Things That Make You Go Buh?!? The Hartford Wagner Festival

It’s been awhile since the last entry into this series and the latest head-scratcher comes from the Hartford Wagner Festival (HWF). If you haven’t heard of them before, it’s likely because the group is a nonprofit startup and has yet to present an event. Long story short; their apparent goal is/was to present annual productions of Wager’s “Ring” Cycle using a mixture of established and early career level singers accompanied by a synthesized orchestra. It’s that last bit that stirred up a hornet’s nest of pissed off instrumentalists and Wagner super fans.

Adaptistration SingerThe more you learn about this ordeal, the crazier it becomes. To begin with, even though the organization has 501(c)3 status, the mission statement at its website read more like hard sell marketing copy than a genuine mission statement, right down to the liberal application of exclamation points.

The Hartford Wagner Festival is a bold and totally new concept in the presentation of Richard Wagner’s famous “Der Ring des Nibelungen”!  Rarely performed outside of New York City on the east coast, the Hartford Wagner Festival is beginning a four-year project to bring the “Ring Cycle” to the Northeast in a totally new format.  “Up Close and Personal” is the theme for the HWF productions!

Opera-goers will be able to experience the glory of the Ring in our intimate 600-seat theater and with a state-of-the-art fully digital orchestra in a multimedia presentation that will make this “Ring Cycle” an operatic experience to remember!!

Once the organization’s intent to use a synthesized orchestra became known, all hell started to break loose. Charles M Goldstein, HWF’s founder, president, and artistic director defended his decision to use a synthesized orchestra in a New York Times article from 6/12/14 by going so far as to say that he planned to arrange the playback speakers placed in a pit so as to mimic live instrumentalists.

[Goldman] plans to set up 24 speakers to mimic the positions of the instruments in the pit: speakers for the violins would face up, for example, while one for the French horns would face backward.

You just can’t make this stuff up.

The rest of the project embodies a similar degree of wackiness not to mention dubious production values; much of which was evident on the now missing website content. Fortunately, albeit for a limited time, you can dig up the missing pages thanks to Google cache.

Speaking of musicians, they didn’t take kindly to Goldstein’s vision. A social media storm erupted that went so far as to see some individual musicians contact HWF singers to express their displeasure and encourage them to bow out.

One musician went so far as to cross the Buh?!? threshold by contacting singers with an email signature that read “musicians of the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra” and although the letter’s author, cellist Mark Brandfonbrener, is a member of the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra he apparently had neither authority nor permission to speak on behalf of the entire orchestra.

Brandfonbrener told the New York Times that he “may have overstated his authority, and that ultimately the letter should not be seen as speaking for the whole orchestra.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, “may have” is a bit of an understatement.

In the end, and following a deluge of properly attributed outrage, the majority of HWF’s key singers wasted no time putting as much distance between them and the productions as possible. As of now, all the organization’s list of board members has been pruned of all names except Goldstein (here’s the original list), productions are official postponed until 2015, and any existing ticket holders are being offered refunds. There is no word on whether or not HWG plans to modify its production in the wake and musician and super fan protest.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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9 thoughts on “Things That Make You Go Buh?!? The Hartford Wagner Festival”

  1. These people wanted to present “authentic” Wagner or no? It looks to me like a cheap way to make money and draw in millenials. Next, someone will adapt the Ring Cycle totally in hip-hop. Actually, I’d listen to that but I wouldn’t pay my hard-earned cash to see it.

  2. When economic or lack of space demand, opera has been routinely offered using one or two pianists for at least a century. This has been done without opera orchestra musicians feeling threatened. The difference is that nobody thought that was the “real deal”, but an economical and logistical compromise.

    So perhaps the organizers in Hartford went astray in two realms…by not suggesting multiple live keyboard players would realize the score using synthesized sound…and suggesting that the result with speakers pointing in different directions would be just as good as the magic that can happen with a real band.

    The argument could certainly be expanded to reduced orchestrations. I have been fortunate enough to be engaged to conduct Nutcracker with one of many reduced orchestrations. Does this produce the same effect as Tchaikovsky’s scoring? NO!!!!!! Is it more effective than a piano accompaniment or recording? UH, YES!! Most opera companies use reduced orchestrations for many works, for logistical, economical, and practical reasons. There simply are not enough hecklephone players to go around for R.Strauss’ operas 🙂

    • I was wondering if someone was going to make those points; as such, many thanks for weighing in Chris! There seem to be so many fundamental considerations overlooked in all of this and if nothing else, it will be interesting to see if the events postponed until the following season are retooled to reflect these considerations.

  3. There’s a fundamental difference between Chris’ argument of reduced orchestration and the HWF’s intent, though. The performances were not going to be with live players at keyboards; it would be a recording of the virtual instruments, essentially a slightly better-sounding MIDI realization. Mr. Goldstein makes that clear in the NYT article, when he talks about the difficulty of the recording being unable to change tempo. There would be no live players at all, not even on the other end of the recording.
    I’ve been to many opera performances by small companies with piano or quintet and piano, and support them for giving singers a chance to get the roles under their belt, albeit without the hyped rhetoric that HWF was putting out about being “up close and personal” with the magic of Wagner. I don’t think anyone would have an issue with a small company reducing the orchestration or even having a live keyboard flesh out the brass, for instance. Of course, no one would call that being an “authentic” performance of the Ring, either. But what HWF was trying to do instead was bypass having to pay anyone, even a single pianist, to realize Wagner’s score. That is the major issue here.

    • The “Music Minus One” approach proposed by the HWF was, as Michael suggests, flawed both artistically and politically; and ultimately doomed by the organization’s PR hubris. The technology certainly exists for sampled sound to be assembled into something resembling Wagner’s tonal palette, under the control of a few living, breathing (and paid) musicians. As to being “up close and personal” with Wagner magic, there are at least two camps of opinion; one being expressed by famous Hartford resident and humorist, Mark Twain: “Wagner has wonderful moments…but terrible quarter hours!”

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