Nuremberg, inside the church of Saint Catherine.
As mass draws to an end and the congregation joins in a chorale, the young knight Walther von Stolzing, and the beautiful Eva exchange glances of love. The girl manages to be alone with Walther. She warns him that her father, Veit Pogner, has decided to give her hand to the winner of the singing competition that will take place on the following day, the feast of Saint John. Only those who have the title of “master singer” can take part. Magdalene, Eva’s nurse, convinces her own admirer, David, an apprentice of Hans Sachs’, to instruct Walther in the art of the master singers so that he can become a member of the guild and participate in the forthcoming competition. The church is made ready for the assembly of the master singers who begin to arrive. Among them is Sachs, the cobbler, Beckmesser, the town scribe, and the wealthy Pogner, Eva’s father. After the roll call of those present, Pogner addresses the assembly to confirm his intention of giving his daughter’s hand in marriage to the winner of the competition, but he adds that his beloved Eva must approve of the suitor. Beckmesser, who aspires to the girl’s hand, tries to oppose Eva’s right of refusal. Then Pogner presents the noble Walther’s application to enter the guild: therefore, he must give proof of his singing talent. However, his hymn to spring and love, sung with a spirit completely regardless of the rigid rules of the master singers, horrifies all those present, with the exception of Sachs who is unsettled by the new force of the song. In the end, the venerable masters agree with the censor, Beckmesser, in rejecting the candidate.
Evening, a Nuremberg street, on the corner between Pogner’s house and Hans Sachs’ workshop.
David tells Magdalene of Walther’s rejection. Disappointed at the news, Magdalene goes away forgetting to give David the food she had brought for him, and causing the other apprentices to tease him. As David is about to react, Sachs arrives and calls his apprentice into the shop. A worried Eva arrives and does not hide her lack of feeling for Beckmesser from the wise Sachs. Although the scribe is the favourite to win, she would prefer the widower, Sachs. He is struck by her words, but tells Eva that he is too old for her. Guessing the identity of Eva’s true love, he tells her of the disappointing result of Walther’s trial, irritating the girl who leaves in anger. On the street she meets Magdalene, who tells her that Beckmesser is coming to sing her a serenade. Eva is determined to look for Walther and orders Magdalene to go the window of her bedroom, and pretend to be her. Walther, frustrated and despairing, enters and persuades Eva to run away with him. Sachs, however, has heard everything and, when the two young people pass in front of his shop, he lights the street with his lantern, forcing the couple to hide in a dark corner next to Pogner’s house. Walther would like to confront Sachs, but cannot due to the arrival of Beckmesser. When the town scribe begins his serenade, Sachs noisily sings above him while hammering nails into a new pair of shoes. Beckmesser becomes furious, but the shoes the cobbler is working on are for him, and since he had complained about them not being yet ready, Sachs has no intention of interrupting his work. The two reach a compromise: Beckmesser will sing his serenade and Sachs will go on working, beating with his hammer only when the singer makes a mistake. But there are so many mistakes that Sachs manages to finish the shoes. Beckmesser becomes angry and the noise begins to rouse the neighbourhood. Among those awakened is David, who, believing that the censor is serenading Magdalene, attacks him triggering a massive fight that involves the whole street; calm only returns with the arrival of the night watchman.
The following day, in Sachs’ workshop.
Sachs sits in his shop with a book in his hand, lost in thought. He fails to answer David who is back from delivering Beckmesser his shoes. When the apprentice does manage to attract his master’s attention, the two discuss the coming celebrations of the day: it is Saint John’s day, Hans’ (short for Johannes) name day. David recites his best wishes for Sachs and leaves. Alone, Sachs reflects on the riot of the previous night and, more in general, on the madness that rules the world. Walther enters. His elopement with Eva has been foiled by Sachs, and he tells the cobbler-mastersinger that he has had a beautiful dream. Sachs convinces him to transpose his words into a poetic-musical composition, explaining to the knight the value of poetic rules and encouraging him to give adequate form to the contents of his dream. Sachs writes the text as Walther sings it. Then the two leave to dress for the celebrations. Beckmesser arrives and sees the paper with the verses of the song. He believes that the cobbler has written them for the competition and when Sachs comes back, Beckmesser in his jealousy confronts him. Sachs, however, declares that he has no interest in competing for Eva’s hand, allowing the amazed Beckmesser to take the paper away with him. The censor leaves, happy at the idea of being able to use verses written by the famous Hans Sachs for his song. Eva enters and, on hearing Walther singing, bursts into tears. She recognises the noble spirit of Sachs who, for her sake, has helped the young knight to become a true master singer. David and Magdalene arrive and the scene concludes with a quintet, a sort of hymn to happiness that is a prelude to the happy ending.
An open meadow, with the town of Nuremberg in the background.
At the parade of all the town guilds, each one with its own hymn, the last in the procession are the master singers. The most highly regarded of these is Hans Sachs and on his arrival, the crowd acclaim him. The competition begins. The first contestant is Beckmesser, who attempts to use the verses given to him by Sachs. But he is unable to sing a song that is not his own, and the result is so poor that it causes the public’s hilarity. Before leaving, the rancorous Beckmesser says that the author of the text is Sachs, who denies it and, to prove it, calls on Walther to sing. The knight sings his composition conquering the favour of the masters and the people. After a proud attempt to resist, he is persuaded by Sachs to accept the crown of mastersinger, thus gaining Eva’s hand amidst the general rejoicing