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The Wagner Society V Dame Gwyneth Jones: What Really Took Place

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday 6 July 2013 | 11:59:00 am

What would Richard say?
“You would do me a great service if you created a foundation which would allow those without the necessary means to experience the performances. In a way, this would complete my first thought. ” Richard Wagner, in a letter (May 28 1882) to Fiedrich von Schoen that lead to the formation of Stipendienstiftung and thus the Wagner Bursary Competitions world wide.

“...and so the first and most important task for a new patronage will be to obtain the means to offer free admission, and if necessary the travel and accommodation costs, for those who share their fate – poverty – with so many in Germany.” Richard Wagner to Fiedrich von Schoen – June 16 1882

As we have already noted, reports in the national press have referred to an attempt by the Wagner Society (London) to, what could  be described as unceremoniously “boot out” its president - Dame Gwyneth Jones. While some of this commentary has been partly accurate, there has also been much conjecture and an equal amount of confusion.
Now, the July issue of Wagner News devotes 8 of its 64 pages to this wrangle.

We have spent some time during this week trying to get together as much accurate information as we could and put everything together in some sort of order. We hope that the  following provides the most accurate overview of what took place and investigates how a very simple - and what seems to us a well argued - disagreement, raised by the society’s president, has escalated out of all proportion.

It all began recently, when the Wagner Society informed The International Richard-Wagner Verband, that they were withdrawing from the Stipendienstiftung for 2014. In other words the committee had decided – without seeking advice from its members - to withdraw from the annual Bursary Competition that sent young singers to Bayreuth each year ( Although, it is worth noting that the committee believes it has no constitutional need to inform its members before making such decisions). Indeed, not only did they not consult members on this major decision but "forgot" - embarrassingly for her as it turned out - to mention it to their president. According to Dame Gwyneth, she only first heard about the matter in detail when she read about it in Wagner News in April. In an open letter to the Society she notes:

“I was recently informed by the President of The International Richard-Wagner Verband (Frau Prof. Eva Märtson) and the Director of The Richard Wagner Stipendienstiftung (Herr Dr. Stefan Specht) that the Wagner Society had written to tell them that it will not take part in the Stipendienstiftung for 2014 and beyond. They naturally thought that, as President of the Wagner Society, I knew about this, and that I was in agreement with it. In fact I was surprised to discover this decision in April 2013 when it appeared in Wagner News.”

After noting her surprise, she goes on to give detailed reasons why, in her professional opinion, the Bursary Competition should remain in place - and why its replacement would be of little benefit. She notes in conclusion:

"Among the 63 soloists performing on the stage of the Festspielhaus this year, 19 are former Bayreuth Bursary winners. That is more than 30%!"

However, she does not "demand" that the decision should be reversed - as has been suggested by some. Instead she cannot understand why neither she nor the Society's members were not consulted and recommends that it should be brought up at the next AGM for open debate and discussion.

It is difficult to see how any of this would suggest that Dame Gwyneth is being “tyrannical” - as has been suggested in some parts of the press - or that she is not aware of her role within the Society - as has also been suggested.

The next communication from Dame Gwyneth is an open letter titled: CHAIRMAN DEMANDS PRESIDENT'S RESIGNATION

In this she notes that she has received two emails from the Chair, "recommending" that she step down as President. She quotes large extracts from Chairman's emails.

These start off "nicely" enough. Dame Gwyneth should "step down" because, " ... it must be clear that the Committee, not the President, has executive responsibility for managing the Society. I am also concerned at the implications in your letter that you have been discussing the Wagner Society's affairs with external parties such as Prof. Märtson. If you do not have confidence in the Committee or feel that you can't work with us, it would be quite understandable, and perfectly honourable, if you wanted to stand down as our President ....". 

Dame Gwyneth as Salome.
Whose head is that she's holding?
After 23 years in the role of President, the Chair feels he "...owe[s] you the option - if you want it - of a dignified [my highlight] way out from this situation, and your resignation would be a much more fitting finale to your term as President than a public spat with the Committee, whatever the outcome."  

However, she seems to be left  in no-doubt that should she not "willingly go" then there is only one alternative, "We therefore intend to write to all members seeking a vote of confidence in the Committee and making it clear that, if successful, we intend to seek your resignation."

