Written by: Mansel Stimpson
For baritone Wolfgang Koch the role of Hans Sachs which he first undertook in 2004 is the greatest of all operatic roles. I speak to him as he prepares for it afresh at Covent Garden where he debuts in Graham Vick’s production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, first staged there in 1993 and last seen in 2002. “It’s a really amazing part: you could sing it for a hundred years and always you would find new details. I was thirty-seven years old when I first played Hans Sachs and it was a great opening for me to do that in a small theatre in Bielefeld. I took the role again two years later in Frankfurt and the next step came in 2008 when I did it in Vienna with Christian Thielemann conducting. It’s a huge part both because it’s a long role and on account of the psychological depth to it. You inevitably grow with it over time and that is because it grows with your life, with your age and with experience.”
When I ask Wolfgang how Wagner became so central to his repertoire he simply states that it was preordained. “I’m a German baritone so it had to be central! How could it be otherwise?” Wolfgang comes from a small village outside of Munich and classical music was not part of the family background. But he did recognise that he had a voice and that he might be able to do something with it. Growing up in that village in the 1970s made him want to get out and the voice could be a means to that end. “At first it was a case of my awareness of my voice leading me to music and not the other way around, but it’s another story now.”
Arriving in Munich Wolfgang attended the Musikhochschule but the really vital development was that he studied with the baritone Josef Metternich (who died in 2005). “He lived in Feldafing some twenty kilometres to the south of Munich and with him I covered all the fundamental things about singing. He was very famous in the fifties – indeed he played at Covent Garden in 1950 appearing in The Flying Dutchman under Karl Rankl, which they performed in English! When I came to him he was aged seventy-five and he was most important to me musically and technically. But it was also a great human experience: he was so warm, so friendly and all of the criticisms he made were constructive, never destructive. He understood how easy it is to break a young man.”
Did Metternich put stress on Wagner? “In teaching the fundamentals he certainly took account of Wagner – The Flying Dutchman and Lohengrin, things like that – but Verdi was central to it. He had made his debut at the Met in La forza del destino in 1953 and he was unusual among German baritones in favouring the Italian repertoire. There are few things more beautiful than singing Wagner and Richard Strauss but, even so, you should never forget the Italian stuff. I love doing Verdi.”
Wolfgang’s enthusiasm for Verdi is illustrated by his taking the title role in Simon Boccanegra, and that for Strauss by his appearing as Mandryka in Arabella and as Jokanaan in Salome. But when it comes to Wagner in addition to Hans Sachs he has been Telramund (Lohengrin), Kurwenal (Tristan und Isolde) and Alberich in The Ring (the role which marks his return to Covent Garden next season). However, another aspect of his repertoire should be noted. Works neglected to a greater or lesser extent outside of Germany feature prominently: Franz Schreker’s Irrelohe, Orff’s Die Kluge, Pfitzner’s Palestrina and Tiefland by Eugen d’Albert, the Scottish-born German composer (1864-1932).
“The first half of the 20th-century was a very exciting period for music. You have Schoenberg and Berg as well as Strauss and Pfitzner. You have Schreker too, and Shostakovich: so many things that don’t get played very often but have a quality that should be heard. I like to do these things: indeed, Busoni’s Doktor Faust which was my debut with Munich Opera provided one of my greatest experiences. With Pierre Boulez I did an opera by Schoenberg and I have appeared too in Shostakovich’s The Nose while with Kirill Petrenko I did all three of the baritone parts in Palestrina.” And is there any one work that languishes in obscurity but which he believes in passionately? “There’s one Italian opera that I love very much and which is never played now. It’s Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re which was done in America in the forties and fifties. It has become the only known work by Montemezzi – if, that is, it can be said to be known!”
With Die Meistersinger it is not difficult to argue that this opera set in medieval Nuremberg is unique in offering a human comedy notable for its intimate portrayals but treated at length. So just how different does that make it from Wagner’s other operas? “If you make that comparison then Meistersinger is simultaneously very different and not so different after all. A special feature of Wagner’s work is to be found in the many levels of the characters in psychological terms. Put aside Lohengrin because that’s quite early, but it’s there in Tristan, in The Ring, in Parsifal and in Meistersinger. What differentiates the latter is the warmth in it and the humour. You don’t get that humour in The Ring, that tragic epic of a work, or in the love story of Tristan, but it’s there in Meistersinger and it is present without in any way lessening the psychological depth.”
