Wagner's Meistersinger is tremendous in its ambition, tremendous in its success and failure, tremendous in its effect. With this opera, Wagner turned again for the first time to the "real existing" theatre of his time. Unlike the monumental Ring project, which was intended for a utopian stage of the future, unlike Tristan, which proved unperformable, Wagner unfolds the new work with consideration for the theatre culture of his time and leads it to an acclaimed premiere. And the period of the Meistersinger development from 1861 to 1865 brings Wagner's existence as a whole to a turning point. The amnesty of 1862 enables Wagner, who had been prosecuted for his participation in the 1848 revolution and had fled to Switzerland, to return to Germany. In the same year, Wagner finally separated from his first wife Minna and was united with Cosima Liszt-von Bülow. In 1864, the freshly minted 18-year-old King Ludwig II of Bavaria rescues him from dire financial straits and becomes his most important patron, making possible the world premieres of Die Meistersinger and Tristan, forcing the completed Ring parts Rheingold and Die Walküre - against Wagner's will - and also saving the Bayreuth Festival enterprise, despite many other disagreements, when public donations and Wagner's own funds threaten to dry up.
First conceived in 1845, the work was initially intended as a satyr play to the Tannhäuser tragedy, a cheerful, bourgeois counterpart to the feudal singer's war at Wartburg. But it was not until 1861, when Wagner remembered the old comedy plan, that he realised that in the figure of the historical cobbler-poet Hans Sachs (1494-1576) there was a mask ready to allow him to express all that was fermenting in him artistically, philosophically and ideologically. All historical, social and political events appear to have been transported into the sphere of madness. »Delusion! Delusion! Delusion everywhere! Wherever I look, in city and world chronicles, to find the reason why people torment and toil in useless rage,« muses the ageing widower Sachs, bent over a tome in his workshop. The depicted real early bourgeois world of the city-state of Nuremberg in the Reformation period is disembodied by being illusionarily visualised as a mirage. The jubilation of the masses, which is directed at the popular artist Sachs, is staged in a totalitarian manner and at the same time declared null and void. For it is only the devaluation of the "world as imagination" that makes the reconciliation of Wagner, the artist-ideologue, with it possible: his own change of the world, striven for in the turmoil of the '48s, has failed because - as Wagner supposes he can take from his reading of Schopenhauer - it had to fail. Only art is able to rise above the »world as will«, the blind struggle of egoisms: Wagner's theatre art. The sublime sleight of hand that Wagner uses to apotheosise his work was aptly pointed out by Paul Bekker in 1924: »[Wagner] appropriates a philosophy that teaches the deceptiveness of real life in order to be able to claim the credibility of truth for his theatre on the basis of this teaching«.
All those demagogic aspects of Wagner's work and not least of his music, which his most important interpreters have worked on again and again, culminate in the Meistersinger in a proclamation of »power-protected inwardness«: »Zerging in Dunst das heil'ge röm'sche Reich, uns bliebe gleich die heil'ge deutsche Kunst« (When the holy Roman empire vanishes in a haze, we are left with holy German art). The foundation of national identity in the supposedly politics- and history-free space of art possibly made the Meistersinger even more susceptible to its abuse than the accompanying chauvinist attack on everything branded as »inauthentic« and »Welsh«. For all the posed insight into the decrepitude of everything temporal: Wagner did not see through the delusion of nationalist ideologies, but fatally confirmed it.
And the contradictions accumulate. Wagner's own dramaturgy leads the claimed reconciliation of cultural tradition and renewal ad absurdum. As always with Wagner, the pre-decisiveness of the conflicts by polarising the characters into sympathisers and antipathisers devalues his proposed solutions. After the bourgeois, guild-organised singing exercise of the Meistersinger has been parodied on Shakespeare's model of the craftsmen's scenes in A Midsummer Night's Dream and the acting chairman or »Merker«, the town clerk Beckmesser, has first been paraded as a ridiculous art bureaucrat and then beaten up, it is to serve as a guarantor of national-cultural continuity in the finale. Through the marriage of the genial knight von Stolzing to the goldsmith's daughter Eva, Sachs wants to make possible, no, force a symbol of the successful union of old and new. For the two young people want nothing more than to escape the ideological and social constraints of their fathers' generation by fleeing.