Commentary Magazine

Wagner Comes to Broadway

The New York City Opera is presenting Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in English this season at the New York State Theater, and in so doing it has put us in its debt both by the quality of its work and by making it possible to raise issues which might otherwise remain unconsidered.

The performance I saw represented the very pinnacle of the City Opera’s achievement and its contribution to our cultural life. Fresh young faces, attractive voices, excellent orchestral playing, authoritative conducting, and band-box staging: taken all together, these virtues conveyed a conception of the opera which was in the best traditions of the American musical theater. Wagner’s music was heavily cut, thereby enabling the performance to end a full fifteen minutes before the magic hour of midnight at which the orchestra begins to collect overtime. The cuts naturally telescoped the action of the opera and speeded up the pace of the performance. The opera in this way became more palatable to an audience not schooled, as was the German audience for which the piece was written, in the virtues and duties of obedience and endurance.

The great innovation of this production was its presentation in English. We are told that this English version is the work of John Gutman; I was struck by the fact that the libretto I bought in the lobby before the performance began—translation by John Gutman—coincided only partially with the words actually sung by the singers, and there seemed no obvious explanation for the many discrepancies. Many of the words, when they were sung against a thin orchestral background, were clear and perhaps would have been of help to someone who did not know the plot well. Both translations—the one sold and the one sung—seemed adequate to the purposes of the production, which I take to be to present a pleasant, comfortable Meistersinger.

The problem of opera in the vernacular, involving as it does the relationship in opera between music and words, is a difficult one. Indeed, Richard Strauss made this relationship the subject of his last opera, Capriccio. His characters discuss, endlessly it sometimes seems, the question: First the music, then the words, or first the words, then the music? Who is to say? The balance shifts, as the talents of the contributors interact. The balance cannot and should not be defined, for in its vagueness lies the possibility of fresh creation.

No one would dispute the point that, for an audience which knows the piece, opera is ideally presented in the language of its composition. This is of course most obvious when the text is itself a work of literary art, such as Strauss and Hofmannstahl’s Elektra and Rosenkavalier. It is probably even true when the text is only a peg on which to hang the tunes, as in the case of many of Puccini’s master-pieces. For the composer cannot help but be influenced by the sounds of the words he is setting, the vowels and the consonants, the internal rhythms of the words and their order, the rhetorical associations of all the elements of his own mother tongue.

But this is, and must remain, a counsel of perfection. There is a long tradition of vernacular opera production, of Aida in German, of the Nibelungenring in French, of Boris Godunov in Italian. There was even a practice, now I think dead, of mixed performances—of artists in a single production each singing in the language in which he learned the piece. And the audience seems to become just as attached to the tunes when heard in the vernacular as when heard in the original. So, as a general rule, an argument can always be made for doing opera in the local language. If such a procedure enables the singers to feel more comfortable, the audience to follow the actors more easily, difficult problems of nationalistic dislike for a foreign language to be avoided, then one might feel justified in looking for a translation that works—that is singable, understandable, and accurate.

To be sure, opera in English is a special case, because English seems an unrewarding language in which to sing. It is difficult to enunciate clearly, and its vowel sounds do not easily lend themselves to the kind of Italianate vocal production now so much in fashion. The training of most American singers, furthermore, is mainly in the use of foreign languages, not their own. Still, one can say quite safely that the same rule applies to translation into English as it does for other languages: if it works, use it.

It remains to be seen, however, how well Meistersinger fits into this general rule of toleration. For this opera is a special case both in the world of opera and in the world of Wagner. The pragmatic question—does it work?—cannot so easily be asked of translation here as it can with so many other operas.