The contrasted elements which blend together in Meistersinger means that it encompasses a remarkable number of aspects any one of which might have been enough to build an opera from. On one level it is a love story of a classic kind in which the lovers lack freedom of choice and come from different backgrounds. Eva lives in Nuremberg and is the daughter of a wealthy but bourgeois goldsmith. The man she loves is the young nobleman Walther, a new arrival who is no less attracted to her. Unfortunately Eva’s father Pogner has already decreed that his daughter’s hand should be given to whoever wins the Song Contest of the Mastersingers. Walther decides that he must seek guidance to enter the contest. In this he is encouraged by the cobbler Hans Sachs, a respected Mastersinger.
Although inevitably elaborated for the opera, Sachs was a real-life figure and both the man and the equally authentic tradition of the Guild of Mastersingers link the love-story to a detailed portrait of the people of 16th-century Nuremberg, a significant element in the opera. Wagner also builds on this context to develop a story in which Walther represents new ideas in music, concepts which conflict with the outlook of the rigid traditionalists as represented by the town clerk Beckmesser. The opera is itself a comment on the art of music and on the need to respect tradition which nevertheless does not fail to recognise the importance of innovation. It is Sachs, the wise man in this tale, who recognises Walther’s genius and seeks to get him a favourable hearing. But Sachs is not merely present as a source of wisdom for he is also a very human figure, a widower who himself has feelings for Eva but recognises that the age difference is such that he must accept that it is Eva and Walther who belong together. It also becomes clear that David, apprentice to Sachs, will soon develop a life of his own by settling down with Eva’s nurse Magdalene. Consequently while the action is but forty-eight hours, beginning on the eve of St John’s Day, it emerges that Sachs has reached a point in his life when a more solitary existence lies ahead for him.
So, given the vast scope of the work, does Wolfgang feel that some of these matters are merely subsidiary and, in preparing his own role, does he have regard that he can read about the real Hans Sachs or does he concentrate exclusively on the libretto? “As to the many themes, whether or not they are equal, all of them require consideration and that’s the target by which a production can be measured. But it is not important that Sachs was a real person. What does matter is the background. The action takes place at a time when the whole of society was Protestant, but Sachs as a young man had lived through very difficult times when religious issues had led to fighting. Yet it was in those times that the rules of the Meistersingers had been created for the composing and performing of songs and when Sachs tells Walther about it that context needs to be remembered. Because Wagner himself was so innovative and Walther represents what is new in music there is a certain parallel, but it’s one that can lead to misunderstandings about this work. It is concerned with musical traditions that you may have to destroy in order to build up something new. If you have regard only for the old then it will turn into a museum and it will die. But if you are going to break the old rules you nevertheless have to be aware of them, even if you have to make them your servant and not your master. That was Wagner’s attitude because he admired Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Sachs teaches Walther to know the old rules which he can then change and modify to express his own genius. The other Mastersingers are not ready for the new, not ready for Walther: they need almost five hours of opera to be ready for it, but then they are!
“With Sachs as with every big Wagner role you have to think about it from the end and then work back. In Meistersinger this St John’s Day settles what the future life of Sachs will be. All the relationships change. David will marry Magdalene and build up his own job; Beckmesser with whom Sachs has a love/hate relationship is destroyed by him; Eva gets Walther and will begin a new life.” As for Graham Vick’s production, Wolfgang, all too familiar with stagings in Germany which set out to deconstruct a work completely, is enthusiastic. “There is such clarity and precision here. If you are coming to the opera for the first time this presentation will enable you to understand what happens and what Meistersinger is. You don’t have to read up anything to get it and, while the production could play for a very long time. This occasion is memorable for me as being the first time that I have worked with Antonio Pappano. Everyone says quite rightly that he is a singer’s conductor and he’s a great musician who brings such a warm, human atmosphere to what we are doing.”
To conclude I raise the issue of the opera’s final moments which now unsettle many people because the paean to German mastery and to German art carries a nationalistic tone which, warning against foreigners, has come to seem dangerously close to the kind of message that Hitler as an admirer of Wagner wanted to see in it. “You have to consider the time of Wagner and also the time decades later when the Nazis emerged. They abused everything, and they certainly abused Wagner. As a German artist Wagner wanted to protect German art and it should be said that Meistersinger is a very German work. The ending may have been influenced by Wagner’s wife Cosima and was not included initially but it has to be seen as being about art. We need to remember that this same opera contains that scene at the end of the Second Act in which Sachs reflects on the disturbing and inexplicable violence that had broken out the night before and he describes it as madness. In composing that ‘Wahn!’ monologue Wagner was arguably foreseeing what would happen years later. They are [deeds] without reason but they occur – that’s a part of our mentality. It’s Beethoven, it’s Goethe, but it’s also this: it’s also Hitler. We are all a part of this history.”
- Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Six performances: from Monday 19 December 2011 (at 5 p.m.) to Sunday 8 January 2012; performances on 1 & 8 January at 3 p.m.
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera