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INTERVIEW: Wagner in Washington (Part 4 of 6)

The Ionarts exclusive interview with Carol Berger, founder of the Millennium Wagner Opera Company, continues. As the final installments are published, these links to the earlier parts may be helpful: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Portrait of Richard WagnerIonarts:
You feel a deep personal connection to this project. In that light, how do you respond to the characterizations of your work in the recent article (Wagner-Wahn im Internet, August 19) by Jochen Breiholz in Die Welt?

Carol Berger:
I don't even know where to begin. First of all, the title of the article translates to "Wagner Madness on the Internet." The implication of that title is that we have some kind of dreamy person dreaming up an opera company concept using a Web site and that, on this Web site, this person, a musicologist, fantasizes about some sort of performance entity. The implication is it's really just her, trying to find singers and trying to make a few dollars. This is absolutely false and frankly pathetic because at the time Mr. Breiholz did his interview, do you know, we didn't even have an Internet site! That is how yellow this journalism is. We think, my company and our attorneys, that Die Welt has a "Jayson Blair problem" on its hands, recalling the young reporter from the New York Times who made up interview content, even made up interview occurrences. A young rogue reporter, emboldened by his status, using the medium of a high-profile newspaper, as a platform for his own purposes.

But let me tell you, because it is so key to this, that putting up an Internet site for the company was the very last major thing we ever did, after being in operation for about 14 months. Why did we do that? I put up an Internet site after we had been rehearsing, after all sorts of actual work, because we were going to embark on a series of serious recital fundraisers followed by paid recital work going into the season, and I felt that the public has the right to learn about us and our philosophy, see who we were, privately, on their own, before they purchase a ticket or make a donation. That's why I put up an Internet site. It was the last thing we did.

How did this interview piece come to be written in the first place?

Carol Berger:
Yes, back to Die Welt's "Jayson Blair." This is how the article came about. Breiholz came to my house last spring, with the plan of writing a notice piece on Millennium. He was a personal friend, from Germany, of a stage director from the Berlin Opera, with whom I was in a partnership for the company, for most of last year. Breiholz was going to help us get noticed by writing an article on Millennium in Die Welt. But he was really doing this to support his personal friend, the director, who was in Germany. (Breiholz, by the way, does not live in Germany; he lives in Brooklyn, New York.) So frankly he came to my house to help his friend, who was very interested in getting contracts as a stage director in the United States. I knew this privately all along and it was all right with me. But you may already begin to draw your own conclusions about this reporter's use of his newspaper's resources to serve his personal motives.

A month following the actual interview, there was a falling out between this director and me. It concerned the two opening performances of Parsifal, which I wanted to direct myself because I had already been doing all the stage direction, dramaturgy, and rehearsal work directly with the singers here in the U.S. for an entire year. He had not traveled once to the U.S. to work with us, either being too busy or thinking it too expensive. I couldn't argue with him on this, but I was not going to start all over with him. So at this point I asked him to take charge of all the tech and actual production, which is a huge task in itself, while I would continue with the stage direction. After these two performances when the production would go on tour, he could assume direction for other venues and then stage the other music dramas we were planning to perform. He refused, insisting on all productions or nothing. He said that you couldn't have two directors. Well, I am sorry, we were not going to put off rehearsal of Parsifal until he could get to the U.S. Moreover, the dramatic concept of these performances is so specific that I had to hold my ground, and he walked out. Although he has Wagner credentials, this director is not an expert on Wagnerian music drama in the way that I am. However, he is a very competent and meticulous director who has done work in Wagner and Strauss and we had much synergy about theater, drama, and production from the moment he approached me to work with the company, so I agreed to partner with him despite our overseas distance. My deal was that I do these two Parsifal productions, the premieres of our company, because this drama epitomizes everything that is important about Wagner. Then I hand over the reigns for the stage work but continue the dramaturgy and overall management of the company.

Now, tying that to the interview, Breiholz and I chatted intensely, but he took no notes and did not tape the interview. But imagine! I had no idea an article had run about us! I mean, I was not even given the normal courtesy every person who is asked and agrees to be interviewed gets, to be informed that an article about the company, and myself, was going to run, either by the writer or the newspaper. I had no guarantee of a piece running at the time of the interview but was told I would hear back, as is normal journalistic practice. Imagine my shock, when several months later, your Web site informed me, by happenstance, about it (see post on August 19, Wagner Festival in Washington?). That turned out to be, when I read it, about two weeks after it was in print.

My sense is that the interview is payback on behalf of his friend, our director, who is in kind of a huff about these productions. It's too bad because I continue to admire this director and consider him a colleague.

Photograph of Richard Wagner, 1865, from the collection of Anton BrucknerIonarts:
What is stated in the article that you would consider payback?