To see what makes Meistersinger special, we must ask what happens in the opera. Its plot is simple, as such things go. It is set in Nuremberg, an old German town of medieval houses, the historical Master-singers guild, and the historical Hans Sachs. The story concerns an offer, made by a rich goldsmith, Veit Pogner, of his daughter Eva’s hand in marriage to the winner of a singing contest to be chosen by the Mastersingers guild, of which Pogner is a leading member. He has been led to make this offer by a desire to show that contrary to what the bourgeoisie is accused of throughout Germany, the worthy burghers of Nuremberg value art over money. A young noble, Walther von Stolzing, who has fallen in love with Eva (and she with him), immediately sets about trying to win entrance to the Mastersingers guild in order to be eligible to compete. He is, however, rejected as unfit by the Mastersingers. and particularly by Sixtus Beckmesser, their keeper of the rules, who himself wishes to compete for Eva. The wise shoemaker, Hans Sachs, also a member of the Mastersingers guild, but moved by Walther’s talent, advises him on a suitable song for the contest; he then tricks Beckmesser into stealing the song and palming it off in the contest as his own. Beckmesser makes such a botch of it that Sachs is able to get the assembled judges and people to allow Walther to show the way it should be sung. He does, wins by acclamation, and the opera ends with the lovers united and Sachs singing to the audience a plea for the preservation of German art.

Attractive stuff—almost a plot for a Broadway musical or an operetta: boy meets girl, youth triumphs over the spite of the mean through the help of mature wisdom. And that was what the City Opera production showed us—all the people as pretty as in a mail-order catalogue, and the music as tuneful as Lehár. But if that is the story of Meistersinger on the level of Broadway and the musical theater, it must be pointed out that another drama takes place in the opera on the level of those social, aesthetic, and political ideas to which Wagner devoted his life. The great arch of that other drama spreads from the speech in which Pogner offers his daughter’s hand near the beginning of the first act—and which in Gutman’s translation reads:

wherever German land I tread,
    I find with indignation,
we’re rarely praised and have
    instead a miser’s reputation.
I’ve heard it from both high and
low; I’m sick of hearing it
    wherever I go
that we have bargained and
    sold our lives and souls for

—to Sachs’s peroration, written by Wagner in the decade of the Franco-Prussian war and the Prussian unification of Germany:

Beware! Us threaten evil days:
    If our great German realm
When foreign powers rule the
    land, no prince his people
      will understand,
if foreign sham and foreign lies
    should ever darken German
What’s German and true could
    not abide, were’t not for
      German master’s pride!
I beg of you: honor your German
    masters, thus you will ban
And if you have their work at
    heart, though fall apart
the Holy Roman Domain, there
    still would remain
The holy German Art!

The keystone of this great German arch is Beckmesser, the keeper of the rules. Wagner, in creating Beckmesser, was making an attack—which he did not attempt to disguise—on the most famous and respected German-speaking music critic of his time, Eduard Hanslick. Wagner, like most of the musical world of the time, thought Hanslick to be Jewish (which he may or may not have been); this supposed Jewishness and Hanslick’s rejection of Wagner’s later music were for Wagner two sides of the same coin. The Jewish Hanslick’s dislike of the German Wagner’s music neatly illustrated Wagner’s conception of the relationship between the Jews and Germany in general. Wagner went out of his way to point out this moral to Hanslick. In a late draft of the libretto the character finally called Beckmesser in the opera is called Veit Hanslich, and Hanslick himself was present at a reading of this draft by Wagner in Vienna in 1862.

What makes Beckmesser loathsome in Wagner’s conception is not that he is physically ugly, sings badly, or is old. His crime is that he has nothing of his own. So he must criticize, and what he cannot destroy by criticism he must steal, and what he steals he turns into nonsense. This is of course exactly how Wagner saw the Jews in his essay, Das Judentum in der Musik (“Jewry in Music”), which he first published anonymously in 1850 and then presented under his own name in 1868, the year of the first performance of Meistersinger.

The Jew as Wagner portrays him in this notorious tract possesses no culture of his own; at best he can only sing and talk in the language of the bazaar. Out of a mixture of tolerance and sloth, the Gentile world allows the Jew to compete for and win the highest prizes. Such tolerance is noble, but it is extended at the cost of bondage to the Jew and the degeneration of a once-pure civilization. What the lascivious Beckmesser wants from the Mastersingers and from the virginal Eva is precisely what the Jew wants from the Gentile world: domination and the joy of corruption. Thus Beckmesser is not only the villain against whom the beautiful lovers must struggle; he is the link between Wagner’s homely story of young love and Wagner’s socio-political ideas. It is the evil represented by Beckmesser upon which Wagner relies to unify the two strands of his opera.



