In his only comic opera, Wagner distilled poetry and music into a single unified form that unfolds as an unbroken stream of music-dramatic dialogue. It became a singspiel, partly based on personal experience, about the romance between the bourgeois girl Eva Pogner and the knight Walther von Stolzing, who may only wed his beloved once he has won the annual singing contest. The cobbler Hans Sachs represents, on the one hand, the old guard as a member of the Guild of Mastersingers; on the other hand he is open to modernization and stimulates the knight’s artistic gifts, stoking the conflict between narrow-mindedness and true artistry – a theme certainly not unfamiliar to Wagner himself. Love triumphs in the end, thanks to Sachs’ closing address in which he praises the ‘master’s honour’, a typically German honour one might view with considerable scepticism: the Meistersinger finale was, after all, misused for political purposes.
No opera in all music history has given rise to so many reasonable disputes amongst scholars and to so much verbal tastelessness, from both well-meaning and malicious feuilletonists.
Claus H. Henneberg