Carol Berger:
The piece is fabricated à la Jayson Blair. Words are attributed to me that I never said. It fabricates an amount of $70,000 for our Parsifal production and, worse, sends out a message that we expect singers and musicians to perform for free. Totally false! My singers who have already performed and musicians who have played can attest to not only being paid but being paid well! One singer told me she thought she was paid too much, and an accompanist said he received more than he expected. But you see, singers of Wagner in this country without major connections are used to not being treated well. They are made to sing for free and, worse, pay to sing. And these are not student singers. We have one singer on our roster who is in her mid-forties, a brilliant singer who has been singing professionally for years, who was called and reminded of her stipend with regard to singing professionally with us. We put a stop to that here. We recruit only the top vocal and dramatic talent and pay them decently. Our standards make it extremely hard to get into Millennium, but once they are in, singers are treated with appreciation. The word is getting out, making singers happy and a few groups alarmed. After all it's the "support" a few groups use to fundraise against, and it's free talent the public is charged to hear. The proportion of dollar handed out to dollar raised is interesting.

Getting back to Breiholz. Breiholz makes it seem as if the entire project is a sort of a dream on the Internet and that our total support is two checks. What I had said to Breiholz is that we have a lot of grass-roots support from dedicated Wagnerians, and I had shown him two checks, one for $50 and another for $100 that had come in the mail that day, as an example. In fact, we get unsolicited small donations from people all the time, but Breiholz makes us look like fools with two small checks.

He also makes The Bayreuth-Wagner Theater Studio, our role interpretation studio, sound like fantasy. He states that I don't speak a word of German which, if I were reading this, I would say this coach (meaning me) is not serious. The Austrian and German friends with whom I converse here in the U.S. would laugh at that. I lived in Basel for two and a half years, Holland for one year, and traveled during twelve years in Europe doing opera production and speaking German. For sure it is not as good as it can be when you live abroad, since it is hard to practice living in the United States, but it is certainly conversational and I know my articulation. Breiholz knows that, because we conversed in German the afternoon he was at my place.

The article implies that there is no active company, which is an insult to the hard work of my contracted roster of singers, and that is what really galls me the most. Nobody has been killing themselves more than my singers, against all the adversity that we've been dealing with from some persons within the U.S. Wagner establishment who are doing whatever they can to ignore and discredit us. Two Wagner Societies in the U.S. use a line guaranteed to scare off potential programming directors or sponsors: they deny that we really exist. Imagine! We have a geographically dispersed roster: all are professional singers under contract, from the West Coast from L.A. up to Seattle; we have singers in the D.C. area, New York, and Boston. Our people travel to get to rehearsals, and when you think of all the money, time, and effort, to have such a write-up, that makes it look like this is somebody's fantasy created on the Internet, it's horrendous.

A couple of other points. Breiholz was in possession of our opera CD at the time of the interview and certainly afterwards. He never mentions that or comments on the quality of our singers. Also, you may be wondering what we are doing with regard to the newspaper or him. We have the highest respect for Die Welt and think they, like the New York Times, have been "hoodwinked" by this young reporter, who by the way, covered his tracks immediately following with a high-brow interview of Debra Voigt. I'm sure he did bring his tape recorder for that one. We are in discussion with our attorney's German office regarding a retraction or apology, perhaps a new write-up, but we have been informed that under German law the Jayson Blairs of the news world cannot be sued for libel unless you can prove specific damages in dollars. Reputation, false image, loss of potential new support, or even scaring off new singers doesn't seem to register on their radar. But the Jayson Blair affair with the New York Times was a big enough wake-up call for all the big papers, and I'm sure Die Welt takes its reputation seriously and will deal with this matter, if only for the high quality of the paper.

One other point from the article by Breiholz in Die Welt: he wrote that you hoped to become "the American answer to the Bayreuth Festival." Do you hope eventually to have your own performing space and a regular summer festival?

Carol Berger:
No, we don't. This is another thing that Breiholz did not get right, either because he didn't understand English so well, or because he took no notes and did not tape our interview and so was recalling things on the fly. And of course, following the fallout with his friend, he developed a negative agenda. What I said was that the same arduous process that Richard Wagner had to go through to build the Bayreuth Festival and the physical Festspielhaus in the city of Bayreuth, the torments he went through, that is very similar to what we are experiencing. We will be a seasonal company, meaning that we will perform primarily from October or November through June. There are a couple of European summer festivals I am interested in, so perhaps we will perform at a few. I would very much like to have this company perform overseas, especially in Great Britain and Germany. But we are not a summer off-season company; we are a national touring company, with no city of domicile. Our prime markets are Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, and perhaps Seattle. As for New York performances, you know I am from New York, why don't I say anything about New York? What happens to new companies like this in New York is that they end up playing in basements or empty churches. There is a huge establishment here that controls a lot. That's not what we're about; we're not a little regional venture. We are interested in performing possibly at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center's New Wave festival, and some other New York-based festivals.

(To be continued.)

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