ACT I - Interior, St. Catherine's Church, Nürnberg. (16th century)
Scene 1 Mass is just ending. The assembled congregation sing a last hymn before slowly departing (Da zu dir der Heiland kam). Walther von Stolzing, a young knight from Franconia, has been watching a young lady throughout the mass. The young lady, Eva Pogner, daughter of the local goldsmith, and her nurse Magdalene are leaving when Walther entreats her to remain behind. He wishes to speak to her. Eva seems to have left her handkerchief behind and sends Magdalene back to their pew in search of it. Walther apologizes for his unseemly breach of conduct, but in taking time to do so he still has not asked his intended question when Magdalene reappears with the handkerchief. Eva suddenly remembers she had a scarf pin and sends the nurse back to look for that. Again, Magdalene's quick return with the forgotten item interrupts Walther's flow of words. But they are in luck - Magdalene herself has forgotten her prayer book! Walther finally asks: "My young lady, tell me, are you betrothed?" Before Eva can answer, Magdalene returns once more. Seeing that Walther has not moved from the spot, Magdalene assumes that he is hoping to see Eva's father, Veit Pogner. When Eva confesses that Walther desires to know whether she was married or betrothed, Magdalene tries to hurry her along home. David, an apprentice to Hans Sachs the cobbler and an aspirant to the guild of the Mastersingers, enters. Although slightly older, Magdalene is David's lover. Her attention is distracted by his arrival and she answers Walther's question. "The answer isn't an easy one. Eva is betrothed - her father has promised her hand to the winner of the upcoming song contest of the Mastersingers." Eva hopes that Walther is a Mastersinger. He is not.
Eva and Magdalene discuss Eva's feelings for the young stranger. She had seen him only the day before, but has already fallen deeply in love with him. Eva likens Walther to Dürer's depiction of David, who overthrew Goliath. Magdalene calls out "David, David" as Eva talks on, comparing the two. Believing his lover is calling him, David reappears. He has been preparing the masters' ring for their traditional meeting held after mass.
Magdalene insists that she and Eva leave, but tells Walther he should stay. Eva's father will arrive shortly for the meeting. If he really wants Eva's hand, he is in the right place and at the right time. David, she says, can answer questions Walther may have concerning the guild of the Mastersingers. With promises to meet that very evening, Eva and Walther part.
Scene 2 Other apprentices arrive. David starts telling them what needs to be done before the arrival of the Mastersingers. When the others ask David to help them prepare the marker's box and he is unwilling to help, the apprentices deride him, calling him cocky because his master is the cobbler Hans Sachs, a Mastersinger and a poet.
David busies himself with Walther, running him through what he will be asked to do during the competition. When Walther questions what the role of the 'Marker' is, David asks: "Are you a poet? Are you a singer? Were you not a scholar?" Walther confesses to being none of these. How on earth, David wonders, can Walther want to become a Master then? Walther, however, doesn't see how his lack of background could be a problem. Noticing David's obvious displeasure (he has been muttering about Magdalene getting him into this mess), Walther asks for David's advice.
In a convoluted manner (Mein Herr! Der Singer meisterschlag), David explains what he is learning from his Master, Hans Sachs: the theories of the Mastersingers, the rules for poetry and music, the ordering of stanzas and strophes, and the 'Aftersong,' which must be neither too short nor too long and contain no rhyme which has occurred before. "Even after knowing all this, one is still not yet a Master." Confused by David's melding of the art of singing and the trade of cobbling, Walther is overwhelmed.
David goes on, explaining the multitudinous tones and melodies that the Mastersingers have named, which, of course, one must not only be able to name, but also to sing! The other apprentices impatiently call to David, who instead answers Walther's question: What is a poet? "When you have become a 'Singer' and you yourself have added rhymes and words fitting the Masters' tones, then you become a 'Poet'. When a 'Poet' is able to fashion his own words and new music from the Masters' tones, then he is a 'Mastersinger'."
David's attention is caught by the box the other apprentices have erected for the trial, the incorrect box, the one usually used for the 'song-school'. David helps them to erect the smaller box, which has a stool, a small desk, a chalk board for the marking and is enclosed by a curtain. As the apprentices chide David for his thoughts of his own accomplishments, David mutters about Walther: without being either 'Scholar', 'Singer' or 'Poet' he thinks, because he is a knight, that he can become a Mastersinger!
