A few months ago, my aunt mentioned that she wished she could attend the upcoming production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by the San Francisco Opera. Always one to jump on a hot tip, I immediately bought a ticket and then discovered the opera was a jaw-dropping five and a half hours long (including a few intermissions). Not knowing quite what to expect, I tacked on an additional hour at the opera house attending the pre-opera talk, meaning I’d spend about seven hours there, from 5pm to midnight. The pre-talk seemed desultory at best, a bored speaker reading from his lecture and cueing up clips to alert us to themes we’d be hearing later. I scrambled to my balcony seat way way way up there and settled in for the show, spotting my neighbor’s opera glasses and kicking myself for not bringing binoculars. Fast forward many hours and I was still on the edge of my seat, loving the music, the acting, the set design, the lighting, the Schopenhauer-infused philosophy and many layered plot.
And then I fell into somewhat of a Meistersinger trance, bookmarking the entire opera on YouTube and listening to it on repeat, ordering the bi-lingual libretto from the library and scouring shelves for any deeper reading about the work. Apparently Wagner’s as much of a badass as people have always made a fuss about. If I blink my eyes rapidly and momentarily forgive his racist views, I can almost cozy up to the man– he was an intellectual seeking like-minded folk to help expand his mind. He found such inspiration from cheery old Schopenhauer, another racist misogynist elevated to the top of big brains of the nineteenth century. Wagner was truly an Übermensch– a composer who wrote his own librettos! My copy of the libretto was the 1963 translation by John Gutman, handily with original German side-by-side against the English so I could follow along the music and test my nearly-dormant Deutsch skills.
A companion piece was John Warrack’s edited handbook from 1994, teeming with essays about the opera, especially over the concept of Wahn – another German word that defies translation but that fascinates me as it’s along the lines of something I’ve been struggling to understand, namely the rise of anger in society. Gutman (1963) translates it as “vanity” but SF opera (2015) had it more as “madness” and Warrack (1994) doesn’t even bother to translate it but simply says “Wahn!” (“Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!”). It comes at the beginning of Act 3, as Hans Sachs grapples with understanding the riot from the night before… “no one wins gain or thanks from it; a foe defeats him; he thinks he beats him; hears not the cries of his own dismay, while his own flesh he tears away: he fancies that is pleasure.”
From Warrack’s collection of essays, we learn that Wagner researched life in Nuremberg in the sixteenth century, even borrowing a copy of the Vienna library’s Johann Christoph Wagenseil’s Nuremberg Chronicle (1697) which the library still has and “is free from any revealing markings, which may disappoint researchers but speaks for Wagner’s proper respect.” We also learn of the influence of Schopenhauer on both Wagner and Thomas Mann (note to self: read Mann’s 1933 essay The Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner). Mann quotes Schopey in Buddenbrooks, the scene where the hero “experienced the incomparable satisfaction of seeing how a mind of towering superiority seized hold of life… in order to subdue and condemn it.”
There’s an entire essay dedicated to Sachs and Schopenhauer by Lucy Beckett that’s worth scrutinizing. She posits that Sachs is wielding Schopey’s The World as Will and Representation during his Wahn monologue, quoting Schopey at length:
In the consciousness that has reached the highest degree, that is, human consciousness, egoism must also have reached the highest degree, and the conflict of individuals conditioned by it must appear in the most terrible form. Indeed, we see this everywhere before our eyes, in small things as in great [Wahn! Wahn! Ãberall Wahn!].
Unfortunately, the opera’s reputation has been tainted by the enthusiasm it garnered from the Third Reich, but it should rise above such associations. One lecturer describes the opera as depicting:
in addition to questions of art, the disintegration of a society which has outlived itself over the course of historical development. The centre of gravity in this musical comedy is… the satirical portrayal of adherents of decrepit routine and the demonstration that the people are the only competent judges of art and the source of collective artistic creation.