Opera in three acts by Richard Wagner
With his »Mastersingers of Nuremberg«, Richard Wagner puts a historically established figure at the centre of his action for the second time: Nuremberg native Hans Sachs, cobbler and poet, author of approximately 6000 works, member and also occasionally chairman of the Guild of Nuremberg Mastersingers in the 16th century. The significance of the city of Nuremberg in which Richard Wagner sets the action can be just as readily associated with the history of the Holy Roman Empire in the German nation as with the flourishing trade and immense wealth of the almost legendary Imperial Free City or the «Peace Banquet” upon the signing of the peace agreement ending the Thirty Years’ War. Nevertheless, Wagner has not composed a historical opera. Whilst the reception history from the debut performance in Munich in 1868 until the middle of the 20th century was played out on the stages decorated as small Nuremberg lanes, the locations, people and – to a large extent authentic – rules of the Mastersingers served Wagner as a symbol embodying the aestheticising and politicising of the arts and not as a staged revival of a bygone era. It was a tremendous scandal in 1956 when Wieland Wagner removed his Bayreuth production from the alleyways and leaded windows and showcased a bright sunny reverie in place of the fairground. Wieland Wagner had spotlighted the symbol for which the city of Nuremberg stands. He took a deliberate approach to the music, going far beyond alleyway romanticism.
The story tells of love and cultural politics. In order to be allowed to marry the goldsmith Pogner’s daughter, Knight Stolzing endeavours to learn the rules of the Mastersingers. He must emerge as the winner of the singing contest because the prize is Eva Pogner herself. Hans Sachs, having taken it upon himself to modernise the art, supports Stolzing as he wades through the virtually incomprehensible regulations, helping him to find his own voice, his own way. Which is simply another way of attempting to dispense with the rigid rules of the art and guide it back to its natural origins of lively expressiveness more in line with the present sense of time. Without thereby abandoning the form.
Underlying this plot are outsiders to a society mired in babbittry, railing against that which suspiciously reeks of anything new and fearfully seeking to protect itself against change. Hans Sachs and Stolzing are among these outsiders. Eventually, so is Mastersinger Beckmesser, whose tight-laced reactions lead him to commit one erratic blunder after the next. He seeks to bolster his reputation by mercilessly insisting on strict adherence to the rules, not finding the suitable musical form and by no means the adequate expression for a poem written by a strange hand in the throes of passion. So he is also scoffed by his adversary Hans Sachs and then by the people Sachs suggest form the jury for the singing contest. Beckmesser’s approach is thereby brazenly ahead of its time, suggestive of the 20th century and the irrationalism of the Dadaist movement. Stolzing emerges victorious and wins his Eva. The naturalness and passion of his voice bewitches all. Aspiring to genuine art on hallowed ground serves as the inspiration behind Richard Wagner’s oeuvre.
The threads weave through a litany of contentious thoughts up to the artist as the one who wields the true power, who uses it to influence the precepts in the interest of progress and human solace. Doing so by renouncing his own happiness because Eva Pogner is also not utterly indifferent to the artist Sachs. Yet he wants no part of the fate of a royal Marker.
What spills over from Wagner’s intention right into our own time of global endeavours is the idea that national culture can work to create a sense of identity, provided it does not stubbornly dig in its heels and opens itself to new influences.