Scene 3 Veit Pogner and the town clerk Sixtus Beckmesser are the first of the Mastersingers to enter. Pogner and Beckmesser seem to agree that Beckmesser will win the contest - and thus Eva's hand - but Beckmesser is wondering if Eva will agree to marry him. Although Pogner has pledged his daughter to the winner, she and she alone has the deciding vote. Beckmesser asks Pogner to speak to Eva on his behalf. Pogner agrees. Pogner sees Walther, whom he has helped with some recent estate business. The two men meet most cordially. Beckmesser, too, has spotted Walther and is none too pleased, sensing a rival - and one more favorable to the lady - for Eva's hand.
Walther tells Pogner that he wishes to become a Mastersinger, that the Love of Art was his reason for coming to Nürnberg. He asks to be admitted to the Guild of Mastersingers.
Pogner greets other Mastersingers, Kunz Vogelgesang and Konrad Nachtigall, as they enter, telling them of Walther's wishes. Beckmesser, meanwhile, is worrying himself about the turn of events. He will do his utmost to deny Walther's aspirations - he is after all the Marker! - but will also try wooing Eva by serenading her that very evening.
As the other Mastersingers enter, Pogner tells Walther that he would gladly welcome him into the guild, and agrees to propose him.
The Mastersingers have assembled. Fritz Kothner calls the roll: Hermann Ortel, Balthasar Zorn, Konrad Nachtigall, Augustin Moser, Hans Sachs, Sixtus Beckmesser, Ulrich Eisslinger, Hans Foltz, Hans Schwartz - only Niklaus Vogel is absent, due to illness.
Kothner proposes that they elect the Marker, but others think it best done after the song festival. Beckmesser asks Kothner if he is in a hurry to get him out of office: "I'll gladly let you have my place." Pogner deflects all discussion of a new Marker's election by asking to be allowed to speak. He comments on the Johannistag festivities (Das schöne Fest, Johannistag) they plan for the following day, the song competition, German Art, and the ultimate prize to the winning Mastersinger offered by himself: his daughter's hand in marriage. The Masters are not exactly happy that Eva may, or may not, agree to the marriage, but Pogner is adamant that she must have a say in the matter. Beckmesser thinks the mastersinging should, thus, be kept out entirely, but Pogner says that although she may refuse the winner, she can choose no other than a Mastersinger. Sachs suggests that the people be judges of the contest, along with the Mastersingers: "A woman's opinion, totally unlearned, is equally valid as that of the people." The Masters deride this suggestion: "Would you abandon the rules to the people?"
Sachs, who knows the rules as well as anyone, thinks that once in a while the rules themselves should be put to the test. He thinks this the best way to ensure that habit and dullness will never take over the Art of the Mastersinger. "Let us each Johannistag turn to the people to see if they take delight in our Art."
The Mastersingers comment among themselves, some siding with Sachs, others in disagreement. Beckmesser, especially, is opposed, commenting that Sachs only writes street-songs. Pogner, sensing that Sachs is asking too much, in addition to his own new 'prize,' asks the assembly to accept the rules as he himself had stated. They agree.
Kothner asks interested bachelors to enter their names for the contest. Beckmesser suggests the widower Sachs. Sachs retorts that the winner should be younger than either of them. Pogner takes the opportunity to put forward Walther. Beckmesser tries to head off this suggestion. Pogner himself stands as a witness that Walther is nobly and freely born, with estates elsewhere in Franconia. Sachs comments that noble or peasant, only Art matters. Where has Walther studied singing? Walther answers (Am stillen Herd) that he learned poetry through reading the works of the long-dead Walther von der Vogelweide, and learned to sing in the meadows and the forests. Beckmesser is beside himself with laughter at the thought that Walther learned to sing from the birds! Vogelgesang, however, comments that Walther's explanation is itself poetry.
Sachs is willing to listen, no matter who did or didn't teach him. When Walther again poetically explains that he is indeed ready to provide words to music of his own invention, the Masters somewhat reluctantly agree to let him try for entry into the guild.
The marker's box and the singer's chair are made ready. The rules are explained and Walther takes the singer's chair. He sings on a theme of love (Fanget an!). Seven faults and a singer is out. Walther's song is a curious novelty to the Masters and Beckmesser noisily marks fault after fault - though Sachs believes that they are witnessing something quite new and special. Although tradition dictates that Walther give up trying, Sachs insists that he should be allowed to continue. Sachs and Beckmesser argue. Sachs urges Walther to continue, as Beckmesser explains the too-numerous faults to the other Masters. In the end the Masters agree that Walther was "sung out and undone."
ACT II - A street in Nürnberg; evening of the same day.
