A Wagnerian Interview: The Hartford Wagner Festival

Written By The Wagnerian on Wednesday, 18 June 2014 | 8:13:00 pm

A few days ago, our deputy editor interviewed Charles M. Goldstein, President and Artistic Director of the "controversial" Hartford Wagner Festival. Sadly, since that time, the festival has been postponed for at least a year. According  to a statement released by the festival, this was due to a series of, "vicious and coordinated attacks on the Hartford Wagner Festival by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) which have forced the resignations of our Music Director and two of our performers with threats of loss of future work." (The full press release can be found at the end of this brief interview). Despite this, we feel that our chat with Charles Goldstein is still valuable and worthy of your attention. We shall seek an update from Mr Goldstein shortly. 

We have also been in contact with members of the AFM and other "protesting groups"  but still await a response.

Could you tell us a little about yourself.

Well, I grew up in Baltimore and started my musical training at Peabody at age 5 with piano, then added theory and ear training.  I continued through HS at Peabody while adding voice lessons as well.  From there I went to college in Virginia and earned a BA in Music.  I then returned to Baltimore and did the Peabody Graduate program in Opera Performance and also conducting.  

After this, I went onto attend the Aspen Festival in 1974 and was cast in the world premiere of Thomas Pasatieri’s “The Penitentes.”  Moving  to NYC in 1979 I was accepted to the American Opera Center at Juilliard (with Greer Grimsley by the way) and  was there for two years. I then went on to sing for David Stivender and was hired as Met Extra Chorus doing mostly Wagner there with some Verdi, Stravinsky and Britten thrown in. I'd like to add I  always a lover of Wagner since I first heard Meistersinger in 1968.

Tell us a little about the Hartford Wagner Festival.


Das Rheingold" has been postponed until next year due to the vicious and coordinated attacks on the Hartford Wagner Festival by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) which have forced the resignations of our Music Director and two of our performers with threats of loss of future work.
I found the perfect small theater for the Festival right near where I live.  The Roberts Theater was beautifully designed with a great stage and fly space, a hydraulic pit, modern lighting control, good dressing rooms and an excellent shop.  The theater seated about 600 and I thought it was just the right size for the project. Here was the right place at the right time for me to move my project into reality.

I wanted to do a smaller production of “Rheingold” which would put the emphasis back on the characters rather than on huge stage machinery which draws attention away from the story. It also would provide younger singers the chance to try these roles in a smaller house, like they do in Europe, before auditioning for the Met, Bayreuth etc.  I have always supported the efforts of young professional singers anywhere I could, having been through that process myself.

Why Wagner and why the Ring?

 I conceived this plan in 2005 when I started using the VSL sounds in my home studio.  I realized that the D.O. concept really does not work for the standard repertoire because of too many liberties taken by the singers and also it doesn't work well with recitatives.  I had already entered Boheme, Butterfly, Traviata, Cav/Pag, Schicchi, Tabarro, Hansel (although Hansel was actually okay to do since I used an early synthesized version to do a school production in 2001), Tosca and found the results to be unworkable.  I then decided that Wagner was really the best composer to use for this project as his scores basically “begin, continue and end.” There is not a lot of a two-way street in the Ring as the conductor basically controls the entire performance.  If you could only ask that question to Solti, Szell, Furtwangler, E. Kleiber etc.! 

I used my collection of reference recordings of both live and studio versions to set the performance at the tempos I found to be most dramatically correct for the performance I wanted.  Just as would happen in a regular rehearsal, I asked my singers for any suggestions they might have for their parts for me to evaluate for inclusion in my final version for this season.

I hired a Music Director for the Festival, Paul Polivnick, and then turned over the musical creativity to him so that the performance would show his concept for “Rheingold.”  Unfortunately, the attack on him by the AFM and the threats he received telling him he would be blackballed forced him to resign, so I continued and finished the work on the score myself.


Why did you decide to use a digital Orchestra rather than a “real” one?

 I have said this many times and people just seem to think it is only about the money.  There was never any intention of using anything other than the digital orchestra that I had created.  After all the years of entering notes and editing instrument sounds by the thousands it was time to bring out the project and put it in a theater. Just ask my wife and friends who had to pry me out of my studio and be sociable and have a glass of wine with them! If people think it is just about not having to pay for a live orchestra they are totally wrong.  I had a discussion with Mr. Messina of the AFM early into the HWF project and told him that we supported the Hartford Symphony unconditionally and would gladly put any events his players were involved in on our website to help promote them, but I never received even one item from him.

What are the main benefits to you of using this technology? And  are there any drawbacks?  

The obvious benefit of the technology is the ability to control every nuance of every note played.  In a recent interview with Paul Henry Smith he talked about the problem he had encountered with crescendos and yet I have not found this to be a problem using volume automation in Logic Studio.  Granted Mr. Smith is one of the leading experts in the field and maybe I misinterpreted his point, but I would welcome the opportunity to talk with him as he has apparently worked on a method of “conducting” a performance using a controller in place of a baton.  And that is the main drawback of the technology I use.  There is no way in performance to control the tempo which is why the collaboration between the conductor and singers beforehand is so important.

The purists that have attacked me have the ultimate power to comment by not attending. But they should let those that do want to attend make up their own minds

Going back to the, highly coordinated, reaction against your production, what are your feelings about this  and how would you answer your critics? 

 First and foremost is the fact that everyone is entitled to their opinion, as long as it is respectfully stated.  I was totally surprised at the number of vulgar and obscene comments I received from people that hid behind false email addresses.

My first thought to all the people that commented negatively is how can you tell if it is good or bad if you have not heard it?  Yes, I did post a short clip on a Kickstarter page of a rehearsal which was probably a mistake as it was intended only to show work in progress.  It did not, and could not, represent how the digital orchestra actually sounds in the theater!  The only people that have actually heard the full D.O. are my sound technician and myself and a few people that hung around after that rehearsal.

The purists that have attacked me have the ultimate power to comment by not attending.  But they should let those that do want to attend make up their own minds.

I am grateful to the many people that have kept an open mind and said that while they might not agree with what I am trying to do, that they will reserve their judgment until they experience the performance.

 I am also very grateful to some very enthusiastic supporters who have expressed their opinions online in a decent conversational manner. I also find that there is a continuing thread of commentary in many of the statements along the lines of “singers are not musicians.”  That is very disconcerting to me as I have heard that comment from instrumentalists all the way back to when I first moved to NY in 1979.

Has this reaction had any impact on the festival and you personally?  

 Well, of course one does not like to have their work attacked by a seemingly coordinated mob of AFM members, but really I’m more interested in the end result than spending my time reading all the negative opinions.  I still have a lot of work to do readying the D.O. and coordinating the production with our Stage Director, Jonathon Field.


A Statement from the Hartford Wagner Festival

It is with great sadness that we must announce that the 2014 production of "Das Rheingold" has been postponed until next year due to the vicious and coordinated attacks on the Hartford Wagner Festival by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) which have forced the resignations of our Music Director and two of our performers with threats of loss of future work.

We continue to support all our local musicians as we have stated from the beginnings of our project and we hope that our patrons will continue to support them as well.

The Hartford Wagner Festival, Inc.