I love playing Wagner. Ever since Tristan und Isolde with the Australian Youth Orchestra at the age of eighteen, I’ve been hooked. Wagner’s operas attract a lot of tropes: vikings in horned helmets, yowling sopranos, magic potions. They’re also long; Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, his only comic work, has a run-time of just over six hours, comprising three acts and two intervals. A performance is like riding into battle, without the horses; an emotional and physical marathon. It’s also one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. Come on in; I’ll show you how it feels.
Before we begin, some people to meet:
The Meistersingers: guild of artists, craftsmen, and poets. Fond of tradition.
Hans Sachs: their highly-esteemed de facto leader. Authority on matters of love and art.
Walther: young upstart. Suitor to Eva. Here to shake things up.
Eva: daughter of Veit Pogner. Loves Walther. Idolises Hans. Definite daddy issues.
Veit Pogner: won’t be nominated for Father of the Year.
David: hot-tempered wannabe Meistersinger and general know-it-all.
Beckmesser: mid-level bureaucrat. Likes rules. Fancies himself a bit of a catch.
And now, honoured guests, the journey begins.
Rebecca Adler, photographed in Victoria.Photo James Geer
Performance day! Leave home with a spring in my step. Freshly-ironed black dress on this beautiful sunny afternoon. Day thus far has been a careful balance of thorough mental and physical warm-up with conservation of strength.
Arrive at the theatre early; I like lots of time to get my head in the game. Go to the ladies’: queue is already building.
Half-hour call. I check on my seat and surrounds in the orchestra pit. Over hours, the slightest twist in the spine or arm can lead to injury. One final scan through my music.
Queue again for the ladies’. Ninety minutes is a long Act.
Ladies’ again; queue too long. Beginners’ call sounds over the backstage intercom. Panic. Decide to hold on. Take my place in the dimly-lit pit.
Single note from the oboe; we tune. Conductor enters; applause full of anticipation ...
… and we’re off! Meistersinger’s C-major overture is an epic journey all its own. Loud and triumphant, it takes a lot of energy and focus from the very first note. It’s also really fun to play.
Curtain up. Ten minutes down, six hours to go! Instantly we’re accompanists, with chamber-like focus and intense awareness of the voices onstage.
David explains the guild’s rules of song writing. Notoriously pedantic scene for the orchestra; key-, time-, and mood-changes almost every bar. Thankful for the detailed rehearsal we had on each one of these curly little corners.
Melodies and motifs weave into the complex texture. The writing for each character is so distinct, so alive. I love Wagner.
Intensity builds as the action heats up. So few rests in which to relax and lower the bow; my right arm begins to tire, and I’m relieved to approach the first rest point.
Interval #1: twenty-five minutes in which to rest, rehydrate (not too much), and recoup. The violinists of OV tend towards fine chocolate for our sugary fix; Lindt really should give us a sponsorship. Nip upstairs for a breath; the day’s still there, and it’s lovely, but back into the pit we march, with renewed vigour, ready for Act II.
The ‘Short’ Act; a mere sixty minutes with no break! Opening is joyful and dance-like, and astonishing in its dynamic variety.
Veit Pogner, one of the Meistersingers, mulls over the decision to award his daughter Eva in marriage to the winner of the local song contest. It’s murky territory, morally-speaking, and reminds me as I play that Wagner’s own legacy is far from straight-forward.
‘I feel it and cannot understand it, cries Hans Sachs, in his famous monologue on the mystery of nature and song. ‘And when I comprehend it, I cannot judge it!’ The man who penned this music was brilliant, but also by all accounts a pretty unpleasant person. Can I ever find a way to comprehend and judge him?
Extraordinary harp twanging issues from a dark recess of the pit. Audience is in fits over Beckmesser’s suboptimal lute serenade. It’s hilarious even without the visual. Thank goodness violinists can laugh and play at the same time!
Fisticuffs break out between multiple characters. Our entries pile on into a manic orchestral fugue that tumbles us into the second break.
Interval #2; halfway! This long break is a highwire act; hearty dinner, without being heavy; brisk walk to refresh, but not tire; resting mind and body, while remaining focused and alert. Pacing is paramount; the third act is, at two hours, a marathon in itself.
Act III prelude: one of my favourite passages in all opera. Dark strings dovetail into a beautifully solemn horn chorale. I sit inside the breath of these perfect bars. How far we’ve come; how much still lies ahead.
Characters enter, and exit; we remain. We drive the action, comment on it, revealing their inner thoughts and motives through our playing.
Pages turn. Arms starting to feel heavy.
More pages. Is it getting darker in here, or is it just my eyes?
So much music. Impossible to recall what’s coming up until it’s upon us. Page in front of me grows black with notes, dense with accidentals that test and trip.
Have a feeling there’s a particularly awkward entry coming up on the next …
After acres of plot, the famous quintet. A few precious minutes; an oasis of calm. It’s beautiful, eloquent, romantic. I’m not crying, there’s something in my eye.
Final scene. Still forty-five minutes to go. Key signature six flats, then four sharps, two flats, and back again in the space of half a page.
Barely a bar’s rest in sight. Brain dissolving into mush.
Why is the chorus baa-ing like a flock of sheep?
Wonder what would happen if I offered my desk partner a thousand dollars to join in. Hans Sachs is reflecting on the lofty ideals of art and music, and I’m thinking about farm animals.
Chair feeling harder by the minute. Would give anything to stand up and stretch.
Did I remember to switch off the iron?!
Walther’s exaltant ‘Prize Song’, brewing since Act I, finally complete. We lift the tenor; we’re flying. All the hours are worth it for this feeling.
Scribble at the bottom of the page from a previous performer: ‘ALMOST THERE ...’
This feels familiar. I must be delirious.
It is familiar. Meistersinger ends with a reprise of the overture. C-major scale now the hardest thing I’ve ever played.
Muscle memory takes over entirely. Fingers numb. Mind in pieces. Everything hurts. I hate Wagner. Just keep going.
After six hours, eighty-five pages; the final chord. For a moment I sit, as it washes over me. We wobble to our feet to receive the applause; I feel suddenly euphoric, light-headed, removed from my body. It’s over. What now? Laugh, or cry? Celebrate, or collapse? I want to dance all night, or maybe sleep for a week. And then I want to do it all again.
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