Wagner & Seinfeld: Die Meistersinger von Monk’s

Things have been silent on the blog front since the recent Wagner festivities. One reason, honestly, was due to somewhat of a Wagner haze I found myself in for about a week after the birthday. Silly but true. One thought I’ve returned to over the last couple weeks is an odd parallel between Seinfeld (my all-time favorite show) and Wagner (my favorite composer), specifically Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. It’s perhaps not poignant, but I think it’s worthwhile to share and hash out a bit. If nothing else, it can be my own little twist on the bicentennial celebrations. After all, there’s nothing like juxtaposing the composer often considered “too German” with the show that was originally considered “too Jewish”…

[Photo: Kramer attempts to hock some opera tickets outside of Pagliacci in the Seinfeld episode “The Opera.”]

I’ll be walking a bit of a tightrope here, as I don’t want to be either overly general or too deep in the weeds on both topics. Now for some context:

As Gioachino Rossini noted, “Wagner has lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour.” While I don’t agree with the latter sentiment, I understand the criticism. Here at the home front, my love of Wagner’s music isn’t fully shared by my wife. As she enjoys telling me, she thinks his music is beautiful and she enjoys playing it (as he wrote interesting viola parts), but she doesn’t have the patience to sit through a full work. Most of Wagner’s most memorable moments fall into one of two categories:
1. Leitmotif – melody, harmony, rhythm, or combination thereof
2. Lengthy scene or other extended period of action featuring an “endless melody”

It’s worth pointing out because, as you may have noticed, I didn’t mention either of opera’s most noteworthy terms: aria (song) and recitative (musical speech). As a genre, many of opera’s memorable moments are arias or recitatives. Wagner, however, melds the two devices. His hyper-focus on drama kept him from featuring popular musical devices that often stalled the plot and/or dramatic development. Because of this, rarely does one hear an all-out “song” in his works.

Yes, Seinfeld is often considered the greatest sitcom of all time by many outlets and publications. I happen to think it’s the greatest show regardless of genre, but that’s just me. I grew up with Seinfeld. I’ve been watching it regularly since before I was ten years old. My mom watched it on its original run I watched right alongside her. And that continued through daily syndication viewings and eventually on DVD whenever I wanted (which was and is often). I laughed as a kid on one level throughout the original airings, and two decades later I’m still laughing just as hard but now at its many subtle layers and nuances. Despite the series’s respect and loyal following, reactions to the series finale were mixed at best. (Many considered it to be an epic disappointment.) Since Seinfeld ended its run in 1998, fans (myself included) had been clamoring for some sort of reunion. Not only did we want a reunion because we loved the show and its characters, but many people wanted a proper resolution to make up for the original finale.

After Seinfeld, the show’s co-creator, Larry David, then created and starred in HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which he portrays a fictional version of himself living and occasionally working in LA after Seinfeld. Long story short, it’s a darker, no-holds-barred version of Seinfeld on steroids that quickly became and remains another favorite show of mine. Because of the self-referential nature of Curb, fans were occasionally treated with cameos by the Seinfeld cast in the first six seasons. (Jerry’s brief appearance, his first, in season four’s finale is perfect – he doesn’t even speak.) All the while, in the real world, Larry, Jerry, Julia, Jason, and Michael ruled out a Seinfeld reunion.

Now, what do the above scenarios have to do with one another? If Wagner wrote more full-blown arias, he’d probably have more mainstream appeal nowadays. And if Seinfeld would’ve done a traditional reunion, mainstream America would’ve had more resolution. Alas, both Wagner and Seinfeld delivered, albeit on their own terms and after a very long wait. Hence the parallel.

