“The Overture is About to Start!”
The curtain goes up just as the last, stirring chords of the Overture to Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Los Angeles ebb away. Ay, what’s that? The Mastersingers of where? Los Angeles you say? The City of Angels? You’re joking! Have you gone mad??? Not I, dear friends, but Wagner has — or perhaps I should add that my fantasy production of the German composer’s comic masterpiece has taken a modest turn for the better (or worse, which has yet to be determined).
Back in August, I started an essay about turning Die Meistersinger into a variation of American Idol (see the link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/08/03/mad-mad-the-worlds-gone-mad-wagners-die-meistersinger-von-nurnberg-as-american-idol-song-contest-part-one/) — that’s to say, an amateur song contest for the iPhone generation. Here now is the continuation of my “dream vision” for Wagner’s three-act epic, beginning with Act One. As in all of Wagner’s work, you may withhold the applause until the finale.
Act One: “The Failed Audition”
The story takes place at a “Baptist” Church’s Sunday Revival service. This links to St. John the Baptist celebrations (or “Johannistag”) hinted at in Wagner’s text. This is where the American Idol auditions will be held. A Gospel Choir is present and accounted for, along with a minister and his congregation, who sing the opening chorale. Everyone is on their feet in song.
Clay Aiken (our Walther von Stolzing wannabe) makes his initial appearance in the back of the church. He’s dressed in typical geek fashion, with spiky hair, short-sleeve shirt, and wafer-thin granny glasses. For Act III, Clay will be transformed, as he was at the American Idol grand finale, into a cool, all-“white” version of a heavenly gospel singer.
Clay tries to get the attention of former dancer Paula Abdul (aka Eva Pogner), a judge on the American Idol panel. Paula’s been making goo-goo eyes at Clay throughout the service, while her friend and protégé Kelly Clarkson (Magdalena, the nursemaid), who herself has strong feelings for William Hung (David, an apprentice Mastersinger), tries unsuccessfully to steer Paula back to the singing.
This goes on for a while, until the service ends and Clay stops Paula in her tracks by boldly introducing himself to the pair. From their conversation, Clay becomes aware of the song contest that will take place the next day at noon time, the winner of which will receive the title of Mastersinger, along with Paula’s hand in marriage (and a big, fat bonus check!).
This does not sit well with Clay, who bites his nails and paces up and down in nervous contemplation. Paula and Kelly exchange opinions about him, with Paula claiming he bears a resemblance to David Bowie. “David Bowie?” cries Kelly, “No way, my William Hung is David Bowie!” At that, William Hung pops in. Kelly takes advantage of his presence by flirting with him, but Hung feigns disinterest. He’s embarrassed by Kelly’s fussing in front of the other apprentices, who are all of South Korean, Vietnamese or Mexican descent, which is reflective of the growing immigrant and/or minority presence in the City of Angels.
After speaking to William, Kelly tells Clay to wait for the other Mastersingers, including Paula’s guardian, the rich and famous record producer and promoter, Clive Davis (Veit Pogner, the goldsmith). Aiken swears to Paula he will overcome his fears and win her hand, by hook or by crook. Paula can’t wait for the good news to be delivered later that evening.
There’s a brief interlude in which the shoemaker’s apprentices dance and sing while they prepare the church for the audition. It’s here that William Hung informs Clay Aiken about the many rules and regulations of “making it” in the pop-music world. They go through an endless litany of melodies, tones, names, etc., etc., and so forth. Clay is overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion, but tries to keep his wits about him. In a burst of excitement, Aiken announces his intention to win the prize, as William berates the apprentices for futzing around instead of getting down to business.
“One last thing,” William reminds Clay: “Watch out for the Marker.” “Who the hell is that?” asks Clay innocently. The Marker, Hung continues, is the guy who can make or break him. If he pleases the Marker, then all will go well. If not, he might as well give up hope right now. The apprentices poke fun at the two young men, while at the same time making a dance circle around them.
“Ready or Not, Here I Sing!”
Their boisterous carrying-on is broken up by the entrance of Clive Davis and Simon Cowell (i.e., Sixtus Beckmesser), the L.A. County Clerk and all-around prig and self-satisfied pedant and vocal judge, as well as snooty record producer. He and Clive discuss the impending contest. Simon wants Clive to put in a good word for him, but he soon learns that he has a potential rival in Clay. You see, Simon has his own designs on the lovely Ms. Paula. More importantly, even though he’s already a Mastersinger, he lacks the “polish” to get ahead on his own, so Simon needs all the support he can get. Clive assures him of his patronage, but Simon isn’t convinced. He plans to take matters into his own hands, as we shall see.
