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.

James Levine was to be the orchestra conductor. Returning to conducting at the Met after two years absence due to severe health problems, it was a treat to see him in action. Linda leaned over and whispered, “I love him.”

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.