There was a time when I hated theatre. The rhythms of it, the rituals, the artifice. Now I’m a theatre junkie again, I miss those years of not bothering about the shows that everyone was talking about, and yearn for the things I did instead, like dancing, and making dresses, and living. The Mastersingers of Nuremberg sits at the axis of that conflict. I don’t go to the theatre to see stories about myself, and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t choose a Victorian opera composed by a German anti-Semite about a group of stick-in-the-mud blokes being vexed and perplexed by an upstart nobleman who wants to win the hand of a gold-maker’s daughter as a prize in a singing competition: honestly, every single element of that can go to fuck. But it turns out that Mastersingers – at least, in the buoyant Richard Jones production at ENO – is about me, and about you, and about how art deeply matters, to all of us. It’s about people insisting on putting “faithful” revivals of classic texts on the big stages of big theatres while people make Fun Palaces out of cardboard and string. It’s about people writing 300-word reviews and people crafting anarchic poetic responses. It’s about binaries and synthesis, opposition and dialogue. It is every single thing that matters in my life and – if you’re an Exeunt reader, it feels reasonable to assume – your life, too.
There’s something of the Fun Palacers or am-drammers or local orchestra about the Mastersingers: each is a working man, proud of his profession, making art as a sideline. In the third act Jones creates a warmly comic parade of their crafts not unlike the displays that still happen at country shows. But there’s something about them, too, of the gate-keeper theatre directors, the guards of spurious terms like quality and excellence. Their fixation on how things should be has calcified their art and made them intransigent. A cobbler’s apprentice treats us to a run-down of the Mastersinger rules in the first act; I’d reiterate them but my brain clocked off for that bit. (Be kind: I spent more hours in the Coliseum watching this show than I’d had sleep on any single night in the 10 days prior. In fact, I’m not totally sure I didn’t sleep through the whole thing: there’s enough of the hallucinogenic about Jones’ staging, with its ebb and flow between hyper-realistic detail and gaudy decoration, to give it the feel of a gorgeous midsummer night’s dream.)
Walther, the upstart nobleman, dismisses their rules with a jut of the chin and a trill of the heart. He was schooled by nature, by birdsong, dear me how sentimental – except it isn’t, because what he sings is an outpouring from his soul. Tumbling confessionals they’re called when I do them. Passionate and furious and unconstrained.
The argument between the Mastersingers and Walther is an argument between tradition and innovation, age and youth, control and impetuosity, studied composition and flighty inspiration. It’s the argument I had in my head for three days before starting to write this, about whether to compose it in rhyming couplets or pepper it with capital letters or try to ape Andrew Clements’ authoritative review for the Guardian, with a nod to the thoughtful piece by Michael Henderson in the Telegraph. It’s the argument that keeps happening within theatre criticism: Stewart Pringle or Michael Billington, Megan Vaughan or Susannah Clapp. In the opera, the adjudicator is Hans Sachs, cobbler by day, poet by night, who demands: why choose? Why separate? The Mastersingers, he tells Walther, were young once; the rules they settled on were those that helped them best express the rhythms of their desires. “So there’s no dream but only art/ the two are friends, not far apart,” he instructs. (At least, I think that’s the line: my handwritten notes are approaching illegible.) In my world, Hans Sachs is Lyn Gardner: dedicated proponent of the rigid review form, champion of bloggers. And Walther? He’s Megan, Haydon, me. The refuseniks who insist again and again on freedom.
Sachs has sharper words for Walther’s rival, Beckmesser, charged with judging or “marking” Walther’s singing. Beckmesser does so with violent swipes of chalk on board, amplified by the crackling scrape of bow on violin; his jeers at Walther’s newfangled noise are met with Sachs’ stern disapproval, since: “Not every man here shares your tastes.” The role of marker is a delicate one: “Neither hate nor passion should taint the judgement that he shows,” Sachs insists. By the end of the second act, Jones ensures that Beckmesser is humiliated: and yes, I’m casting Quentin Letts in that role.
I know this is ridiculous, a microscopic reading of a macroscopic opera; in other moods, I might have kicked off about the infuriating mechanism of using a pretty girl as a patriarchal plot device, or mused on shifts in notions of privilege. In that argument with Chris Bryant, James Blunt really needed Sachs by his side, repeating his insistence that Walther’s charm as a singer has nothing to do with his “title, wealth or birth”, only his “poet’s art”. But there is a genuine expansiveness to Jones’ Mastersingers, literally in the swarm of bodies on stage, metaphorically in the pulse of its thinking, that convinces me anyone with a passing feeling for art would glimpse themselves in it – and I’m with Stella Duffy and the 64 Million Artists gang on this: anyone with a passing feeling for art means anyone at all, given the support and access routinely denied within our social structures. The joy and genius of this staging is in its generous balance of order and disruption: the two sides of the Mastersingers’ argument sharing the stage harmoniously, visible pleasingly in the design. The Mastersingers wear blowsy red-and-gold gowns while the Nightwatchman (hilarious, incidentally) stalks around in a sculpted black cape and platform boots; Sachs’ house is a picture-perfect olde shoppe with satiny fabric stretched over its roof, a continuation of the patterned sky. The single image binding each act features a motley assemblage of German artists and thinkers, each one – says Jones in the programme – an innovator: radical “conduits of the new” who were eventually “institutionalised”. At the end, every single character, right through the chorus, is twinned with one of these faces: art is made by experts, but it’s made and enjoyed by everyone, too.
To watch this joyful interpretation of Wagner’s characters – Clements will tell you who played who, and agree that the Sachs/Beckmesser/Walther trio are exquisite – is to feel cradled at the heart of life’s contradictions, and a bubble of laughter inside at how silly, how rich, how wonderful it is that we attempt to make sense of this mess through art. Cherish that, says Sachs, above all other prizes, and my heart sings yes, yes, yes.