This is the background against which it seems to me the New York City Opera production must be judged, if it is to be discussed not merely as a performance of music in the theater but also as an instance of the kind of attempt being made to realize a great work of art at this time and in this country. Against this background, then, the first aspect of the production to be questioned must be its use of English rather than the original German. Meistersinger is not only an opera in German; it is the supreme example of a German opera. It was seen that way by Wagner, and it has been seen that way ever since by the most diverse social, political, and intellectual groups, of whom the Nazis and the Communists are only two. It uses a deeply German cultural background; it bases itself on an old German situation; it glorifies the city of Nuremberg (which indeed has figured notoriously in the political history of this century); it contains many specific mentions of Germany; and it ends with a hymn to the German nation. For a character to speak in English of the Germany evoked by this opera as if he were a German is to be placed in a false position: that of a man who is seen to be lying as, with the greatest passion, he asserts his truthfulness.

This problem of being German in English arises most forcefully at the end when Sachs warns of the coming of evil days in which foreign princes who do not speak the language of their people will rise to power through lies and sham. The Sachs at the City Opera was spared most of the problem by the ruthless cutting of this final speech, Wagner’s musical setting of his political testament. Whoever decided on the exact location of this cut accomplished the resulting joint in a harmonically clumsy way not worthy of such otherwise fine musicians; more important, the loss of these emotion-laden lines, placed by Wagner against a thin orchestral background so that every word would be clear to the audience, also deprived the opera of its intended ending. All we had left as a remnant of Wagner’s larger reasons for composing Meistersinger was one poorly declaimed, weakly sung, and orchestrally covered mention by Sachs of “holy German art” capped by an ending sung by the chorus, which—because of the limitations on clear enunciation inherent in any large group of singers—could only be rendered unclearly.

There can have been no purely musical justification for cutting a passage which is musically necessary, beautiful, and a traditional showpiece for great performers of the role. But other, extra-musical arguments for this cut can of course be made. Leaving aside for later the problem of the sheer unpleasantness of the words, these arguments would seem to number three. The thoughts themselves, being German, are not properly conveyed in English; the passage is often cut in performance, even when it is done in German at the Metropolitan; Wagner himself wished to cut the passage, and only retained it at the passionate urging of his wife Cosima. The first argument is really only an argument against doing this particular opera in English. The second argument seems weak, because if a practice is a mistake it remains so regardless of the number of times it is made (as Toscanini is once supposed to have said: “Tradition is the memory of the last bad performance”).

As for the argument about Wagner’s real intentions, it is more difficult, for it immediately involves us in complicated questions of scholarship (who said what to whom, and how do we know it?) and psychology (what was Wagner’s relation to his wife and to what extent was she capable of changing his mind?). These questions are fascinating, if only because their answers are unknowable. We do know that the passage is there in the final score Wagner approved for performance and publication; we do know that the music which clothes these words is a serious and distinguished example of his genius; we do know, as has been pointed out by Robert W. Gutman in his brilliant Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music: “Wagner wanted Meistersinger produced in the city it celebrated because he saw this ancient seat of German tradition’ as a bulwark against Jewish influences.” Furthermore, far from seeming increasingly irrelevant with the passage of time, this speech has remained not only meaningful to audiences—witness the German reactions to it during the period of Hitler—but also to the artists who have sung it.



There are three large-scale historical recordings of Meistersinger which may illuminate this problem. These recordings are not historical simply because of their musical qualities, though these are high indeed; they are historical because they were recorded during live performances taking place at important moments of German political and musical history. The first recording, of extended excerpts, was made in 1928 on the 115th anniversary of Wagner’s birth, at a performance in Berlin’s Unter den Linden Theater. The Sachs was the great Jewish baritone, Friedrich Schorr, and the conductor was Leo Blech, a Jew who was allowed by Goering to remain as a performer in Germany almost until the outbreak of World War II.1 The second recording (the first complete Meistersinger on records) was made at the Bayreuth Festival of 1951, the first to be held after Germany’s defeat. It was conducted by Herbert von Karajan and had Elisabeth Schwartzkopf as Eva2; both of these great artists had, as is well known, been active in the musical world of Nazi Germany. And the third is a complete recording of the 1963 opening-night performance at the Munich National Theater on the occasion of its rebuilding after near total destruction by an Allied bombing raid in 1943.3 Germany on the eve of Hitler, the first Bayreuth Festival after defeat, the reopening of a national treasure destroyed by enemy bombs: it was Meistersinger that served to commemorate these moments for Germany.