Scene 1 David and the apprentices sing (Johannistag! Johannistag!) as they work. When Magdalene enters she learns from David that Walther was unsuccessful. Magdalene is visibly upset; she refuses to give him the food she brought and rushes back into the house. The apprentices tease David about loving, wooing, and marrying, alluding to the age difference between him and Magdalene. David is about to loose his temper, when Sachs comes into view. The other apprentices scatter and Sachs hustles his apprentice into the workshop.
Scene 2 Pogner and Eva now walk into view. Pogner is of two minds - he would like to speak to Sachs on a matter, but then thinks better of it. The Mastersinger contest, Walther, the betrothal of Eva to the contest winner are in the thoughts of both father and daughter. Eva merely says that as an obedient child, she only speaks when asked and since Pogner did ask, she questions his demand that her betrothed be a Master. "A Master of your choice," he answers. Magdalene appears, beckoning them into the house. Magdalene tells Eva that, according to David, Walther was not admitted to the guild. Eva decides to ask Sachs about the matter.
Scene 3 Sachs and David are in the cobbler's workshop. It is getting late. David departs for bed, leaving Sachs to finish work on some shoes. He reflects on the impression made upon him by Walther's song (Was duftet doch der Flieder).
Scene 4 Eva arrives at the workshop. Has she come about her new shoes? No, she has not even tried them on. They speak of the prospective bride and bridegroom. "Though without knowing who the groom is," she asks Sachs, "how do you know I'll be a bride?" The topic side-steps to the owner of the shoes Sachs is working on - Sixtus Beckmesser. "He hopes to win you through his singing," says Sachs, explaining that Beckmesser is a shoe-in since there are few bachelors around. "What about widowers?" Eva shows in their discussion, that she would be pleased enough to have him - one who understands Art - woo her. But Sachs remembers carrying her as a child and thinks that he would be too old a husband for a young girl. Though he seems flattered, he doesn't believe she is totally serious. When Eva berates him for suggesting she find answers to her problems at home, he agrees that his head is in a whirl: a song trial has caused him pain. Eva, pretending to be unknowing and disinterested, probes for more information about Walther's song-trial. Commenting that Walther has no chance whatsoever, Sachs says: "He who was born a Master, has the worst standing among Masters." Mildly angry, Eva leaves him. His suspicions of her involvement with Walther is now confirmed. He vows to help them.
Magdalene, who has been calling her mistress, speaks quickly to Eva as she leaves the workshop. Eva wants the nurse to tell her father, who has been asking for her, that she is in bed. Magdalene breaks the news that Herr Beckmesser is coming to serenade her - Beckmesser has prodded and prodded the nurse for assurances that Eva would be there, listening. "If only it were Walther coming to serenade me!" is Eva's only reaction.
Magdalene has troubling thoughts of her own: she regrets her earlier treatment of David. People arrive in the street, and Magdalene begs her mistress to enter the house, but Eva is determined to seek out Walther. Eva tells Magdalene that she must be at the window listening to Beckmesser. It titillates Magdalene to think that her being serenaded might make David jealous.
Scene 5 Among the many footsteps heard, a pair do indeed belong to Walther. Eva confesses that only he will be given the prize of her hand. Walther cannot rid himself of his distaste of the rules of the Masters. He sang, full of love, and was only derided by them. He asks Eva to run away with him. The horn of the nightwatchman is heard and the lovers take refuge under a linden tree. Magdalene tries to entice Eva inside. Eva quickly agrees that she has no choice but to leave with Walther, and then goes into the house.
Sachs has seen and heard. He is determined to stop any elopement. Eva returns to Walther's side in Magdalene's dress. As they hurry down the street, Sachs, deliberately placing a lantern in his window, catches the in-flight pair in a pool of light. Confused as to whether they should follow an unfamiliar alley or wait for the cobbler to leave the window, Walther determines to confront Sachs.
Scene 6 But at the same moment, Beckmesser, with lute in hand, appears at the Pogner residence. Eva restrains Walther from entering Sachs' workshop. Beckmesser is heard tuning the instrument. Walther's anger turns from Sachs to "the Marker," but Eva pushes him into a hiding place.
Sachs, in full knowledge that Beckmesser comes to serenade Eva, begins to bellow as he noisily hammers the shoes on the last (Jerum! Jerum!). Beckmesser interrupts Sachs' song, an allegory of cobbling shoes for Adam and Eve (=Eva). Beckmesser is beside himself. How can he serenade Eva when Sachs is howling away!?! "She'll think it's ME!" He pleads to Sachs for silence. Then Beckmesser catches sight of Eva (really Magdalene) at the window. He has no time to lose in argument. Walther and Eva, able to see and hear all, wish to leave, but remain in hiding. Beckmesser attempts one last time to quiet the cobbler, telling Sachs he doesn't need the shoes that badly.
