Going to the Opera

Six hours! “I heard this production takes six hours,” says Linda, a friend who was game to sit through an afternoon of Wagner. It seems inconceivable that we will sit at a theater in Crossgates Mall in Albany, NY, with one intermission for that long a time. But we agree to take the leap and go.

Ever since I read in my father’s journal that my parents went to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Nuremberg, Germany, in June 1938, I have wanted to see this opera. I loved his droll observations:

  • The opera was wonderful (even if the prince did have a beer belly and weighed at least 250 lbs.).
  • I certainly approve of the Germans’ way of eating (if I don’t approve of what they eat). In intermission many took out rolls, slices of ham or wurst, cakes or what not, got a bottle of beer and set to for a dainty repast.
  • Looking down on the lobby you could count the men in dress clothes on one hand and not over half of the women were dressed. No one in our (third) balcony was dressed. One fellow came in shorts.

I could relate to these comments. We opera lovers who go to the Met’s Live in HD simulcasts bring our lunches and snacks and eat right there in our seats. Moreover, no one dresses up: jeans, sneakers, and parkas prevail. As a sign of societal change though, everyone in the democratic setting of the Crossgates theater was dressed this way, while at the Nuremberg opera, class distinctions rendered the third balcony the cheapest seats in the house, intended for the poor. It should be said though, that class differences still exist here today, for it looked as if everyone actually at the Met in New York City was dressed to kill.

In 1938, the audience was completely non-Jewish. By this time, Jews were not welcome in audiences; in 1933, they were banned by Goebbels from employment in culture, music, art, film, and theater. Moreover, performances of Wagner and other artists of “German” origin were not even permitted for the Jewish Cultural Association, the one venue that provided entertainment and employment for Jews in the arts. I have no idea if my parents knew any of this.

The most apt similarity to today was the knight (not prince). During the past decade Johan Botha has played the role of the knight who wishes to become a mastersinger in only one day and thereby win the heart of Eva. I don’t know how much he weighs, but he is way up there, “at least 250 lbs.” to echo my father.

Returning to conducting at the Met after two years absence due to severe health problems, James Levine was the orchestra conductor.

So what was it like? The hours flew by. Immersed in themes of romance, separation, loss, the place of art in society, gender differences, and artistic mastery, I rarely wavered in my attention. It’s not that the music was so beautiful – until the finale, when it is. And billed as a comic opera, it’s not all that funny in a laugh-aloud way, although there are humorous moments.

The most heart-wrenching theme (we decided) is loss: loss of love and happiness, loss of possibility, resignation to one’s age and place in life, as expressed through the character of Hans Sachs. It was clear that his love for Eva is true love – deep, long-lasting, and based on real understanding of her. “They would have been such a good fit,” I grieved. But Linda pointed out, “He thought he was too old for her, and that she deserved a younger man and a longer marriage than he could offer.” Feeling the depth and unexpressed passion he has for Eva and her trust and ease with him was painful.

What about Wagner and antisemitism? As a comic opera, this work was a departure for Wagner, the composer of Romantic music and drama, who felt that his work could unify Germany culturally and politically. The Nazis promoted Wagner’s music because it was purely German, being sung in German and based on Germanic legends, although Wagner did not express anti-Semitism in his operas. However, Saul Friedlander writes, “That Wagner’s anti-Semitism was a constant and growing obsession after the 1851 publication of his Das Judentum in der Musik (Judaism in Music, an essay) is unquestionable.” Friedlander writes about Wagner’s apocalyptic and “redemptive anti-Semitism,” a world view that saw redemption coming from freedom from the Jews in German society.

In “The Myth of the German Soul,” an essay published in Das Neue Tage-Buch on March 12, 1938, German journalist Joseph Roth wrote, “There’s no doubt that a lot of the world’s indifference toward the terrible things going on in Germany has to do with the European Wagner fixation.” He said that Europeans are smitten by the myth of the irrational German soul and view current events through the romantic lens of German theater and opera.

The opera’s finale includes a scene that definitely felt uncomfortable. This was Hans Sachs’ final warning to preserve German art from foreign threats. Watching it, Linda and I looked over at one another. Even though we knew it was coming, we still didn’t like the praise of Germany and all things German. It felt ominous.

We marveled at the production as a whole. That the opera’s nationalist message at the end is ambiguous adds to its historical interest. That, along with the themes and the part it played in my parents’ trip to Europe in 1938, made it well worth seeing – even if it did take six hours.

Traveling Between the Lines:
Europe in 1938

Margaret and John Randolph

From May to September 1938, one year before the start of World War II, John and Margaret Randolph traveled from the U.S. to Europe. At ages 34 and 27, they were on an adventure, traveling by train, renting bicycles, and sleeping in youth hostels––a typical tour in an atypical time. They traveled to Holland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, England, and Wales before finding passage home on a freighter. Rebecca McBride’s father, a mathematician who had just spent two years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, kept a daily journal of the trip. After his death, McBride came across the journal. Knowing what took place in Germany in 1938 and what would follow throughout Europe, she began to research the historical context for the trip and ask, how much did they know, and what did they see? The book combines his journal with her historical and personal commentary. It is available from bookstores, Amazon (print or Kindle), and barnesandnoble.com. Photographs by John F. Randolph.

