What’s the most intimidating thing about Meistersinger?
It’s just so long, and so challenging. Act Three is as long as Acts One and Two put together, which is quite a daunting prospect. I had in mind at Glyndebourne that we had to keep lots of energy in reserve. I remember the day we started Act Three: I said to the cast and conductor, “Here we go, Act Three—no pressure, guys,” and we just launched into it.
What is the piece really about?
Art, love, the passage of time, mortality. It’s also an opera about nationhood.
The shift in period that you’ve made is instrumental in presenting that whole idea.
It was a very open, outgoing view of the world, and it felt very attractive: the early 1800s, the Germany that Wagner was born into. For the Germans, nationalism at that point in history was about liberal principles. This was the period of the German Confederation, the first attempt at any kind of political unification of the German states immediately following the Napoleonic Wars. The French had run amok over Germany, exploiting the fact that this country wasn’t together in any political sense. One outcome of the Congress of Vienna (a summit of allies, held following Napoleon’s ultimate defeat at Waterloo and final incarceration) was the first attempt to identify all those disparate German-speaking peoples as one nation, one people, with one sensibility. They knew that they could be united by art. It was a cultural identity and increasingly important to them. This was very important to Wagner as a young man growing up—his sense of nationhood was linked up with his sense of being an artist. Meistersinger is partly about that, and it’s not in itself a negative thing.
The idea of community, too, is essential here.
Ultimately the opera says that community matters, and that art matters to the community. That’s a very relevant message for our present western world, where the arts are so undervalued and dumbed down. Here is a community that nurtures and cares for art, and believes that great art has something profound to say to people. For me, that is the overwhelmingly positive message of Meistersinger.
How did you create this community onstage?
By accessing the personalities of the individual singers. No one was asked to play something very far from themselves. Improvising and experimenting, everyone had to be encouraged to build relationships with each other.
In discussions of this piece, the text so often is neglected, when it has so much to offer.
Although it’s a verse text, it’s flush with recognizable psychological insight. Look at how characters are drawn, and how each one has an individual voice. It’s also very charming; for once we’re not dealing with heroes or godswe’re dealing with flesh-and-blood burghers. They have a completely different language from Brünnhilde or Wotan or Tristan. The German in Meistersinger is much more accessible, much pithier.
Anyone who is used to the other major Wagner operas will probably be somewhat astonished by the piece’s comic element.
It’s important to find Wagner’s funny side, rather than taking him too solemnly. We mustn’t think of him as stern German moralist—he was a Leipzig urchin to the end of his days. He loved pranks and practical jokes, extremes of joy, and he climbed trees when in his sixties. He was impossible, a monster, but with a wonderful sense of humor.
It’s great that your production rejects the caricatured way Beckmesser has so often been portrayed.
You can hear it on early recordings. Maybe it was true to Wagner’s intentions, but that’s an intention I don’t intend to let loose onstage! He’s not someone who should be expelled from the community. With all his faults, petty jealousies, and small-mindedness, this is still a human being. I see no reason why he should be ridiculous as a candidate for Eva. We play him as a well-dressed man of means, with dignity of bearing. It makes him funnier – this vain man with fantastic dyed hair he’s so vain about, exquisite clothes, undergoing the humiliations of Act Two.
The end of that act and the beginning of the final scene are pretty complicated logistically. Is there a secret to making all that activity happen effectively?
Yes—following the score! You take the time to analyze the vocal lines, which dictate how you do the riot in the Act Two finale. Wagner has given you everything! In ensembles of any opera, I look closely at vocal lines: who has the important ones, what does the composer want to hear, what suits the moment. That helps me work out who needs to be where onstage.
Your final scene makes important use of choreography, which most Meistersinger productions don’t.
Nothing is more hideous to me than when you get to the Ländler and on come the dancing girls, with the chorus just standing there watching. The choreography shouldn’t be too sophisticated – you should feel almost anyone could do it. At Glyndebourne every cast member, chorister, real ballet dancer, and supernumerary took part. Once you do that, the whole thing brims with joy and becomes a true expression of that music. This is the community dancing, with every single burgher in Nuremberg letting their hair down in whatever way they can.