All these performances have an atmosphere in common—something composed of aggressive pride and noble arrogance. In all of them the final speech of Sachs is retained in full and serves as the climax of the drama. Each Sachs—Schorr (the greatest), Otto Edelman in the Bayreuth version, and Otto Wiener in the Munich recording—is betrayed by the music, the ideas, and the occasion into an excess of emotion on the phrase Was Deutsch und echt (“What’s German and true”); each feels compelled to stress the word Deutsch, each time it appears. This, one feels, is the real Meistersinger, the Meistersinger not of Broadway and the United Nations, but of Wagner and Germany. It is in being performed in the spirit of Wagner and Germany that the opera becomes more than a collection of tunes and songbirds, and becomes what all art aspires to be, a rival of life.

Of course a recording, while it can convey much of the musical performance, can convey little of the acting through which an operatic character must also be portrayed. Beckmesser must be acted more than he must be sung, and here lay perhaps the chief weakness of the City Opera production. If the argument about Beckmesser’s significance which has been advanced here is right, it follows that he must be presented as a villain, not only personally but socially, not only individually but as a symbol of the crime of the Jews against the people. If this is done, all becomes clear. It is then only proper that he is beaten up in the riot which closes Act II; it seems just for Sachs to trick him into using Walther’s song as his own; it is inevitable that he should turn the pure, lofty sentiments of the original into the kind of gibberish which Wagner thought the fate of all Jewish imitations of Gentile culture; his public humiliation, suffering, and disgrace at the close of the opera may be seen as a triumph of restraint and humanity rather than an expression of spite. For against the enemies of the people all crimes are virtues, and all attempts at conventional virtue are crimes. These enemies of the people—and a distinguished line from Wagner to Amin has thought the word Jew described them all—are animal rather than human; as Himmler put it in a speech to SS leaders in 1943, virtue itself lies in the necessary crime:

It is completely wrong for us to offer up our ingenuous soul and spirit, or good nature, or idealism, to other peoples. . . . Germans are after all the only people in the world who treat animals decently, so we will also know how to treat these human animals. . . . I can tell you, it is hideous and frightful for us Germans to have to watch such things [executions]. . . . It is, and if we would not find it hideous and frightful, then we should no longer be Germans. Hideous though it is, it has been necessary . . . let us not weaken. . . . To have gone through this and—except for instances of human weakness—to have remained decent, that has made us tough. This is an unwritten, never to be written, glorious page of our history.

Of course, Meistersinger is not Bergen-Belsen; of course Wagner was not Himmler or Hitler; of course Beckmesser is only beaten and disgraced, not murdered. But those were gentler times, and the real audacity of pioneers often seems a cautious conservatism to distant successors. Is Wagner to be blamed for Nazism, for the murder of countless millions? He can only be blamed for what he did, not for what others did after him. What he did was to provide the shoulders on which others stood. Perhaps he could not have known what they would do when they stood there, but they were his shoulders.



How was Beckmesser performed at the City Opera? Not as a villain but as a fool, not as evil but as tormented, not as corrupt but as un-talented, not as lascivious but as anxious. In short, as a figure of pathos mixed with fun, a clown, a pitiful, gently comic misfit. His fate—to be beaten, hissed, and rejected in love—was made to seem inexplicable, having been caused by none of his observed actions. For all he was shown to have done was lose a contest.

The City Opera production, then, misrepresented the social and political context of the opera in three ways: by performing it in English, cutting material of the greatest significance, and distorting the role of Beckmesser. By neglecting the ideas of the opera, moreover, the production inevitably transformed the music itself into a springtime frolic.

Why did this happen? How did this splendid group of musicians and theatrical people come to present so sanitized a version of Meistersinger? Certainly those responsible must have felt the force of practical considerations. The City Opera does have a reputation for bringing opera to the people, for making popular opera easily available and for making difficult opera popular. It has attempted to cast attractive young American singers in roles traditionally reserved for European artists of greater experience. As an American company it naturally is prejudiced in favor of English as a medium of expression. It is only reasonable for the City Opera to try to do what it does best—to bring the tradition and resources of the American musical theater to bear against the greatest of European opera.

