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INTERVIEW: Wagner in Washington (Part 5 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, Part 3, and Part 4.

Portrait of Richard WagnerIonarts:
On the question of money to start this sort of venture, what are your sources of financial support?

Carol Berger:
We do the things that all opera companies do: we run fundraising drives and fundraising events. These are what every single opera and music organization, any theater organization in the world, has to do and does. In his article in Die Welt, Breiholz seems to imply that we were somehow suspect because we have received money and continue to look for donors. This makes me laugh. The same people who accuse us of soliciting supporters have their hands out 24 hours a day. The bottom line is, our support base is really the small donor, the Wagner lover who wants new experiences and ignores the dictates of the establishment organizations to support only those Wagner initiatives they officially endorse. So we get unsolicited donations all the time. People send us letters that say, "We know what you're going through. We believe in what you're doing. Keep up the good work." That's the kind of letters I get, from strangers, out of nowhere. I guess this is what you call grass-roots support.

It seems logical that Wagner Societies in the United States would want to support you. What is the nature of the relationship between the Millennium Wagner Opera Company and these societies?

Photograph of Richard WagnerCarol Berger:
Most of the U.S.-based Wagner Societies have not given us any help, financial or in-kind, although we made efforts early on to let them know that we wished to be partners in a common cause with them. With the exception of the Chicago Wagner Society, which is by the way the oldest one in the country, and many good folks in Northern California, we've had the door shut in our face without even so much as a look at our work, our casts, or business plan. Individual members from all of these societies, however, do support us; I'm talking about official Board policies. In the east, we've had singers called and urged to drop off of our roster. In one case we had false press put out. It is so bizarre to our singers and musicians. After all it is in the filings these Wagner-supporting non-profit organizations make with the government to obtain their tax-free status that they are mandated to "support performance of Wagner’s music." What is worse is that, once people hear our singers and see the incredibly high caliber of our work and art, the contempt these groups have shown us becomes sickening, and the contempt people feel for them grows. For they should be helping us succeed in some way, not trying to sabotage us.

There are a few Wagner Societies we have not talked to and would like to. But judging how others who at first were interested in learning more about us, heard our CD and told us they loved it, but now refuse even to return a call, I think what is going on is a circling of the wagons mandated by the leadership of one or two very powerful groups. They get a call, are told not to help us, are told some sort of fallacious things, and they fall in line, displaying unusually unbusinesslike behavior, such as refusing to return calls, sending nasty letters, or demanding they not be associated with us in any way. We approach them with much deference and respect, so this is bizarre if not hysterical.

We can only figure that they fear potential competition for Wagner-related dollars. And they don't like the fact that we are paying the same singers that months ago they had convinced should pay them for opportunities to sing Wagner roles. Do not underestimate the panic this latter issue is causing. If singers stop paying to sing or stop singing for free, that is a big problem. Some singers are clearly too young to work professionally. But our singers must have stage resumes to be considered, and the ones we rescued from the trap of the pay-to-sing or sing-for-free net were ready for prime time a long time ago. So they go around scaring potential sponsors of our performances. It's sad. We are not a Wagner Society nor do we pretend or desire to be. But by their refusal to engage or support us, they have made themselves outmoded and irrelevant. We combine the best in scholarship and top professional talent all in one entity. Their own members watch them ignore us and come to us, if not just for curiosity. It's these Wagnerians, ordinary people who want new and exciting access to performance, who are excited about new ideas for Wagner, whom they can't control. It's that intuitive sense I think the leaders feel that they are losing control of the market or our growing popularity that is getting them to behave hysterically. But, no matter what the good ol' boy network tries, circling the wagons, putting pressure on other societies or Wagner groups, to turn their backs on us, it just boomerangs back in the form of anger from rank-and-file members. We get the e-mails, which in turn bring in support, and that all adds up. You see: average Wagnerians are very intelligent. They resent mind control. It's condescending, like these leaders are telling them they don't know what's good for them. Our friends in Germany are livid at their behavior, which they say demeans Richard Wagner.

By the way, in case you think it's an issue of not being professional enough to deserve support, the Wagner Society of Northern California, which I consider probably the finest and most progressive U.S. group along with Chicago, is now sponsoring a matching fund drive to raise $100,000 for a Wagner performance on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, with a company of amateur singers. Their performance concept is interesting, but this is to raise $100,000 for a campus performance in a small theater. I appreciate that, but how is it that we cannot get even $500 to help our professional cast with air fare for our Parsifal that we will be bringing to San Francisco next June?

Are we rich? No, we're utterly struggling financially, but I tell you that you will never see a more dedicated and determined bunch of people than my singers. And the more trouble we get from some of the Wagner Societies, the more determined they and our support base are. One of our brilliant singers has termed us "the rebels."

(To be continued.)

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