SFOpera - Conductor's Note

Conductor's Note

As many people are aware, the project for Richard Wagner to complete his visionary operatic tetralogy the Ring took years and years. For most of his life, Wagner was penniless, but while he was writing the Ring, he decided to call a halt in order to write two works that would make some money and could be staged by any German theater (or so he thought!). He first wrote Tristan und Isolde, which turned into one of the greatest love poems—long, arduous, and extremely difficult to put on—and then followed it with his great humane comedy, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. This he imagined as a fascinating and enjoyable interplay among a community of citizens who knew each other well, and it would be a counterpart to the events in his favorite opera Tannhäuser. As he wrote Die Meistersinger, Wagner became more and more fascinated by a subtext in the story that involved the historical poet and shoemaker Hans Sachs, a character that was so close to his imagination that as the piece progressed, the scale of the comedy expanded.

The music that the story of Die Meistersinger needed was completely different from the music that was required for the gods, dwarves, and giants of the Ring. It needed to be music that spoke warmly and yet with great variety and vivacity. The music has a mercurial quality; it changes very quickly depending on the character who is singing. This quality had developed in Wagner’s previous operas, particularly Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, which also have enormous variety of imagination. But if he was intending to write a comedy that any German theater could put on, he had to write it to scale. The orchestra for Die Meistersinger is a large classical orchestra. The obvious comparison is Mozart’s The Magic Flute or Beethoven’s Fidelio which has the normal wind section, trombones only for the special serious moments, trumpets written for brilliance and simplicity, only occasional use of the harp, and very little percussion except for the final celebratory scene. This smaller scale gives the music an intimacy and, I would say, an informality that is extremely attractive and immediately enjoyable.

In listening to this opera for the first time, you will find that the orchestra is full of interest and, even, distraction. As Richard Strauss was to do later, the orchestra reflects all the events of the story, at the same time that the characters (and there are many of them; it is a very large cast) are playing out this complicated, entertaining, melancholy, romantic comedy. The music changes its character from yearning, romantic passion to cynical asides and little sarcastic mutterings. Wagner’s ability to create mood is by now supreme. (Verdi was the only other composer to do it so well.) A few notes conjure up a whole mood; a change of key, a change of texture produces a completely different world. Furthermore, the text is very wordy, but it is very brilliantly written and creates character with a sure sense of purpose. How different are all these people, how well they know each other, but how divided they are in their attitudes! It is called Die Meistersinger, because in in the end it is about a whole community and not just about the hero and the heroine. By the conclusion, we should feel that we really know something about this community through the personalities of the story, the festive spirit in the finale with its trumpet fanfares, and its sense of tradition being honored. Finally, what really matters is that this close-knit community has been moved to accept someone with a completely new artistic approach.

For me, the opera is full of the most beautiful moments; two of them I would say are my favorites. In the second act, which takes place during a summer night, there is mischief in the air, because of the tensions between the characters. There is misunderstanding, bitterness, upset, and panic. But, of course, in a medieval town there would be a night watchman whose horn warns everybody to settle down for the night, and assures them they are in safe hands. The sound of the distant horn in the middle of the act, and the music of peaceful tranquility that comes immediately after it, is a sign of a great theater composer, showing us something that goes beyond just the words.

The other favorite moment is also a moment of stillness. In the middle of the third act, the characters join together to bless the new poem that Walther has just created. They need to consecrate this achievement in the hope that it will win the competition. Eva launches what becomes one of the most beautiful passages in opera. Her radiant assurance moves the others to want to comment, and in so doing, they unexpectedly create a quintet—the climax of the first half of the third act.

The music of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg remains so important to me as the years go by. I first conducted the work 35 years ago, but I still find even more depth and beauty in it. The beauty is inexhaustible, and continues to move us generation after generation.

Director's Note