The question then becomes why Meistersinger was seen as a proper field for the exercise of the company’s undoubted virtues. There does exist a large area of the operatic repertory in which the City Opera has made a unique contribution to the history of operatic performance and production. That Meistersinger was felt to belong to this area, notwithstanding the obvious nature of many of the considerations I have raised, says a great deal about our idea of the proper relationship in a work of art between elements of art and elements of life.

The New York City Opera was, I feel, unable to face the fact that Meistersinger is a blend of the beautiful and the horrid. It was unable to face the fact that both beautiful music and lofty sentiments could be inextricably mixed with implications of a political program which, in the hands of others, led to undreamed of barbarities. They did not recognize that, in art as in life, the beauty often depends on the horror. Failing to recognize this, they attempted to disentangle the two, to leave out the horror and present only the beauty.

There was a previous, and much more thoroughgoing, attempt to accomplish this impossible task. Paul Rosenfeld, an important American music critic of earnestly modernist sympathies, in an article called “The Nazis and Meistersinger,” written shortly after Hitler came to power, accused the Nazis of taking what he saw as the healthy, democratic, individualistic nationalism of Wagner’s opera as a justification for their tyranny. Wagner’s nationalism, like all nationalistic art, Rosenfeld thought, was the expression of

the national superindividual entity at the moment that entity offers to form itself freely in the union of individuals, a formation inevitably flowing from the inner liberty of the individual.

For Rosenfeld, this blossoming of the individual led

ultimately toward . . . the “anarchist commune.” . . . For all artists are fundamentally “anarchists.” . . . They touch material selflessly and shape it in accordance with its own nature and the idea to which it conforms; and work is a joy to them, an end in itself. And the social order to which they are natively directed could easily be an order based on the private ownership of the means of production, and the operation of those means for profit, in which labor got its just reward, and social, political, and intellectual advantages were shared by all. Such, then, is the social order adumbrated by Meistersinger and other great nationalistic pieces.

Such, rather, is the gospel of aestheticism—art is beautiful, art is truth, art will lead us to political, social, and moral salvation. But apart from whatever criticisms might be made of this position in general, the astonishing thing to notice is that Rosenfeld could only arrive at his reading of the ideological content of Meistersinger by entirely ignoring Beckmesser, whom he never once mentions. What Rosenfeld achieves by selection and distortion, the City Opera achieves by eliminating the whole question. They both transform Wagner’s message of particularism and exclusion into a message of brotherhood and tolerance, a message the City Opera production reinforces by its prominent use of blacks and Orientals among the chorus and dancers without any attempt to make them up to look like members of the Nuremberg community.



Meistersinger is full of poison. It is also full of beauty. It represents the loftiest human sentiments, and implies the extinction of millions. In it, as in all the greatest works of art, there is not simply a necessary relationship between good and evil, there is an attempt at unity. It must be the purpose of artistic production and performance to present this unity in its full depth and intensity. Of course this does not, in the case of Meistersinger, mean that it must be performed with Beckmesser wearing a yellow star. What is implicit in Wagner’s opera must not, in the fashion of certain politically conscious stage directors, be made explicit, for that too is distortion. It is only necessary that the work be presented with full awareness both of what it is and what it implies, no more and no less.

That the New York City Opera failed to do this derives from its inability—an inability characteristic of our time as a whole—to separate the realm of art from the realm of politics, to separate the fantasies of the artist from the proper goals of social policy. It is an inability to respect the integrity of art on the one hand and the political and social order on the other. Each of these realms has claims of its own and boundaries of its own, the observance of each being essential to the observance of the other. In its limited sphere, art must be total; in its total sphere, politics must be limited. All of Meistersinger must be fully performed on the stage; in our lives, we must resist all attempts of society at total control of man. We need not attempt to reconcile art and politics; we need only attempt to render both of them their proper due.


1 Available only on a private recording, but a similar if emotionally muted performance by Schorr and Blech is on Seraphim 60189.

2 Seraphim 6030.

3 RCA LSC-6708 (withdrawn).

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