Wagner, severe dramatist and denier of arias, composed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a comedy that revolves around a songwriting guild and a singing contest. It’s also quite lengthy, lasting approximately 5.5 hours including two intermissions. And despite the plot’s emphasis on songs, the listener isn’t treated to a complete, uninterrupted song throughout. Numerous songs are sung, but they are in segments or interrupted if more complete. For instance, all three acts feature passages about songwriting, and therefore examples of good songwriting (from one character to another). But the songs aren’t performed in full. Instead, a verse or after-verse is heard out of context, or a more complete song is sung but is interrupted by another character (e.g., Beckmesser’s chalk, Sachs’s tools, or the vocal reactions of the “audience” on stage). Both kinds of scenarios occur in all three acts. In fact, at the end of Act III, right before Sachs’s closing monologue, Walther sings his prize song (“Morgenlich leuchtend…”) at the competition. Leading up to this point in the opera, the listener has been treated to bits and pieces but one thinks that he/she will finally hear the song in its entirety. Instead, Wagner makes you earn the aria on his terms: he intersperses the contest’s audience’s commentary throughout the song, breaking up Walther’s momentum. And when the aria finishes, the music escalates with the crowd’s reaction, leading to Eva’s response. Here is Johan Botha as Walther in the Vienna Opera’s 2008 production:

So, five hours into an opera about a song contest, the audience is denied a traditional, uninterrupted, full-blown aria. Instead, you get a beautiful song, broken up and delivered on the composer’s terms.

Similarly, Seinfeld indeed had a reunion episode in 2009. Eleven years after the series finale, it was conducted in a truly Seinfeldian manner. Instead of a doing a one-off special, as is the norm with television reunions, the plot of Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s seventh season was Larry David’s convening the Seinfeld cast and crew for a reunion in a ploy to win back his estranged wife. (And the fictionalized versions of the actors occasionally mock Larry for the original series finale, which he wrote.) And what happens throughout the season’s ten episodes is truly magical for Seinfeld fans. We see a (fictional) Larry and Jerry developing and writing a reunion episode for NBC, with the original cast once again taking up their signature characters. It’s not just the main cast that’s included, but also featured are writers, crew, and minor characters such as Wayne Knight‘s Newman, Estelle Harris‘s Estelle Costanza, and Steve Hytner‘s Kenny Bania. And over the course of the season’s final two episodes, the viewer actually gets to see almost all of the “reunion episode.” Between the (fictional) table read, dress rehearsals, Jerry’s whiteboard with bullet points hanging in his office, and select scenes edited with music and a laugh track, one eventually sees much of the plot, jokes, and acting. The lines between reality and fiction constantly blur, as some scenarios in the fictional reunion episode are based on events from Curb‘s first six seasons, just as Seinfeld was based on Jerry and Larry’s real-life experiences as comics in New York. After a while, you don’t know if you’re watching the fictional Seinfeld reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm, or an actual Seinfeld reunion for the viewer at home. Genius. But of course this reunion is broken up, as you’re still watching full episodes of Curb. Once again, you’re on the artist’s terms. Here’s a little taste (it doesn’t include all of the reunion scenes, FYI):

[Embedding has been disabled for this video but it can be viewed here.]

But what would the reaction have been for either of these scenarios taking the traditional route? Let’s face it: five hours into Meistersinger, it’d probably be jarring to sit and listen to an aria dropped into the middle of a final scene. It wouldn’t make Wagnerian sense, and the dramatic flow would be thrown off, especially since Sachs’s closing monologue is right around the corner. Similarly, could you imagine Seinfeld just appearing on NBC on a random Thursday night at 9:00 PM for thirty or sixty minutes? I sure couldn’t. That would betray the spirit of the series. Why would a plotless sitcom whose characters didn’t emotionally develop come back for an out-of-the-blue, traditional reunion special? That’d be like a drama-centric composer who doesn’t write arias featuring one in an opera about songwriting. It’s just too easy. And Wagner and Seinfeld are anything but.

I doubt Larry David was thinking of Meistersinger when he developed his idea for the reunion. But the similarity, for me at least, is quite compelling.

It’s only fitting that I end with this recently-featured clip, in which Larry David and Wagner (including Meistersinger) come to terms with one another:

And if you’re really curious, here’s Ben Heppner singing an “uninterrupted” arrangement of Walther’s prize song:

Previous Wagner-centric posts here, here, here, and here.

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