Reviews & Articles

Traveling Between the Lines“John and Margaret Randolph’s trip to Europe in 1938 seemed remote from all the political conclusions that might have been expected, and it was just before the Munich Pact, but his writing is an eloquent statement of how little ordinary Americans knew or thought about what was going on in the world at large. John was a mathematician, and became in addition to his research papers, a noted textbook writer.”
––Sanford L. Segal, Mathematicians under the Nazis (Princeton University Press, 2003)

“It really is a vanished world McBride’s parents were traveling through–at once so compellingly filled with menace and innocence. Germany especially was filled with what we now know as burgeoning evil, normal and banal—all of it underscored by McBride’s scrupulous annotation. Her father, as the narrator, sees it all and takes it in but nevertheless focuses his steady attention to the calmer and countable parts of life. What an orderly man and what an orderly mind!”
––Elizabeth Stone, Professor of English, Communication and Media Studies, Fordham University

“I found the book so engaging that I couldn’t put it down…  Aside from the major historical events going on all around the American couple… my interest was also piqued by what was going on personally for them. In the attempt to discover the bigger picture, McBride did such a fine job.”
––Elizabeth Wilen-Berg, Psychologist and Holocaust Educator

”I find this book very compelling. I have to tell you, all due respect to the author, it’s not a book I necessarily would have picked up. And yet when I started reading it I really couldn’t stop. It’s the story of a daughter, the author, who when her father passes away, finds a journal that he kept while he and her mother, his young bride, traveled through Germany in 1938 and the things that they saw, and now she as a grown woman trying to understand and project what they might have thought, what they knew, what they didn’t know, what she now knows in retrospect. So it’s really a compelling read. And I think this is a book that is a real resource for teachers in the area.”
—-Carolyn Bennett, general manager, Village Square Bookstore, Hunter, NY, interviewed by Ann Forbes Cooper, WGXC-FM, June 28, 2011

From Amazon reviewers:

“What a unique and totally fresh book. John Randolph’s daughter (the author) finds notes that her (deceased) father had made during an exciting and historic visit through Europe just a year before the terrors of Hitler and Nazi Germany attempted to destroy it.

…You will feel the excitement as the author finds her fathers’ notes. Not only does she read and research them, she actually asks him about his feelings and what he might be thinking while making entries into his journal. Her method of writing brings pre WWII history alive to the reader.”
—-Raymond H. Mullen

“Why is a little book like this––a journal of a trip taken by a young mathematician and his wife in 1938––important? Probably for various reasons both large and small, historical and personal. Because Traveling Between the Lines is without question an important piece of scholarship.

…But Randolph’s trip journal only serves as a starting point for the real importance of this book. Because his daughter makes the necessary and important connections through her research. … McBride’s bibliography and chapter notes are filled with important sources that will beckon to any serious student of history.

… Rebecca McBride wrote this book because she wanted to know her father better. She ended up making a small but significant contribution to world history––one man’s dispassionate but detailed look at Europe in a small window of time just before the next world war.”
—-Timothy J. Bazzett

“This is a fascinating book, where the author has taken her father’s travel journal through Europe in 1938, added her own imaginary conversations with him, as well as some historical insights to explain to the modern reader the context in which her parents were traveling.

The journal itself is interesting, full of observations of daily life, the cost of things (John Randolph was a mathematician), travel’s dramas (lost bags) and to a degree the dawning of understanding that all was not going well for everyone in Europe. Rebecca’s comments are also lovely, drawing on her reminiscences of her relationships with her parents, and cherishing the memories that she is able to draw upon.

What is ultimately of major interest to me though, is her detailing of what was happening in the world at that time. She has cleverly overlaid the rise of Nazism and the persecution of the Jewish people through her father’s light hearted observations of the charming people he met and the tasty food that he ate.

… Overall it is charming, very readable, and a unique insight to how innocent life must have seemed when Europe teetered on the edge before falling into horror.”
—-Lesley West


“Years after her father’s death, McBride found four tiny notebooks in her mathematician father’s distinctive handwriting, detailing her parents’ on-the-cheap steamer, train, and bike tour of Europe before she was born. What was it like to travel through Germany as Hitler rose to power? How much did they know? A fascinating dialogue with a vanished time and place.”
Chronogram Magazine/Books: Short Takes, February 2012

Ichabod Crane High School Students Experience WWII Up Close and Personal
http://www.ichabodcrane.org/News/13-14/RebeccaMcBrideVisit.php April 4, 2014

High School Students Read Traveling Between the Lines May 2012

http://booksandpals.blogspot.com/2012/05/traveling-between-lines-europe-in-1938.html May 4, 2012


Author interview with Ann Forbes Cooper, WGXC-FM, July 5, 2011:

Troy Record Article  January 6, 2011

Register-Star/Chatham Courier Article September 30, 2010

A manuscript and list of related documents are available in the digital archives of Center for Jewish History (see the John F. Randolph Collection).