This indeed happened and members were sent a ballot paper to return in time for a Special General Meeting on 11th July. They were given two options:
  1. Support the Committee and call for the President’s resignation
  2. No confidence in Committee in which case all or most of the Committee would resign
Some members have declared this action unconstitutional and have called for a rethink.

So, to summarise, the chair of the Wagner Society of London has asked Dame Gwyneth to step down for two reasons:

1 – Because she believes that a decision the chair has made regarding the Bursary competition was wrong and should be put on the agenda of the next AGM.

2 - She had discussed that matter with an outside agent. Although that outside agent was the Chair of The International Richard-Wagner Verband!

Again, it would be difficult to see anything “dictatorial" here or indeed anything that would lead to the unprecedented removal of Dame Gwyneth. However in answering the latter of these accusations Dame Gwyneth notes, that it was Frau Prof. Eva Maertson, President of the RWIV, that approached her about the decision, not unreasonably assuming she might know something about it. Amusingly, she asks what she should have done? Put the phone down on the President of RWIV?

After a detailed discussion she concludes:

“To summarise. I have never tried to make Executive decisions. I only asked that the Members be allowed vote on the issue of The Bayreuth Bursary, which has been an important tradition for 30 years. As President I want to be part of a Society in which Members are entitled to vote on important issues and where I am not asked to resign because I wish to defend this right."

So, what are we to make of all of this? Oddly, I think we have no need to even consider the decision of the Wagner Society' to finish with the bursary competition per se. Even if it was part of Wagner's original intention of making the festival free to those who could not afford it (it has, after all, been a very long time since more than a small few associated with Wagner have attempted to follow those wishes with much enthusiasm - accept perhaps recently in Greece). Perhaps it is time that the Society looked at other ways of supporting young performers. Although, as Dame Gwyneth points out the present system certainly seems to have its merits - and results that fully support it. No, the issues here are about things both greater and wider than this.

First, who owns authorship of major decisions at the Society? Its Committee or its members? This is Dame Gwyneth's first and most important point. Clearly, members would not want to be bothered with day to day decisions taken by the committee but what about major decisions such as the Bursary Competition? Should not major decisions be at least open to discussion? Especially when senior members of the society believe they are wrong and should be debated? Dame Gwyneth believes so. And it is difficult to argue with her reasoning - unless that is you are the Society’s Committee who seem to strongly disagree. As the Chair told Dame Gwyneth, they will ask members to vote and it will either be her or them! To quote: "We therefore intend to write to all members seeking a vote of confidence in the Committee and making it clear that, if successful, we intend to seek your resignation." And even when the matter is to be put forward to members for discussion (if only, it would appear,  in response to the president's more than public appeal) it appears it will be nothing more than a "discussion". As an email to Dame Gwyneth from the chair would seem to suggest, "...however, this will be a discussion only: the AGM is not the right forum to reverse a decision which has already been validly taken by the Committee. "

Next, we have to look at the at the manner that Dame Jones has been treated in this matter? But first let us again define her "crimes" as identified by the Chair:
One: She believes the committee has made a wrong decision in replacing the Bayreuth Bursary and that it should be debated in an open forum before proceeding.
Two: She discussed the matter with the head of The International Richard-Wagner Verband, Prof. Eva Märtson - when Prof Marston asked her about the decision.
Three: She questioned a change to the constitution which meant that only committee members could put forward new nominations for officers on the committee.

Are these really reasons which, according to the Chair, mean "... [it] is clear to me that the President and the Committee fundamentally disagree on how the Society should be run" and call for the President to step down - or more likely be "booted out"? A President of Dame Gwyneth's stature who volunteers her time and energy without pay and would be welcome at any other society in the world. I shall leave that up to you dear reader.

What is certain, is that we here have received an extraordinary number of emails, twitter and Facebook comments and comments from other places, that suggest the present situation is doing no good to the reputation of the society, with many people saying they will either not renew their membership, join another society (there are at least another 3 on this very small island), or else are glad that they never joined.

Oddly, all of this reminds one of a scene from an American TV program that was popular some years ago - oddly containing two characters with a more than passing admiration for Wagner's work. I wonder if anyone attending the AGM - and we suggest as many as can, should attend - would like to review this scene and see if the methodology used could be applied during the AGM itself?