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Interview: Donald Runnicles

Last autumn, the Scottish conductor took over the Deutsche Oper’s helm. His task wasn't easy: he arrived at a time when House Director Kirsten Harms was - despite very prudent policies - forced to declare a state of emergency due to lack of funding.

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Photo courtesy of Deutsche Oper

Last autumn, the Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles took over the Deutsche Oper’s helm. His task wasn’t easy: he arrived at a time when House Director Kirsten Harms was – despite very prudent policies – forced to declare a state of emergency due to lack of funding.

Runnicles’ Berlin appointment is, in a sense, a return to his first artistic Heimat. After studies at Cambridge University, he learned his trade in the opera houses of Germany, first in Mannheim and Hanover, then in Freiburg, where he was named GMD (Generalmusikdirektor) for the first time. Besides his 17-year-stint as Musical Director at the San Francisco Opera, Runnicles has been conducting regularly at the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He is also Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony. And when we caught up with him, he was rehearsing in Wyoming…

Your order books are full. Your diary can barely cope with all the conducting engagements. Why are you taking on another GMD position, with all the admin and politics it entails?

I actually very much enjoy not just the music-making, but also all the peripheral planning involved: choosing a repertoire, planning for the future, imagining how your singers may develop a few years hence – planning not just on a daily basis but also for the long-term. I derive great satisfaction from being a team player. Of course, in Berlin there are many challenges, not least because this is one major opera house in a constellation of three. It’s not a one-horse town.

What in particular do you feel you can bring to the city?

As a relative newcomer to Berlin, I hope there will be something of the sense of a fresh start about it all – certainly musically – so that I won’t be shot down in flames too early in my Amtszeit, and people will have a while to get to know me and my style of working.

Your conducting style has been described as “less is more”, “sparing gestures” etc. Is minimalism your creed?

It really is my belief that, when working with fine, accomplished musicians, we are there to let them shine. For me, the analogy is always horse riding. It’s all about the art of the well-positioned impulse: conductors and orchestras know the moments in a performance when leadership is needed. This impulse, once shared, imparts security and confidence to the players. Thereafter let it run: let the musicians play. They must not feel that everything is being beaten out of them. They are fully capable of playing without us conductors! So, yes, I am very much convinced that ‘less is more’.

So, first the trainer, then the jockey, and the use of the whip if required…

Well yes, we all know about the clichéed image of somebody sitting on a horse and squeezing their legs against its belly, expecting it to go faster – and the horse, sensing that this is not a good rider, slows down. We have all experienced performances like that in concert halls.

The Deutsche Oper is famous for its Wagner and Strauss repertoire. Are there any new composers you’d like to introduce Berliners to?

Well, I have defined new Schwerpunkte, such as the works of Leos Janacek and Benjamin Britten. For me, there is no greater opera than Katya Kabanova; there is no greater opera than Peter Grimes or Billy Budd. This is just phenomenal stuff. There is a great deal about Britten and Janacek that the Hauptstadt does not know. And it will most certainly be one of my missions to change that.

Is attracting younger audiences also a mission of yours?

Of course. Wherever I have been, in San Francisco or Atlanta, I have always been a member of a team that wanted to embrace the younger generation.

Can opera be cool?

Of course opera can be cool.

How can we convince the younger generation of that?

I think the surest way to bring a young person into any artistic enterprise is to create the feeling that it is an event, something ‘not to be missed’ – that if you miss it, you will be the poorer for it. I don’t even think that is age-specific. Consider what Sasha Waltz has achieved in Berlin – I went to the Neues Museum and saw that remarkable performance [Dialogue 09]. You did not have to know anything about dance or about the museum in advance – it was an event and it was clear that people wouldn’t have missed it for anything. That is what we must try to achieve in opera: then audiences will come.

Like most world-class conductors, you’re an eternal expat. Where is home these days?

I do not feel like an expat. It was my choice to leave home after college to seek a career abroad; it was my choice to go to San Francisco – where I have spent the last 18 years, where my children were born. Home continues to be San Francisco. But home is also where I am at any given moment.

You spent many years in Germany at the beginning of your career. Do you still feel connected to this country?

I think I can safely say that, culturally-speaking, I feel most at home in Germany. It is the special relationship that it has with its symphony orchestras, museums and opera houses – even during these difficult times – that makes it different from, say, the United States. I am excited to embrace that again in Berlin.

There’s a lot on your plate right now. Do you have time to relax?

I try to read and play tennis as much as I can. I like to take long bike trips: I hope that in Berlin I can ride my bike as much as I have in San Francisco. But I would say the most profound relaxation for me is being with my children – it is an extremely cleansing experience in the ego-driven world that ‘the arts’ most certainly is. A very humbling and equalising experience indeed.

What about the company of fellow musicians?

When I am working with, say, 100 musicians – as I will be doing this morning – it is not socialising, but it certainly means spending some very important, intimate time with a lot of people. So I feel the need after a rehearsal or a performance to be a little more private. Not that I’m a recluse. Like anyone else, I also enjoy a beer in the canteen with the Wagner tubas or whatever.