The opera as classroom

I don't usually go to the opera to observe teaching methods, but I do when the characters are two of Richard Wagner's great creations, Hans Sachs and Gurnemanz. In Wagner's opera ``Die Meister-singer,'' the pupil of Hans Sachs is a headstrong young nobleman, Walther von Stolzing. Walther seeks to join the Mastersingers' guild to win the hand of Eva, who may marry only a Master-singer.

The Masters reject Walther, for his trial song violates the guild's rules in numerous ways. This comes as no surprise, since Walther has learned his art not from pedagogues but from the birds of the forest. As Beckmesser, his rival for Eva's hand, sarcastically puts it, ``If birds and other such creatures figure among your teachers, I'll wager your art must be great!''

Unlike Beckmesser, Sachs is not a pedant. He finds Walther's song bold and new. ``Though he has scorned convention, his pace was firm, assured, and strong.'' If he is a lover of art, ``if sound his tune and thought, who cares by whom he was taught?'' True, his song defied the Masters' rules, but the sound was that of ``birds that sing when spring breaks through''!

Having recognized Walther's talent, Sachs must overcome his pupil's truculence, for Walther is infuriated by the Masters' rejection of him. With rising anger, he describes his feelings to Eva. ``Ha! Those Masters! With their rhyming laws of glue and plaster! . . . If I can't sway them, let me take my sword and slay them!''

Sachs foils Walther's planned elopement with Eva, then sets to work to prepare his pupil for the song contest.

First, he encourages him, for the mercurial Walther has lost all confidence about ever becoming a Mastersinger. Says Sachs, ``I see no reason for dismay here; myself, I go right on hoping.''

Sachs is diplomatic with his high-strung pupil. He asks Walther to help instruct him. ``I ask you, as a needy man, teaching you rules as I knew them, to show me how to renew them. There is some ink here, paper, a quill: I write, you sing, and trust my skill.''

The secretary of the guild had read its rules to Walther. They sounded to him like so much gibberish. (``Every stanza must contain two couplets; their tune must sound as if they were doublets; and each to several verses extend; each verse must have a rhyme at its end.'') Sachs sets forth the rules in more homely terms.

Walther sings of a wondrous dream. Sachs, recognizing a prize-song in the making, says: ``That was a stanza. Now take good care, the second stanza must make a pair.'' Why is this? asks his pupil. Sachs replies, ``For all to see, you're choosing at once your wife-to-be.'' At the end of the second stanza, Sachs suggests an ``after-song.'' Walther asks, what does this mean? Sachs answers, ``Your pair is strong: the children they created will show how well they're mated.''

Last, Sachs urges Walther to end his anger toward the Mastersingers. ``You deal with worthy burghers, my friend. They err at times, they like their ease, expect that all will act as they please.'' But, despite their human failings, they have kept art pure and blest through the best and worst of times.

After the song contest, Eva appropriately takes the winner's wreath from Walther and places it on Sachs's head.

In Wagner's opera ``Parsifal,'' the knight Gurnemanz first encounters Parsifal when the latter is brought before him for killing a wild swan. The youth feels no remorse for his act.

Gurnemanz is aghast. ``You slew the swan! And feel no horror for your deed? . . . Execrable deed! You could do murder? Here in sacred forest, whose silent peace enwrapped you round, whose woodland beasts approached you without fear, greeted you friendly and tame? . . . Look! Wings hanging lifeless! His snowy plumage flecked with the stains! No light in his eye! Notice the look?''

As Gurnemanz speaks, Parsifal becomes more and more agitated. He breaks his bow to pieces and flings the arrows away. Aware now that what he did was wrong, he says simply, ``I did not know this.''

After scolding him, Gurnemanz shows kindness to Parsifal. To the fatherless youth, he becomes a father. Thus, when Parsifal learns of his mother's death, Wagner's stage directions provide that Gurnemanz attend to Parsifal ``with fatherly care.''

Parsifal is an ignorant youth. He has, after all, spent much of his life alone in the forest. He does not know where he comes from, who his father is, or even his own name. At times, Gurnemanz becomes impatient with him. ``I never knew one dumb as you. . . . Now speak! Since you know nothing I asked you, just tell me what you know -- for surely you must know something.''

When Parsifal fails to comprehend the terrible suffering of the wounded King Amfortas, Gurnemanz shakes Parsifal by the arm. ``You stand like a stock. Just what have you seen? You are then nothing but a fool! Leave the place! Away with you! . . . Hereafter, do not go after our swans. Just seek -- foolish gander -- a goose!''

Many years pass. Parsifal returns. Gurnemanz recognizes him and also the spear he carries, for this spear alone can heal the wound of King Amfortas. ``Oh, holiest day, to which my soul awakes with joy!'' exclaims Gurnemanz.

The once foolish youth has exceeded every expectation of Gurnemanz. After killing the wild swan, Parsifal learned of compassion from his teacher; but only after Gurnemanz dismissed him did he come to feel the full agony of another human being's suffering. ``Amfortas! The spear wound! The Spear Wound! . . . A cry of anguish wells from my heart!'' Through this deeper compassion he gained possession of the spear. Gurnemanz softly says, ``Patient and pitying one, healing and knowing


At the conclusion of ``Die Meister-singer,'' Walther pays homage to his teacher, Hans Sachs. At the conclusion of ``Parsifal,'' Gurnemanz kneels in homage before his pupil.

Quotations from ``Die Meister-singer'' come from the English version by John Gutman. Quotations from ``Parsifal'' come from the English version by Stewart Robb.

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