One by one, the other Mastersingers enter — all eight of them — and all are recognized pop-music authorities in various guises. One man stands out from the crowd, however, and that’s Randy Jackson (Hans Sachs), a jazz bassist, musician, and poet par excellence. Randy is the owner of the biggest and most prosperous shoe store in L.A. In fact, he employs most of the hearty apprentices, including William Hung, on a regular basis, thus boosting the local economy. After calling the roll, Clive Davis expounds on his proposal to marry off his ward Paula to the winner of the song contest. Ah, but there’s a catch: Paula must agree to the match!
While the other Mastersingers praise Clive for his (ahem) “generosity,” Randy doesn’t think it’s such a good idea. “Let the audience decide who the best singer is,” he declares, “not us.” Elvis Presley (or Fritz Kothner, the rules keeper) protests this line of thinking, but Randy stands firm. Simon doesn’t like any of this either, but keeps his own counsel … for now. The Mastersingers put the suggestion to a vote and agree, at the least, to let Paula decide her own fate. As to the song contest, they maintain the right to choose the winner. Randy agrees to abide by their decision, as Simon breathes a sigh of relief.
Next, they hold open auditions. Clay Aiken decides to make his move. He gives them a little taste of his so-called talents, tells them who his mentor was (why, Nat “King” Cole, of course), and how he learned the art of singing: by listening to the birds. “I think he’s for the birds,” quips Simon in an aside. Elvis asks Aiken if he’s ready to mount the podium and face the music (ha-ha) as it were. “I’m ready,” is the reply.
Elvis invites Simon Cowell, the Marker of the day, to sit in the judge’s seat, turn himself away from the contestant, and enter his verdict on his terribly expensive iPad. Fussing and fighting, Simon pretends to make his weary way to his seat, grumbling aloud and complaining about how ungrateful the task of a contest judge is (yeah … right).
Finally, Elvis goes into a long and winding discourse about the rules of the pop-singing profession, while Aiken continuously bites his nails and picks at his cuticles. Elvis has a field day recounting the tiresome explanations for the varieties of songs that can be used in Clay’s tryout — a mind-boggling exercise for young Clay. “Ready or not!” shouts Simon, and Aiken repeats the phrase verbatim.
The Marker (Simon) gleefully goes into action and begins his “judging” routine. But instead of the standard cliché chalkboard, Simon Cowell uses his iPad, which is connected to a huge High Definition TV screen that’s been lowered from the ceiling, to tick off Aiken’s countless “errors” and “mistakes.” The sound effects here are the “tick, tick, tick” of the iPad, which grates on Aiken’s nerves as he attempts to deliver his audition song. “So what’s your theme?” he’s asked. “It’s love! What else?” Clay answers. “Typical!” is Simon’s snide response, as the mistakes begin to pile up in quick succession.
Angered and confused by the constant noise and interruptions, Clay makes a fatal mistake: he steps down from the podium and continues his song in praise of love from the aisles. The Mastersingers are shocked, SHOCKED by this action, but Randy smiles broadly at the lad’s gumption. Putting an end to the misery, Simon turns around and cries out, “Are you done yet?” He holds up the final tally, which is decisively against poor Aiken. Clay protests this outrage, but Simon defends his viewpoint by going into a pointless tirade about rule violations and such.
Meanwhile Randy, who’s been listening to the arguments, both pro and con (mostly con), slowly rises to his feet and comes up with a firm defense of Clay’s position. So what if he broke a few dusty old rules? His song sounded new, fresh, and in the spirit, if not the letter, of their laws. Simon is incensed and accuses Randy of outright favoritism. “Better stick to your shoes,” he admonishes, which is something Randy knows more about than singing (a low-blow poke at his music-making).
The Mastersingers, including old Clive, call for an end to their constant bickering, but Randy summons Clay to go on singing, flaunting his new-found freedom as the only Mastersinger who appreciates boldness and innovation. Clay does indeed sing. He flings his most insinuating phrases directly at Simon, calling him an old crow who wouldn’t know a good tune if he heard one. This goes on and on, even as the Mastersingers vote to reject Aiken above the ruckus.
Aiken throws up his arms in disgust at their vote and rushes out of the church. The apprentices jump for joy, as they dismantle the audition platform in obvious glee. Clive Davis is helpless, and motions to both Clay and Randy his profound disappointment at the turn of events, while Simon gloats to himself about his good fortune. “That’ll teach that young punk,” he mutters under his breath.
Randy remains alone onstage, buried in thought. Before leaving the church, however, he goes over to Simon’s iPad, clicks on a few buttons, then slams the contraption down and rushes off, more puzzled than dejected, with Aiken’s song ringing in his head.
(End of Part Two)
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes