The Australian Heldenbaritone John Wegner, known for his stage commitment and psychological insight, has died. The multiple Helpmann Award winner had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2014, cutting short an important career that many believed was at its peak.
“I’m extremely saddened to hear of the passing… of one of Australia’s greatest singers,” said Opera Australia Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini. “John was a magnificent singer/actor who owned every role he performed and sang in the greatest opera houses of the world. He had an extremely successful career in Europe as well as in Australia. He was also one of the loveliest people you could ever meet. A wonderful colleague and a real ‘Mensch’. On behalf of everyone at Opera Australia I send my deepest condolences to his wife, Mignon and to his immediate family.”
John Wegner with his 2009 Helpmanns. Photo supplied
Born in 1950, Wegner and his family moved to Australia from West Germany in 1955. A schoolteacher who performed in amateur musicals by night, he received an associate diploma in Opera and Music Theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts. His opera career began when he joined the Australian Opera as an extra chorus member for a production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Impressed by Wegner’s talents, the chorus master suggested he audition for Music Director Richard Bonynge, who later invited Wegner to join the company as a bass. Gradually taking on bigger roles in his first few years there, Wegner believed the turning point in his career came when he took over from Donald Shanks as Boris Godunov. His performances led to a Bayreuth Scholarship, which saw him audition and observe leading singers in Europe. It was around this time that Bonynge first began to suspect that Wegner wasn’t a true bass, and by the time Wegner returned to Europe for further auditions in 1990, he was calling himself a Wagnerian Heldenbaritone.
Success soon followed, with an audition in Karlsruhe leading to a contract for his first Ring Cycle, where he appeared in the role of Wotan. He would do an additional two Ring Cycles in Germany before plucking up the courage to try for an audition at Bayreuth. Wegner was heard by that prestigious house in August 1996 and offered the role of Donner in Das Rheingold when the original singer dropped out, making his Bayreuth debut in 1997. He would later appear there as Bitterolf in Tannhaüser in 2001, Telramund in Lohengrin in 2003, and Klingsor in Christoph Schlingensief’s radical staging of Parsifal. Conducted by Pierre Boulez, Wegner considered that production of Parsifal a high watermark of his career.
Wegner as the Wanderer in the 1998 Adelaide Ring. Photo supplied
Even as his European profile grew, Wegner returned often to Australia for performances, most memorably as Wotan in the first Australian Ring Cycle in Adelaide in 1998. In 2004, he appeared in his second Australian Ring in Adelaide as Alberich, a role for which he received a Helpmann Award for Best Male Performer in an Opera. Wegner would return to Australian Opera (now calling itself Opera Australia) in 2007, where he sang the villains in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. He would appear there as Claggart in Billy Budd in 2008, Boris in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 2009, Jack Rance in La Fanciulla del West and Scarpia in Tosca in 2010. Wegner would receive the Helpmann for both Best Male Performer and Best Male Performer in a Supporting Role in 2009 for Billy Budd and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk respectively, the double win then unprecedented.
Wegner’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s in 2014 prevented him from appearing in his third Australian Ring Cycle, this time for Opera Australia, something he would describe as “gut wrenching”.
Wegner was made a member of the Order of Australia in 2016, for “distinguished service to the performing arts as a world renowned operatic bass-baritone, and as an ambassador for the cultural reputation of Australia.”
Wegner is survived by his wife Mignon.