Meistersigner’s Hans Sachs as Leader

I watched the Met’s wonderful production of Meistersinger yesterday. In addition to the program I was aided by my Berkeley colleague Michael O’Hare’s teaching note on the opera’s lessons about leadership and innovation. I look forward to Michael posting his thoughtful and original ideas about Meistersinger on his blog.

The character who most impressed me is Hans Sachs, the acknowledged leader of the meistersingers’ guild and the main protagonist. Sachs displays humane and mature leadership in several ways.

When the knight Walther presents his first song to the meistersinger’s guild, the other members criticize Walther for breaking the technical rules of singing and want to silence him before he can complete his song. Sachs is more open-minded and stands against all his colleagues in wanting at least to hear Walther out. In that he reminds me of the architect in Twelve Angry Men, the one juror willing to stand against all the others and, with an open mind, assess whether the accused was guilty.

Though Eva, the love interest in the opera, is passionate about Walther, because her father has promised her to the winner of the meistersingers’ competition, she may not be able to marry Walther. Her worst nightmare would be to have to marry Beckmesser, who of course desires her and who is a technically competent, if unimaginative, singer. Eva is attracted to Sachs, even though he is considerably older, and Sachs, a widower, is definitely taken with Eva. Sachs is thus Eva’s risk averting choice. Sachs, recognizing Eva’s preferences, influences the situation (by coaching Walther and hindering Beckmesser) so that Walther will win the competition, and the couple will be united. Sachs’s actions in this context remind me of Rick in Casablanca, who renounces his love for Ilsa so that she remains with Victor Laszlo.

In the last scene of the opera, Walther wins the song competition and wins Eva – his real prize. He announces that he isn’t interested in membership in the meistersingers’ guild. Sachs admonishes him and explains the importance of artistic creation to German identity. He sings that even if the empire crumbles, what will maintain German identity are its cultural achievements. This I take as evidence of a clear understanding of what was, from Wagner’s point of view, the big picture. And that too is an important leadership trait. (I recognize that this is a conflicted discussion given Wagner’s personal narrative, the subsequent unfolding of German history, and the (mis)appropriation of Meistersinger by the Nazis. That said, at the time of composition, when Germany was coming into being as a political state, Wagner’s emphasis on the importance of cultural identity strikes me as laudable.)

In Sachs we have a portrait of responsible leadership by a mature adult – open-minded in his assessments; generative, to use Erik Erikson’s term, in advancing the interest of the next generation, even at a cost to himself; and capable of seeing the big picture for society as a whole. There is much to be learned from him.

I close on a personal note. Commentator Rene Flemming (on whom I’ve long had a major crush) mentioned that Wagner intended to write Meistersinger as a short diversion from the Ring Cycle, but it ended up taking him seven years. The orchestra was conducted by James Levine, from his motorized wheel chair. What they have in common is persistence, a key word in the title of my latest book.

My current book project on narratives about private sector managers is taking longer than I expected. Perhaps I’ve bitten off more than I can chew (the idiom used in Sinatra’s My Way). Wagner’s answer, and Levine’s, is persistence.


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