It is my pleasure in the summer months to venture to Glyndebourne Festival Opera and enjoy the high art of the wonderful productions that are on offer there. I should add that Glyndebourne is but a 20 minute drive from home and therefore much more accessible than the London theatres where curtain down is followed by an extended and inevitably tedious journey back on Southern Rail – a carrier of lowest common denominator. So, where possible, I prefer to spend my saved pennies here much closer to home in Sussex at one of the world’s leading opera houses. To sit in the splendid gardens during the long interval where Mrs A and I quaff our Shingleback Shiraz, tuck in to the sweetmeats she has carefully prepared and to view the wonders of the South Downs, a landscape that is intrinsically and recognisably English, has very few competitors in the pleasures that are allowed us on this mortal coil.
My musings this morning stem from the opera we experienced yesterday – Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nuremburg. It is ostensibly a comedy but woven into the fabric of a tale of a singing competition, lover’s travails, jealousy and high jinks on Johannes Tag (Midsummer Day) there is a much to ponder concerning identity and standing within a local community and perhaps, more importantly in these days in the run up to the Referendum, pride and identity in the wider community of one’s country. Many critics over the decades have worked their own seams of interpretation of the main character’s (Hans Sachs) philosophical and political leanings which many believe mirrored Wagner’s own. Inevitably with anything to do with Wagner the spectre of the Nazi regime and its use of his music at rallies and the like overshadow the more thoughtful and balanced assessments. At this very particular juncture in our history it is perhaps useful to revisit what Hans Sachs – an historical figure from the 16th century – actually espouses in the opera and how it relates to our battle with the apparatchiks of the EU.
The singing contest that is at the heart of the opera has evolved into a very rigid set of rules which the “meisters” (leaders of the various trade guilds in Nuremburg) rigorously uphold. Anyone wishing to join the guilds must follow the rules without question and those who do not are excluded. The guild leaders are appointed, never elected, and they pass on their chain of office to those who meet the strict criteria demanded by the guilds. I can see by the light bulbs already going on among the readers here that you are beginning to see my drift and what I recognised as most relevant to our present position vis-à-vis the EU. Chief among the guild leaders is one, Herr Beckmesser, who is adamant that songs must be constructed and sung with the correct tones and melodies. Any variation from the “tabalatur” – the written articles of the Meistersingers – is severely marked down and ultimately dismissed.
Hans Sachs is also one of those guild meisters but his approach has changed with age and experience. He argues for a much freer interpretation and recognises a community that is fearful of change and in his protégé , Walther, manages to break the stranglehold the Meistersingers had on the Art – Sachs calls it “Holy German Art” – of the period. OK, let’s be careful here because the idea of Holy German Art and its political spin-offs have been appropriated and devolved into policies that terminated in extreme prejudice. But just allowing Sachs’ reasoning at its simplest level we could argue that it represents a kick against an EU that is increasingly beset by its own rules which pile up, Ossa upon Pelion, into a impermeable monolith that cannot be shifted, cannot be negotiated, cannot be transformed into anything that will further the quality of ordinary people’s lives. We sit in the shadow of this EU mountain and await our new Hans Sachs – personified by this Referendum perchance? – to strike at its very core and split it open.
Much of this musing comes from one encounter I had in the Glyndebourne gardens yesterday evening. Over the years I have been going to the opera there I have bumped into many well-know and recognised “faces” – Edward Heath (looking decidedly glum and with a bodyguard a-hovering behind him), Margaret Thatcher (“come on Dennis, come on, mind that step”), Paddy Ashdown (hmmm), Lorraine (I flew from Luton y’know) and Roger Daltrey (heading towards his table with two bottles of Bollinger) but have never spoken to them. Yesterday, whilst perambulating the gardens, I came across Mark Carney sitting on a low wall. I raised my hat and ventured a “good afternoon” and to his credit he was happy to have a chat – about opera – and we duly did so, wished each other an enjoyable evening and moved on. I am nothing if not polite and there is a time for discussing banking and politics. Glyndebourne is not it.
But the encounter only served to sharpen my political senses concerning the “message” of the opera and our standing as a nation. I fear that we are beset with a whole slew of Beckmessers who are unwilling and unable to venture beyond the strict confines of the “rules” and will do anything – even lie or dissemble – to ensure that we adhere to them. In the opera Beckmesser gets his comeuppance in the final act. I now await June 23rd in the hope that our “Hans Sachs” release from the Beckmessers of the EU will finally come to fruition.
Roger Ackroyd ©