‘Mad, Mad, the World’s Gone Mad’ – Wagner’s ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’ as ‘American Idol’ Song Contest (Part One)

Late Nights with Leno

American Idol logo

The American Idol logo

Some time ago, I was holed up in a local hospital recovering from minor surgery. Unable to sleep or shut my eyes for nights on end, I turned on the television in order to pass the time. In my ceaseless channel-surfing for quality programming (a lost cause, I know now), and after bypassing Jay Leno for the umpteenth time, I happened to pause at the auditions segment for the Fox Network’s American Idol program.

While gazing at this poor excuse for high-class entertainment, suddenly it dawned on me how alike this TV show was to composer Richard Wagner’s grandiloquent opus, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Wasting no time, I pulled out a pad and pen and started to jot down copious notes about the show and the opera, so as not to lose track of this train of thought.

Up until that moment, it had never occurred to me these popular culture programs in the form of amateur singing contests, which have only multiplied in number and variety since that 2006 hospital encounter, might have had some connection to the operatic art. But yet, there they were: the untried contestants, the imperious judges, the audition songs, the guest artists, the weaning out of aspirants, the ultimate showdown, and the final announcement of a winner.

Yes, all the rudiments of Wagner’s five-hour comedy-drama were present and accounted for. So why hadn’t avant-garde stage directors or major opera houses gotten hold of this novel idea before? It would have made a fabulous new production, I presumed, and a certifiable mess, too, of the mighty “Mastersingers of Nuremberg.”

To be honest, Die Meistersinger is a work that’s been firmly rooted to its time period, i.e., the medieval Germany of Martin Luther and Albrecht Dürer. Most productions before 1980 pretty much went out of their way to respect this time-honored convention. In addition, directors and producers treated the opera in as sacrosanct a manner as possible – deservedly so, in my opinion.

Katharina Wagner's Meistersinger production from Bayreuth

Katharina Wagner’s 2007 Die Meistersinger production from Bayreuth

The inviolable nature of the work, however, went out the window in the 1990s and beyond, what with more “innovative” (read: modern) approaches now at play. Even in Bayreuth, about as sacrosanct an operatic venue as one could imagine, the composer’s great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner staged a highly controversial 2007 production of the piece in which the Mastersingers were treated as “stuffy teachers at a school attended by the apprentices. Hans Sachs was shown as an anarchist, while the prize contest was presented in the style of American Idol.” So much for my original idea!

Before discussing my vision for this piece, though, let’s recap the plot of this quintessentially human drama. Besides the earlier Rienzi, which was rarely given even in Wagner’s day, Die Meistersinger is the Dresden master’s longest stage-work. Many of the characters present in it are based on actual historical personages who lived in or around Old Nuremberg at the time.

The opera is in three acts, with the third one lasting close to two hours. It’s a truly melodious piece, featuring richly rewarding roles (both vocally and histrionically) for all the major characters – and some of the not-so major ones as well. To boil things down to their essentials, the story involves a young knight named Walther von Stolzing, who has fallen in love with the girl Eva Pogner. During the course of the drama, he learns from Eva’s father that in order to win her hand Walther must enter an upcoming song contest – something he’s completely unprepared to do.

His initial attempts at being accepted as a contestant fail miserably, thanks to a rival Mastersinger, Sixtus Beckmesser, the hot-tempered town clerk. Beckmesser, you see, has designs of his own on the girl. Enter the cobbler and shoemaker Hans Sachs, a most poetic soul and much less of a doctrinaire than the other Mastersingers, including the spiteful Sixtus. Sachs decides to take Walther under his wing and coaches the knight in the art of song.

A side story encompasses Eva’s growing anxiety upon learning her knight will be unable to woo her in the contest. In desperation, she turns to the elderly Sachs as a possible alternative to the detestable Beckmesser, the other qualified candidate. I wouldn’t be giving anything away if I told you that all turns out well in the end: Walther wins the contest, Eva gets her man, Beckmesser gets his just desserts, and Sachs and holy German art are praised to the rafters by the overeager crowd. A happy ending to end all happy endings, and a stirring final chorus to boot!

