San Francisco Opera (SFO) subscribers are probably already familiar with the occasional series of Insight Panels, which are usually presented before the opening of a production deemed worthy of special attention. Usually moderated by SFO Dramaturge Kip Cranna, these involve singers, stage directors, conductors, and sometimes composers. Members of the audience get a rare glimpse into the creative process through insights offered by the members of the production team.
The next production to be examined through this process will be the new staging of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (the master-singers of Nuremberg), which, as was announced on this site at the beginning of this month, will have its opening night next week on Wednesday, November 18. As has already been noted, the production is expected to last for five hours and fifteen minutes, meaning that there will be a lot to cover in the Insight Panel event, which usually runs about one hour. However, past experience suggests that these discussions usually do not include a synopsis of the opera plot. So, in the interest of those curious about production details, this article will attempt a summary that may provide some of the critical background that members of the panel, but not necessarily all members of the audience, probably know.
First of all, to break down the matter of duration, the opera is in three acts. The second act is the shortest and usually runs about an hour in duration. The first act, which includes a prelude that introduces the audience to much of the thematic material, lasts for about an hour and twenty minutes. The third act is in two scenes (the only act with more than one scene); and, while those scenes are played without any interruption, the overall duration tends to take as much time as the overall duration of the first two acts. That makes for a lot of opera; and, for all the action that unfolds during the final act, its length tends to confound those in the audience who are not braced for the experience.
The next most important piece of information is that the opera is a comedy. The bottom line is that it is about a man who loves a woman at first sight and will do anything to win her hand in marriage. As is the case with most romantic comedies, the story revolves around a wide variety of personality types, some of whom impede the man while others assist him. To understand those personalities, however, one must begin with the setting, the German city of Nuremberg during the middle of the sixteenth century.
While Nuremberg has been called the “unofficial capital” of the Holy Roman Empire, by the time of the Renaissance, it had established itself as a free city (independent of any form of monarchic authority) through the development of a thriving culture of craft guilds and merchants. In other words Nuremberg had become the “unofficial capital” of “capitalism as we now know it.” However, the love-struck tenor at the heart of the opera’s plot is a young knight from Franconia, Walter von Stolzig, who just happens to be passing through Nuremberg. As expected, he visits the church on Sunday; and that is where he sees Eva for the first time, setting the plot for the entire opera in motion.
However, Eva is the daughter of Veit Pogner, a goldsmith and a leading figure among the members of the many guilds in Nuremberg. While each guild has its own specialty, all of the members gather together regularly for the joy of making music. Thus, there is a culture of music-making that parallels the apprentice-journeyman-master hierarchy of the guilds. Every year the guildsmen hold a competition to see who can create and perform the best song; and Pogner has decided that, on this particular occasion, the maker of the best song will have his daughter’s hand in marriage. (It will not go unnoticed that Eva has no say in this matter; but, remember, we are in the sixteenth century!)
The key events of the first act may be summarized as follows: Walther sees Eva and is smitten. Through David, an apprentice to the Master Cobbler Hans Sachs, he learns who she is. David then explains the “guild” of singers and offers to introduce Walther to them. They are immediately suspicious of his royal blood. Nevertheless, their republican spirit obliges them to allow Walther the opportunity to prove himself through song. Walther responds with a passionate outpouring that breaks all the rules of their tradition, all of which are then itemized by the town clerk Sixtus Beckmesser, who is particularly interested in winning the song competition and sees Walther as a threat. The act concludes in a burst of chaos arising from the “illegitimacy” of Walther’s song.
The second act introduces us to Sachs. He, alone, recognizes the beauty of Walther’s song while acknowledging the singer’s disregard for the rules. It is late at night, and he thinks about these matters while working to finish a pair of shoes. He is interrupted by Beckmesser, anxious to see what Sachs thinks of the song he has prepared for the competition. Sachs suggests that he will hammer in a nail every time Beckmesser has broken one of the rules, and the result is one of the funniest comic turns in the opera repertoire. In the midst of this exchange, practically everyone else in town shows up resulting in a lot of confusion bubbling over into a street brawl. Musically, this is one of Wagner’s finest moments, since he can use elaborate counterpoint to capture everything happening at once. After the tumult subsides and everyone goes home, a night watchman walks across the stage to call the hour, totally oblivious to everything that has just happened.
The first scene of the third act takes place in Sachs’ house; and just about every important character arrives either through the door or from one of the rooms, almost in the spirit of one of those farces by Georges Feydeau. Most importantly, Sachs works with Walther to help him craft a “proper” song, which Walther then commits to writing. After Walther departs, Beckmesser arrives, still aching from the previous night’s brawl, sees Walther’s song, and steals it. The scene concludes with Sachs promoting David to the rank of journeyman, after which the two of them, along with Eva and her nurse Magdalene (the object of David’s affection), go into the center of the town to prepare for the song competition.
In the second scene that competition is preceded by an extended parade of all the guildsmen (musically distinguished as one of the few times Wagner uses a subdominant harmony). Beckmesser tries to sing Walther’s song and makes a hash of it. Sachs calms the hostility of the crowd by noting that the song only requires the proper singer. Walther rises to the occasion. However, when the prize is presented to him, he initially rejects it out of resentment for the way in which the singers had treated him. Sachs becomes the peacemaker, Walther “gets the girl,” and (as an old friend of mine liked to put it) “bliss is rampant.”
The singers for the three principal roles will all be participating in the Insight Panel. These will be baritone James Rutherford (Sachs), soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Eva), and tenor Brandon Jovanovich (Walther). The two Co-Directors responsible for bringing David McVicar’s staging to the War Memorial Opera House, Ian Rutherford and Marie Lambert, will also participate. The final participant will be conductor Mark Elder, who will be making his SFO debut. Cranna will serve as moderator.
This one-hour event will take place this coming Monday, November 16, beginning at 6 p.m. Discussion among the panelists usually takes about 45 minutes, followed by a fifteen-minute Q&A with members of the audience. The venue will be Herbst Theatre at 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The event is free to SFO members and subscribers, as well as students with valid identification. Admission for all others is $5. SFO has created an Eventbrite event page for pre-registration for all categories.