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Rarely, when you see something that you're very familiar with, you have a revelation that you and everyone else has completely misunderstood the work, and you see it for the first time. This was my experience with San Francisco Opera's "Die Meistersinger." This is an opera totally about art, and furthermore, it's Wagner's operatic autobiography. Seen in this light Wagner would be Walter, Eva would be art, Beckmesser is the stiff opposition that any artist faces, specifically Hanslik with Wagner among others, and Hans Sachs that muse, that supernatural force that drives any artist to overcome all obstacles to achieve his greatness. As Vincent Van Gogh always said, "Faint heart never won fair lady," and in this case it's embodied by Eva.

Hans Peter Lehmann's production is pretty straightforward with beautiful traditional sets and costumes. The Chorus fills the old gothic cathedral with Eva front and center. Walter stands off to the side, and they see each other. He's moving excitedly, stepping forward, backward always off to the side in the shadows. After he tells her how he'll win her. David instructs Walter on the rules of Mastersinging. He's learned them exactly from Hans Sachs. He laments his failures. Walter is all inspiration, no structure. He's in love and he says he'll succeed if the song's his own.

Pogner has travelled much in Germany, and has heard the Mastersingers maligned throughout the land. His gesture to show the world how they cherish beauty and art, is to give his daughter Eva to the the Mastersinger who can win her with the best song. Sachs says let the people choose and they'll make sure the rules are fresh and up to date, not stale. Then art will flourish. He says they must give the Knight Walter a chance, because only art matters here, not rank or station.

Thomas Allen's Beckmesser is tremendous. He's snooty and impetuous, his face is frowning and pinched, like he's smelling a skunk. He practically hisses and spits. When Walter says he learned singing from nature, in the meadows and forests, Beckmesser snaps that he learned them from birds and mice. Walter sings of the soaring bird, and when Beckmesser and the Masters attack, his song changes to magpies and crows squawking and wrecking the beauty of the song.

In Act 2 Sachs is torn between love, poetry, and just making shoes. How can you measure the unfathomable? Walter's song followed no rules, yet there were no mistakes. Anyone trying to imitate it would earn only scorn. It's pure inspiration, but needs to be molded and formed. He tells Eva how Walter failed because they were jealous and scared of him. She's frantic, he's bitter. Sachs sees art - real art; the others see what can be learned and practiced. Shopenhauer described "a master as someone who hits a target that others can't hit; but the genius hits a target they can't even see." This is what Sachs sees and what Walter hits. Walter's choking on their endless tangle of rules.

In the third act Walter tells Sachs of his dreams, but he doesn't want to tell him about it because he's afraid it will disappear. Sachs says that's a poet's job, to "mirror his dreams." He tells him to learn the masters' rules and they will guide you. He asks where the rules say to start and Sachs says "set your own rules and follow them." Together they construct the song and it's Wagner telling us how he created his art as surely as Beethoven described the creation of his symphonies to Bettina Brentano. "From the focal point of enthusiasm, I must discharge melody in all directions. I pursue it, passionately catch up with it again, see it flee from me and vanish in the crowd of diverse excitements; now I seize it with renewed passion, cannot bear to part with it, must multiply it in all it's modulations in a quick ecstasy, and at the last moment I triumph over the first musical idea. You see, that's a symphony ... to submit to music's inscrutable laws, and by means of these laws to tame and guide one's own mind, so that the manifestations of art may pour out: This is the isolating principle of art," so said Beethoven.

Eva tells Sachs that he taught her what to value and to have a soul. She says a song eased the sweet burden of her heart. This is art, and the final quintet is beauty and radiance before the final scene in the meadow and the Prize Song. The staging of the meadow is festive, almost like something from "A Midsummer Night's Dream." After Walter wins Eva, he rejects the Masters' invitation to join them. Sachs points out that it's because of the art of the Masters that he won Eva. Can the art that bestows such a prize be without worth? He admonishes him to know the heritage of the people, and that's preserved by the Masters.

The cast in this San Francisco Opera production is simply stupendous. James Morris debuts his role of Hans Sachs. There are few if any Wagnerian basses to equal him and his first Sachs was all you would expect. This last time they did "Meistersinger" Eva and Walter were sung by two rising stars who rose high: Karita Matilla and Ben Heppner. Janice Watson is all sweetness and beauty as Eva, and Robert Dean Smith is the best tenor you've never heard of. This marks the Kansan's US debut from such houses as Bayreuth, Covent Garden, Vienna, and Bavarian State Opera among others. Catherine Keen was an outstanding Magdalena and Michael Schade was a magnetic David.

The greatest improvement over the 1993 production was easily Donald Runnicles. Then, he didn't hold the notes long enough. It was jerky and clipped. He plowed through some of the most beautiful passages. Over the years he's slowed down, let Wagner's spaciousness envelope you, and in the process has become a Wagnerian conductor of the first order. Last year's "Parsifal," Wagner's most difficult opera for a conductor was very well done. This "Die Meistersinger" cements it. Runnicles was simply splendid and on top of it, at his insistence, this was performed without any cuts, a first for the San Francisco Opera.

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