“The Mastersingers of Los Angeles, or Simon’s Comeuppance”

Randy Jackson, Simon Cowell & Paula Abdul

Randy Jackson, Simon Cowell & Paula Abdul

With my own patented variations on the work’s themes, I couldn’t lose either (or so I thought). One could even label my endeavor by the ersatz title, “The Mastersingers of Los Angeles – or Simon’s Comeuppance,” a little inside joke on the snide British-born record executive, television producer and sharp-tongued former judge on the show, Simon Cowell, a dead ringer (personality-wise) for Herr Sixtus.

Putting my ideas to work on paper certainly helped to visualize how a staged production of one of my favorite Wagner operas could be transformed into an American Idol-type showpiece. I’m just glad I decided to have some fun with this concept before putting it into practice. So without further ado, let’s take a peek at my proposed scenario, shall we? Perhaps some enterprising young director or upstart opera producer will read it and take the next illogical step.

In my version of Die Meistersinger, the various acts would all have titles, much as early Italian operas used to have. For example:

Act One: “The Failed Audition”

Act Two: “The Street Riot”

Act Three: “The Dr. Phil Show & Final Showdown”

Next up, the characters would all have real-life celebrity counterparts – the celebrities who actually participated in the 2006 American Idol Song Contest that is:

Main Cast of Characters:

Hans Sachs (Randy Jackson) – Judge, talent scout, record-company executive, former jazz-pop bassist and musician, Randy moonlights as the owner of an illegal Korean-Vietnamese shoe store (“Randy’s Imported Shoe Emporium”) on the Sunset Strip.

Eva Pogner (Paula Abdul) – Former singer-dancer, adopted daughter of famed record producer Clive Davis, and part-time judge of song contests, Paula’s in love with…

Walther von Stolzing (Clay Aiken) – Aspiring young American Idol contestant and all-around geek.

David (William Hung) – Chinese-born, live-in houseboy to Randy Jackson, Hung also aspires to be an American Idol contestant. He manages the shoe store in Randy’s absence.

Magdalene (Kelly Clarkson) – Former American Idol winner recently turned au pair (!) to Paula Abdul.

The Night Watchman (LAPD Policeman) – He has a street partner, carries a bullhorn, and wears a bulletproof vest. Hey, it’s Los Angeles, folks!

Veit Pogner (Clive Davis) – Retired record-company executive and ex-talent agent and scout, serving as honorary judge at song contest. Paula Abdul is his adopted daughter (yes, you said that).

Sixtus Beckmesser (Simon Cowell) – Acerbic, know-it-all, self-serving, and priggish song-contest judge and record-producer/promoter, Simon has an obsessive-compulsive, love-hate relationship with Paula Abdul (and everybody else, as well).

The Other Mastersingers:

Fritz Kothner (Elvis Presley) – Keeper of the American Idol flame, i.e., the rules and regulations.

Kunz Vogelgesang (Frank Sinatra)

Balthazar Zorn (Tony Bennett)

Ulrich Eisslinger (Paul McCartney)

Augustin Moser (Mick Jagger)

Hermann Ortel (Stevie Wonder)

Hans Schwarz (Paul Simon)

Hans Foltz (Art Garfunkel)

Non-speaking parts:

Dr. Phil

Mrs. Phil

James Brown

Aretha Franklin

L.A.P.D. Detective Mark Furman

Ryan Seacrest (Master of Ceremonies)

Jay Leno

The following words would flash across the curtain before the start of the Overture:

“There are six million stories in the City of Angels. This is one of them…”


During the playing of the Overture, pictures and photographs of various well-known L.A. landmarks and locales, in and around the city — including Hollywood and Vine, Disney Land, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Sunset Strip, etc. — are shown on a scrim before the curtain rises.

There is an active audience present throughout Act I, much as they would be for the participative portions of the American Idol program.

Towards the end of the Overture, before a blue curtain, the American Idol logo (in silhouette, of course) would appear and raise its arms in triumph. This motif will be repeated at the end of the opera by Clay/Walther himself, after his final triumphant performance onstage (we hope!).

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

2 thoughts on “‘Mad, Mad, the World’s Gone Mad’ – Wagner’s ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’ as ‘American Idol’ Song Contest (Part One)

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