Maureen Wheeler was the force behind Opera Australia’s production of Wagner’s Ring cycle which concluded in Melbourne at the weekend. Wheeler, the co-founder of Lonely Planet, provided $5 million of the $20 million production allowing the national opera company to scale the Everest of opera for the first time in its 57 year history. We asked Wheeler whether her $5 million was well spent.
Did you attend each of the rehearsals and each of three cycles of the four part opera?
I attended every cycle but none of the rehearsals.
Did you take guests who had never been to a Ring before?
Yes, several, from the UK, Germany, the States and Melbourne.
Did they respond the way you hoped?
It’s always difficult trying to communicate passion in an art form to the uninitiated about how wonderful it can be. Did you have a pre-performance spiel for such guests?
No, I wanted them to discover it for themselves, but I did suggest everyone do some reading and I cannot recommend Heath Lees’ talks highly enough. All my guests thought he was magnificent.
What’s the best – or most amusing – comment you overheard from the audience during the cycle?
“I hope the Wheelers put their money into the music and not the scenery”.
Were you nervous about what the production might be like before you finally saw it?
A little, although I had attended the initial presentations and knew which direction Neil (Armfield) was going.
Was it what you had always imagined in your head?
I had no preconceptions.
How many other Rings have you seen?
How did this one compare?
It was the most honest.
Had you been a fan of director Neil Armfield prior to this production?
Are you still an Armfield fan?
I am in awe of Neil now.
The production was well received. Was that a relief or what you expected?
I thought it would be well received because the cast was so strong, but it was a relief.
The main niggling criticism seemed to be that people loved the singing and the music but were less sure about the sets and Armfield’s overall vision. What did you think of his direction?
I thought it was absolutely beautiful. I think it is a ground breaking production. Neil has freed every director who comes after him to tell the story and allow the music to shine without trying to resort to gimmicks.
Did you notice any schism in reactions between foreign audience members and locals?
How have you described this Ring to people who didn’t get to see it?
I just send the reviews.
What was the most thrilling on stage moment for you in the entire cycle?
There were many but I think The Dragon in Siegfried is hard to beat.
What did you think of the activities around the Ring? Did you attend any?
I did attend a few but I was very busy. Lunch in the laneway was great. The Ring in the Ring was fun and the talks were all good.
Given the difficulties in mounting a Ring (and this one had a few too) did you ever consider backing out?
Would you contribute as much money to an opera project again?
There’s talk of a remount of this Ring in 2016. Would you be involved again?
I would love to.
Is there another opera project you would like to be involved in?
Was it (your) money well spent?
What was your measure of success?
That Melbourne embraced it. That people want it to come back, and the various government bodies realise that this has huge cultural significance for our city and are willing to talk about it becoming a regular festival.