All my performing life Die Meistersinger has been more a polemic than a performance. It goes around the music world as a political document like the John Passion. Performances are sold on the basis of political incorrectness. I have been hearing Meistersinger all the time this summer. I have found myself more moved than ever before by the sad humanity of the work. Maybe it’s being a little older.
The two great operas of the 17th century are Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. After the fundamental innovations Monteverdi formulated, opera was born as a heightened expression of the text. In a way the technique was like digital technology, a relatively small number of compositional units combined with great dexterity to express the gamut of human emotion. Voices and a small number of instruments, the continuo group, formed together a single speech. Even decades after Monteverdi, Purcell gives us a music which comes directly off the words. It heightens speech.
I first talked to Michael Steinberg on stage. The work was Schoenberg’s massive “Gurrelieder”. I was singing the part of the Bauer, and he was taking the part of Der Sprecher, a role written in Sprechstimme, halfway between speaking and singing. Michael’s German, remembered from childhood, always had a kind of English tinge to it, and he was an elfin presence anyway. I remember particularly the physical way he intoned the last lines: “Erwacht, Erwacht, ihr Blumen zur Wonne” with all his might and main, his small body shaking. Michael had a child’s kind of wonder. Sitting on stage next to each other, he lost no time in giving me a quick review of an operatic performance I had just sung.