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30.9.03

INTERVIEW: Wagner in Washington (Part 6 of 6)

The Ionarts exclusive interview with Carol Berger, founder of the Millennium Wagner Opera Company, is concluded today. These links to the earlier parts may be helpful: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

Photograph of Richard WagnerIonarts:
You plan to perform Parsifal first here in Washington?

Carol Berger:
Yes, that's correct.

Ionarts:
And when will that occur?

Carol Berger:
At the earliest, in the late spring of 2004.

Ionarts:
You have a venue selected?

Carol Berger:
We have several venues for several performances. Unfortunately, we are unable to reveal them yet. You will have to read it in the Washington Post. Why? That's a good question. It is one of the great sadnesses of my life that leadership in the local Wagner Society who, for some bizarre reason and I can only think it's money, is trying to shut us down. We had several hard-won contracts rescinded for next year, through scare-mongering tactics leveraged on program directors of two concert venues. We are just starting out; but that does not mean we are amateurs. On the contrary. But people can get scared off if your title is head of the local Wagner Society and you say with that authority that the hall puts themselves at risk if they sign a contract with us because we do not exist. Our attorneys inform us that this aggressive action violates labor laws. We quietly gather statements. But, since we are new we cannot afford adversaries, just friends. Legal counsel advises us to take cease and desist action, but we don't want to begin on that foot. But we will, when their meddling in our affairs causes economic loss of future income to an intolerable level. It is already intolerable, in terms of future revenue lost and time lost rehearsing, but our singers and supporters push me not to cave and we go on to the next opportunity.

Just this past week, we had a lecture-recital program retracted in New York for this winter because I was told by a member of the sponsoring organization that the word was put out by the local Wagner Society that we don't really have a company. That is infuriating slander. We had been rehearsing for that program since last June, and since it was a lecture-performance it involved much more than just music. We were going to do it pro bono in friendship.

So, what I feel safe to tell you at this point is that we will be performing in the Washington, D.C., metro area in the late spring of 2004. We will also be performing in Chicago in March of 2004. When you see the ad in the Washington Post, you can buy your tickets. I know this sounds awful, but it shows how aggressive these people have been in scaring people once they discover our venues, to have contracts cancelled by using scare tactics about us. And again, they have never seen or heard us or expressed any interest in us. It's sad, because we would like to be able to shout it from the rooftops. Our attorneys say that is our right. This is not about our credibility. This is about how morally bankrupt and desperately afraid of something new a few in the good ol' boy network are. We can never trust them near our sponsors or collaborators. We cannot risk losing any more hard-earned opportunities we have been granted. The public, such as you, will judge for itself, and so far everyone who has witnessed our work is super excited.

I understand you received a note following the first installments of this interview from the local Wagner Society asking for a publicity review for a recent program of theirs that you never attended. I find the ethics behind that request consistent with their lack of ethics toward us. Imagine asking a critic to review something he never attended based on their input! I knew if they found someone giving Millennium any kind of forum to get out our story, they would seek that critic out under some pretence. I dare say it's pretty sickening. They try to stamp out any public notice we get from objective reporters or organizations that, like you, have observed the work of our company firsthand. That is totally scary to them; perhaps they think they can pump some info out regarding our venues along the way, which I surmise they'd like.

Ionarts:
You have been a lecturer for the D.C. Wagner Society. What made your relationship with them take a turn for the worse?

Carol Berger:
Of course, they know of my musicological and professional production credentials. On the other hand, don't forget that the same leaders in the D.C. Wagner establishment would be happy if Millennium disappeared. I lectured with the D.C. Society for a couple of years and had been a financial supporter for several years. Their president is probably the one person I will be eternally grateful to for giving me my break as a lecturer in Washington, after several years in New York. I used to meet with him and he would read my research papers. All that good will and camaraderie died when I started Millennium, and to this day it breaks my heart. A few board members have privately told me that mine were some of the best lectures they ever sponsored. I have e-mails from them to prove that right here. But, once Millennium came into existence and was on my resume there were Board-level attempts to de-legitimize the company and me. I gave a talk last March on Die Walküre. Their board PR person in coordination with leadership deleted all references to Millennium in my official press release. I was told, "we will describe you as we wish, or you can cancel your lecture." All announcements about my lecture in the newspapers were cancelled. Even when their chairman introduced me at the lecture, all reference to me being Artistic Director of Millennium was removed. I have a cassette you can listen of that intro. Imagine: with some of my singers sitting in the audience! That's why I am banned from lecturing for them any more, despite the high interest and attendance my lectures draw. They don't want to give Millennium any attention. So now there are some members who dropped them and signed with Chicago, which has treated us fairly. And we have launched our own lecture series, for which we already have had tremendous interest.

Some speculate that the leadership is afraid of competition for Wagner dollars, One insider said that they once had an interest in funding their own Wagner company, and we beat them to it. So they are fuming. But these are business and government people, many retired; not performance professionals like we all are at Millennium. This has been a tremendous sorrow for me, because these people were personally closest friends of mine. But we are going to perform here in spite of their opposition. They do not own the market.

Ionarts:
The Washington Opera is going to present one Wagner opera this season, Die Walküre, in November. Do you think there is any need or any audience for more Wagner in Washington?

Carol Berger:
There is a huge love for Wagner in Washington. I would say that the passion for Wagner in Washington is far greater than in New York, which I think of as more of an Italian bel canto town. So in answer to your question, yes, people in Washington just adore Wagner and are happy for opportunities to experience it.

Ionarts:
Do you have instrumentalists contracted for Parsifal? Will the performance be accompanied by an orchestra?

Carol Berger:
Yes, there will be an orchestra. I do not believe in performing Wagnerian music-drama with piano. We will do recitals with piano, although I am interested in a recital program in the future with a small chamber orchestra. Obviously, we cannot afford a 100-piece orchestra, but I am looking at an orchestra of between 45 and 60 players depending on the opera. We are currently working with an "orchestra-wrangler," someone who contracts orchestral players for events. We have a number of conductors who are committed to the project, but I haven't decided on one.

Incidentally, the Wagner Society recently held one of their singers-sing-for-free recitals, using a small orchestra instead of their usual piano. I got an unsolicited e-mail from a board-affiliated person saying that my concept to do this, which I had articulated in past years, was theirs to enact because they had money and we don't. As in Götterdämmerung, they are rich with money but empty of wisdom.

Ionarts:
You are confident that you will have the audience you need for your performances?

Carol Berger:
If people don't want to come to a fully staged Parsifal, that's their loss. If people can be coerced or told not to attend, that is really sad. But no one can control the spirit and love for Wagner's works of average independent-minded opera lovers. They cannot dictate what they do and what they attend. Oh please! Don't get me wrong, I expect two things totally! Number 1, they will boycott our performances, which is shooting oneself in the foot if you love Wagner, and number 2, they will organize a competing event, either a concert, dinner, or other some event scheduled exactly to occur at the time and date of our performances. Maybe they will try a last-minute effort to alarm our venue supporters. We will lose audience that way, which is their goal. But among other Wagnerians, they will gain their disrespect. They did this in New York. We held an informal get-to-know-us reception and fund raiser in New York over the summer, with a total admission cost of a potluck food dish and a free-will donation of anything they would like to help with. I had our singers fly in from as far as the West Coast, and our board members flew in to meet and greet. We received about 150 RSVPs and prepared for that. Well, the local society in New York got wind of our event a week after we announced it and immediately organized a concert to occur the same afternoon at the same exact time as our party. Press and talent agents, who had RSVP'd that they would be coming with some of their singers, suddenly didn't show, hearing that we weren't officially sanctioned. We had food for 100 and 25 guests showed up. But the impression the local society made on those who showed was not something that will be easily erased. And things turned around in Seattle. There we offered an evening of dinner, lecture, and recital in a fundraising mode. Again another society was pressured to stage a competing event. But this time, the leadership of that group ate alone. Because their members and the local Wagner attendees stormed our event, and we had super attendance and a wonderful evening. How sad. I don't think they will ever get it or wish to try something new that they don't dictate, like Wagner advised Siegfried his son. That can only spell out one thing. Obsolescence. The future of Wagner performance is waiting. We have a new vision and a solid approach. I think it's not us who has anything to be afraid of in the real scheme of things…do you?

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