Sachs 'reminds' Beckmesser that he is only a writer of street-songs and has no need to listen to the poetry of Beckmesser. He continues his howling and hammering. Eva and Walther, still in the shadows, are amused by Beckmesser's apparent distress. "It's because you've never been Marker," Beckmesser says, "that you're jealous of me! And I swear you'll never become Marker!"
Sachs sarcastically asks if Beckmesser's tirade was his song. Sachs tries to strike a bargain: he will act as Marker (hammering on the shoes) while Beckmesser sings. To shut him up, Beckmesser grudgingly agrees: "Provided you keep to the rules! Mark nothing which the rules allow me."
Beckmesser tunes the lute, then begins his song (Den Tag seh' ich erscheinen), which is more often than not interrupted by the 'marks' of the cobbler. Sachs criticizes him for the rhymes, the rhythms, the melody. "But the soles are coming along well."
Magdalene, at the window, and still believed by Beckmesser to be Eva, is obviously not satisfied with the song. Beckmesser stops his quarrelling to continue the serenading. Just as Sachs finishes the shoes, David peers from his own window, spotting that it is Magdalene who is being entertained by the serenade.
Between the singing of cobbler and clerk, and the ensuing row caused by David, who comes out of the house to beat the hapless serenader, neighbors appear from all sides. The arriving apprentices sense a fight and soon it is guild against guild, neighbor shouting to neighbor, quarrels and brawling. Pogner pulls his daughter (not realizing it is the nurse) inside. As Walther attempts to clear a path for him and Eva, Sachs escorts the girl into her home, shoves David into the workshop and brings Walther inside with him. Beckmesser takes off through the crowd.
Quickly the street empties. The cry of the nightwatchman is heard as he announces that eleven has struck. The lone man walks up the alley and departs from view.
ACT III - Inside Sach's Workshop; later, a meadow. The next day (Johannistag).
Scene 1 David arrives with basket in hand. It contains flowers, ribbons, and food, which he proceeds to eat. He has come from delivering Beckmesser's shoes and has evidently run into Magdalene. Sachs sits, reading, totally ignoring David, which causes the young apprentice to wonder if he has provoked the Master's anger. He assumes it is due to his behavior the day before - especially because of his assault on Beckmesser.
Sachs closes his book and is more than friendly to his apprentice. They speak of the day's festivities to come: perhaps there will be a wedding feast! Sachs suggests the previous evening's "rioting" was a Polterabend - wedding eve celebrations at the home of the bride.
David brings the conversation back to the Johannistag celebrations. Sachs asks if David knows his poem, requesting he sing it. David, noting the good mood of his Master, mistakenly sings the poetry to the melody of Beckmesser's serenade! He quickly apologizes and starts anew. While singing of Sankt Johannes (St. John), it dawns on David that it is Hans Sachs' own nameday! David offers the flowers and cake to Sachs, apologizing for forgetting. Sachs wants David to enjoy the flowers, ribbons, and food: "So attired, you shall be my stately herald." But David thinks a 'best man' would be more his lot. While agreeing that a mistress in the house would indeed be pleasant, David alludes to rumors that Sachs will himself defeat Beckmesser in the song-contest. Sachs tells David to go, asking him not to disturb the knight. Walther is still in the house, asleep.
Alone, Sachs is deep in thought. "Madness! Madness! Everywhere Madness!" (Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!) Everyone everywhere is out for blood. No one has rewards or thanks. And a small incident - involving his own apprentice - can cause such happenings! "But now - on Midsummer Day - we shall see how Sachs can make madness do nobler work."
Scene 2 Walther enters. "Did you sleep well?" inquires Sachs. Walther answers that he had a wonderful dream. Sachs hopes that the dream may point ways as to how Walther can still win Eva's hand. But Walther is quite dejected. Sachs tells him to not give up hope, and explains that the Masters are honorable men, who, like all men, make mistakes.
Expecting to fashion a song from Walther's dream, Sachs asks him to describe it. "Dreams and poetry are friends. Think of your dream and let me worry about the rest."
Walther describes the rosy light of morning, filled with scent (Morgenlich leuchtend). His chosen stanzas do not strictly adhere to the rules of the Masters, but Sachs is impressed and vows to learn from it. A woman now joins him at his side, sings Walther, a beautiful woman, a beautiful bride. Sachs finds this 'Aftersong' a bit free in its melody, but does not find it a fault, per se.
