BEYOND THE VISITING CARD Donald Runnicles tells Carlos María Solare about his Berlin plans
When I meet Donald Runnicles at his home near San Francisco’s Presidio Park, he is halfway through the second of three Ring cycles at the War Memorial Opera House. The Pacific Ocean is just a few minutes’ walk away, and our conversation is continually punctuated by a counterpoint of foghorns. ‘I will certainly miss them,’ says Runnicles; ‘I might yet make a tape of them to carry to Berlin!’
My ears still ringing with the closing bars of the previous evening’s Das Rheingold, I wonder about the ‘visiting card’ role that Wagner’s music—and Der Ring des Nibelungen in particular—has played in Runnicles’s career so far. Der fliegende Holländer was his introduction to the Theater Freiburg, of which he was Generalmusikdirektor from 1989 to 1992, and when he first came to San Francisco in 1990, it was to assist Peter Schneider on the Ring. Because of Schneider’s limited availability, Runnicles was asked to conduct one of the cycles, then two, and this led to his becoming the company’s music director from 1992 to 2009. It was also with the Ring that Runnicles made his Vienna Staatsoper debut in 1993, and since then he has conducted it on an almost yearly basis. In 2007 history repeated itself when Runnicles was asked to become the Deutsche Oper’s next Generalmusikdirektor after conducting the Ring there.
Flying Scotsman: Donald Runnicles, who has exchanged San Francisco Opera for the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
‘It does sound slightly megalomaniac to call Wagner’s Ring my “visiting card”,’ says the down-to-earth Scot, ‘but I undeniably feel a great affinity with the music of Wagner, which I will certainly continue to explore all my life. It is bottomless in its depth, insight, and—for want of a better word—relevance. The subject matter of the Ring, in all its complexity, is as relevant in 2011 as it was in 1876, or even in 1848, when the young revolutionary rebel Richard Wagner was creating this vision of a Utopian world. The 1848 revolution spread to all the major European countries in a way comparable to what we are experiencing now in the “Arab Spring”. The questions asked by Wagner in the Ring—what constitutes power, what is capitalism, why are we here in the first place—are still pressing. A further aspect that comes very much to the fore in Francesca Zambello’s San Francisco production is the question of mankind acting within—or against— nature. Surely there were already many “Cassandras” 100 years ago who warned
Opera, October 2011 San Francisco’s ‘“American” Ring’, which Runnicles conducted in June: the Prologue to ‘Götterdämmerung’, with Ian Storey as Siegfried and Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde us about ruining our environment, but in the 21st century there is a heightened, almost ominous awareness of how fragile this environment is (and I’m not talking just about global warming). We are tenants of this world, not the landlords, and we should pass it on to our children in a good condition.’
Nature is indeed very much a presence in Zambello’s production, which has in several quarters been labelled an ‘American’ Ring. ‘Misleading or dangerous as such labels are in terms of awakening people’s expectations and leading them to imagine this “American Ring” without having even seen it, a lot of the imagery and the onstage projections would seem familiar above all to Americans. They tap into what constitutes American mythology: the homesteads, the settlers, the Wild West, the Gold Rush; all of that history is close and dear to Americans. The concept works very well indeed, and this is also the beauty of the Ring: Wagner wanted it to be a metaphor for new generations, bringing forth images and concepts to which we can all relate, pointing at the issues that face us in our modern world, and to our role in it all. If the Ring is the Mount Everest of operas for musicians, the same is true for directors as well: they must sustain a cogent vision over four nights, or some 16 hours.’
By the time this article appears in print, Runnicles will have opened the 2011-12 season at the Deutsche Oper with a revival of Götz Friedrich’s very different Ring production. Having seen it many times since it was new in the mid 1980s, I express my hope that it will be kept for many years yet. ‘We certainly have no plans to replace it,’ is Runnicles’s reassuring answer; ‘it’s iconic, and after almost 30 years it’s in no way dated or dusty. Although it is a very powerful interpretation of the Ring, at the same time it doesn’t confine Opera, October 2011 1165