“Leitmotifs Through the Aether”

A Tribschen idyll...Wagner with Eva

May 22, Happy 203rd birthday to Maestro Richard Wagner!

On the evening of 19 May 2016, the Richard Wagner Society of SA hosted ABC broadcaster and programmer Simon Healy to give the annual Brian Coghlan Lecture on Leitmotifs Through the Aether:Wagner’s Operas in Broadcasting History. In a highly detailed and fascinating talk, Simon spoke (in his classic, Classic FM voice) of the technological advances through the last couple of centuries, referring first to the ancients and their perception of the ‘aether’ as the fifth element, onward and upward to the telegraph, which really paved the way for mass communication since.

His chronicle was interwoven with superb examples, visual, aural and imaginative.  A few noted by me at random will hopefully serve to illustrate: In August 1876, as The Ring premiered in Bayreuth, a music critic on the New York Times staff was able to telegraph his report and critique so that readers in Manhattan could consider in depth what seismic events were taking place thousands of miles away, within hours of them occurring.  It was not only a revolution in opera, but in operatic criticism too.  Or consider the development of broadcasting, so that in 1920, the first radio broadcast of a live opera took place, from Buenos Aries.  It was Wagner of course (Parsifal).

There were misses as well as hits, of course.  The gramophone showed the way to the eventual quality hi-fidelity recording we are so lucky to have now, but for several decades, such recording efforts were of a penny arcade quality at best. Simon ran an extract from the film Two Sisters From Boston (1946), in which baritone Lauritz Melkior bellowed into a tube, restrained by the ‘producer’ so that he didn’t cause it to melt, while his backing instrumentalists ran to and from the infernal machine at appropriate moments.


Simon Healy (photo courtesy of the ABC)








From there, a quirky minor sensation appeared in the form of the short-lived “Theatrophone”, an apparatus which the leisured and treasured could have installed in their homes so they might enjoy scratchy opera day and night (Proust put one in his cork-lined bedroom in 1911 and spent hours, days, weeks, listening rapt to Tristan und Isolde, gobbling madeleines, no doubt).  But it was telephone and radio technology that really broke through and gave us the first great live recordings, later even more enhanced by stereo, and studio refinements such as recording on magnetic tape and, ultimately, digitalization.  All in all, Brian Coghlan, who was not well-enough to attend, would have approved mightily (fortunately, his wife Sybil and son Justin were present).  A terrific, learned, and enthusiastic oration, packed with information, amusingly and concisely presented.  Thank you Simon!


We might add that Simon Healy pondered aloud what the Maestro himself would have made of these technological advances. We agree with him that Wagner would have been thrilled at the possibilities of spreading his artful wings over the globe, in high-fidelity!  He would have approved in a disinterested manner, as a modernist, also.  (Of which, more later.)

By the way, we are already on the record about Renoir, but we couldn’t resist displaying his appalling portrait of the Maestro.  Look at it – ouch! Wouldn’t you say?  SORRY TO DO THAT TO YOU ON YOUR BIRTH ANNIVERSARY, HERR WAGNER.



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