As Walther continues his song, Sachs transcribes, marveling at the inventiveness of phrase and melody. Sachs praises the young knight's efforts, commenting that he only needs a third section of the same strength as the last two to find the meaning of his dream. But Walther has grown tired of words; he asks Sachs what his intentions are. Directing him into an inner room, Sachs indicates to Walther to dress for the festivities.
Scene 3 Beckmesser arrives, noting that no one occupies the cobbler's shop. Looking around, he catches sight of the manuscript of Walther's dream. Believing the poetry to be the work of Sachs, Beckmesser, still stinging from Sachs' treatment the evening before, is eyeing the script as Sachs re-enters the room. The two speak of Beckmesser's shoes, which he claims have such thin soles that he feels the smallest pebble through them. Beckmesser now accuses Sachs of underhanded pranks so that he may steal Eva for himself: the yowling to keep Eva from hearing the feelings the serenader wanted to convey; and ultimately the cudgel to beat him black and blue! Sachs confesses that he has no thoughts of wooing and will not be entering the song-contest.
Sachs looks for the poem - it's gone! Beckmesser holds it in his hand. He assumes that this paper is proof that Sachs is entering the contest. Sachs is simply aghast at the thievery. He agrees that Beckmesser may take the poem with him ("So that you are not a thief."), and use it in the contest. Beckmesser is overjoyed by the idea that he will win Eva with a song of the celebrated Hans Sachs! He extracts a promise from Sachs: he must not claim the poem as his own, no matter what happens. "I swear never to boast that the song is by me," answers Sachs. Sachs tells the clerk to study the script carefully. Beckmesser agrees that Sachs is a good poet, "but no one surpasses me for melody!" However, upon closer inspection, Beckmesser becomes quite confused by what he is reading. He rushes off to prepare, telling Sachs that he will guarantee Sachs' election as Marker.
Scene 4 Eva enters the workshop, just as Sachs is musing on the maliciousness of the clerk. Eva is beautifully attired. She complains of her shoe pinching, though it becomes evident through examination that the shoe is a perfect fit! Sachs, however, blames the stitching and sets about making it right.
Telling Eva that he heard a beautiful song - which just needs a third verse - Sachs is working at the bench when Walther, now brilliantly attired, comes out of the back room. To accompany Sachs' work, Walther sings a tender third verse, gazing lovingly at Eva.
Still working on the "pinching" shoe, Sachs mockingly complains of his lot: as a shoemaker, as a poet, as a widower. Eva, overcome with emotion, tells Sachs quite truthfully how dear he is to her (O Sachs! Mein Freund). Sachs wants to christen the "child," as he calls Walther's mastersong. Summoning David and Magdalene, he promptly promotes his apprentice to Journeyman so that he may act as witness to the christening. The two couples and Sachs muse on their good spirits (Selig, wie die Sonne). Soon all depart for the festival grounds.
Scene 5 In an open meadow, people have congregated. Villagers and guildsmen, peasants and apprentices enjoy the Johannistag festivities. Finally the Mastersingers arrives, and the crowd sing out their praise of Hans Sachs of Nürnberg!
Sachs invites all poets (Euch macht ihr's leicht) to compete for the most treasured prize offered a Mastersinger - Eva. He quietly asks Beckmesser how the song comes. Beckmesser is stumped! And he's sure no one else will understand the poetry either. Kothner calls for the song-contest to commence. Beckmesser, as the oldest, is chosen to go first. Many people in the audience are unimpressed by this suitor.
Beckmesser, using the melody of his serenade, tries his best, but it seems that he has problems reading Sachs' handwriting! Time and again he mistakes one word for another, turning the poetry into nonsense. The Masters are totally bewildered, and the people deride him and start to heckle. A furious Beckmesser blames the catastrophe on the cobbler and confesses that he is not the poet - it belongs to Sachs! Beckmesser leaves.
Sachs tells the Masters and people that he could never have written such a beautiful song. Everyone is bewildered: he thinks that song is beautiful?!? Sachs asks leave to bring forward someone who, unlike Beckmesser, can do justice to the song. "If that man can meld poetry and melody, he deserves to be named a Master, doesn't he?" He brings Walther forward.
Walther's song (Morgen ich leuchte in rosigem Schein) charms the entire assembly, even the Masters are impressed. Pogner pronounces the knight accepted into the guild. In a moving speech (Verachtet mir die Meister nicht), Sachs speaks of the worthiness and longevity of German Art. Eva has crowned Walther with the winner's wreath and the two lovers are united. Removing Walther's crown, Eva now places it on the head of Sachs, as the assembly sings homage to German Art - and Nürnberg's dear Hans Sachs.
synopsis copyright Kelly McDonald, 1998