday Times called it ‘one of the most visually resplendent Rings of recent times’, and hailed the intelligence of Elke Neidhardt’s direction. The Financial Times spoke of the unfailing excellence of its execution and the magnificent playing of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under Asher Fisch.
Lisa Gasteen as Brünnhilde was at her peak and soon afterwards sang the role at Vienna, Covent Garden and the Met. Melba’s SACD recording took the performances to the world and, in the process, garnered praise and awards including the Prix Lauritz Melchior, Académie du disque lyrique Paris – twice. And yet, to the surprise and disappointment of many, the 2004 Ring became a one-off, like the successful 1998 Adelaide Ring (created originally for the Théâtre du Chátelet) conducted by Jeffrey Tate and directed by Pierre Strosser, and the Australian premiere staging of Parsifal in Adelaide in 2001, conducted by Tate and directed by Neidhardt. These three productions returned estimated economic benefits to the State totalling $26.6 million.
Lisa Gasteen as Brunnhilde
In 1994, South Australia had embarked on an ambitious plan to stage the Ring and, more broadly, to make Adelaide a centre for the performance of Wagner’s stage works in the Asia-Pacific region after the example of Seattle. The State Government’s endorsement of this plan was motivated primarily by the desire to achieve a major ‘cultural tourism’ success in the wake of a major ‘sports tourism’ calamity – the loss in September 1993 of the Australian Grand Prix to Victoria. After the December 1993 State elections, the incoming Liberal government of Dean Brown was confronted with the challenge of finding major tourism events which offered similar economic benefits to the Grand Prix. Amongst the proposals was one to stage Wagner’s Ring in three complete cycles in 1998. Thus began the SA ‘Wagner decade’, the architects of which were State Opera chairman (and later head of Arts SA) Tim O’Loughlin, State Opera general director Bill Gillespie, and Minister for the Arts Diana Laidlaw.
Unlike other Australian opera companies, which are companies limited by guarantee, the State Opera of South Australia is a statutory body. It is therefore not surprising that governments were instrumental in launching the Wagner initiative and also in bringing it to a close. The election of the Rann Labor government in 2002 meant that earlier assumptions about a Ring for 2004 and its subsequent restaging had to be readdressed. Things began well (the 1998 Ring had won bipartisan praise) but relations between the new government and the Australia Council on the one hand, and the State Opera on the other deteriorated when rubbery budget figures led to parliamentary criticism and administrative reviews and interventions. Curiously, State Opera management had resisted advocating a restaging of the 2004 Ring, with General Director Stephen Phillips telling a journalist after the final performance: ‘We will talk to the Government and see if it is in everybody’s interests to restage the cycle.’ Six months later, Premier Rann told Parliament that he had still not received a proposal for restaging the Ring. In ‘Yes Minister’ fashion, a broadly focused feasibility study was commissioned in 2006 and its findings were presented in 2007, just in time for a change of Commonwealth government. A restaging had been advocated on the basis of continuing State and Commonwealth funding, but the new arts minister, Peter Garrett ruled out Commonwealth involvement, thus kyboshing any prospect of a remount.
It is a source of much regret that the 2004 Ring was not restaged, and that the magnificent production was written off. However, the fact remains that the Adelaide Wagner decade, and the 2004 Ring in particular, was a visionary and singular achievement in the annals of Australia’s operatic history.