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     Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews Donald Runnicles

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column - January 16, 2004, under headline, "San Francisco Opera's music director triumphant in Berlin."

How lucky can we get? Within the confines of the Bay Area, we have three of the world's best, most sought-after classical music conductors.

We have not only Michael Tilson Thomas presiding at the helm of the San Francisco Symphony and Maestro Kent Nagano working wonders as conductor of the Berkeley Symphony, but we also have ever-amazing Donald Runnicles, music director of the San Francisco Opera.

Runnicles has just returned from a major triumph conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on its own exalted turf. The often reserved German newspapers broke tradition and raved about our maestro's brilliance in conducting Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" last month.

Audiences were unabashedly demonstrative, as were the orchestra members themselves. The Berliner Tagesspiegel critic noted, "It is after all something of an upside-down world when our fabulous Berliner Philharmonic Orchestra turns around on its orchestral stage to applaud ..." while the Berliner Morgenpost critic extolled "Finally another successful conducting debut with the Berlin Philharmonic!" The critique ended by praising Runnicles for succeeding in "giving form to the contemporary relevance of the (Britten) work" and summarized with "At the end tears were not wiped away, but a quiet joy over the achievement of the ensemble, and the Philharmonic's lucky choice of Runnicles, nevertheless triumphed."

San Francisco is home

We here in the Bay Area can hear and experience Runnicles' dynamic conducting several times a month during opera season and off and on during the year as piano accompanist for singers' recitals and chamber music concerts.

Runnicles may be an Edinburgh-born Scot, but he has made his home in San Francisco. Before the Berlin engagement he said, "I think this is a wonderful place to live. ... I greatly love being at home, just pottering around. I don't like being peripatetic and flying around from branch to branch. I'm connected to the Earth."

His cozy office in the San Francisco Opera House is liberally decorated with scenes of San Francisco and snapshots of his daughters.

His voice warmed and his Scottish burr deepened when he spoke of his South African-born wife, Elizabeth (whom he described as "the girl of my dreams"), and their daughters, Ashley Isolde, turning 6 this month, and 8-year-old Tamara Sophie.

Named for productions

"They are both little San Franciscans," he said. "Ashley was born when I was in a 'Tristan und Isolde' production in Cologne. We knew that the baby would have to be induced so I came across in time to be here for her birth and then flew back to Cologne for the 'Tristan' performances." Hence, the name Ashley Isolde.

"We found out about Tamara just after rehearsals for 'Der Rosenkavalier' in Berlin back in '94, so we gave the name Sophie (the ingenue role in the opera) to Tamara."

Elizabeth Runnicles, too, has found fertile ground in San Francisco. She's an accomplished violist and her husband describes her as "being very active in chamber music in the area."

When I first interviewed Runnicles 10 years ago, he revealed that he met Elizabeth while he was conducting in Freiberg, Germany. "She auditioned for the orchestra and made a great impression, not only on me, but on the whole orchestra," he said. Shortly thereafter, she was made a full-fledged member of the orchestra and she and Runnicles got engaged.

Soon after that, the two moved to San Francisco and he began his job with the San Francisco Opera.

When he looks back over the achievements of the last 10 years, Runnicles said he feels "a little like a farmer who plants seeds in very rich soil."

A positive working environment, which includes good relationships with San Francisco Opera's General Director, Pamela Rosenberg, is one thing Runnicles finds so rewarding about being music director.

"I feel very supported -- we talk about everything and we plan everything together. I can only hope that we continue to be given the chance, as we have been up until now, of introducing audiences to new works. There is a pioneering, ambassadorial side to my work, my mandate, as the opera's music director. It brings with it an enormous responsibility with an enormous sense of fulfillment when we can introduce people to new music and they think after experiencing our 'Lady Macbeth' production, 'My goodness ... Shostakovich! I must go out and buy his symphonies ...'"

The Shostakovich "Macbeth" production came within a decimal point of outdoing "The Magic Flute" as the best-sold opera of this season. And the Messian "St. Fran�ois d'Assise" was the best-selling production last season.

"You just never know those things in advance. I suppose one of the challenges of the next few years is that we don't necessarily need to look to the traditional repertoire for cash cows. It may be that more and more people want to be challenged with new things."

"Now I'm not putting a positive spin on these things," he cautioned. "This is not spin; these are facts. And what does that tell us? That people feel they're being given as good as it gets."

'A real love affair'

Ten years ago, his goal was to conduct more Wagner operas. Since then he has been in the Bayreuth Festival and has conducted Ring Cycles in Vienna almost yearly.

"I've had a real love affair with the Vienna Orchestra," he said, praising "its stylistic idiosyncrasies, the burnished sound of the horns, the sweetness of the woodwinds, the muscular strength of its strings.

"All of this has an impact in terms of bringing that experience back to the San Francisco Opera Orchestra to work on its sound. It's extremely fulfilling working with the same orchestra over a decade."

"It's made more so in that I have a terrific partner in Pamela, who wants me to be conducting as much as I can so that the bond between conductor and orchestra can only deepen. It then becomes less and less work, because we know one another so well."

He also noted that he loved doing "Parsifal" in San Francisco in 2000 and having Nikolas Lehnhoff's mind "probing into the piece."

Although one of his focuses has always been Wagner, Runnicles emphasizes he enjoys many other works. "I especially enjoyed conducting 'Pell�as et M�lisande.' Fell in love with it, and hope to do it again. I've always been very happy to cover as broad a repertoire as I can."

"For one to grow," he philosophized, "it's necessary that nutrients be drawn from other things -- a cross-fertilization is needed. My German opera conducting is all the better for the fact that I've conducted Italian opera; my Italian opera is better for my having conducted French opera; and my French is better for having conducted Russian and Czech. Similarly, a fulfilled singer is very often a singer whose operatic experiences are informed by singing Lieder."

"Furthermore, I have changed as a person. Being a father to two young girls informs everything I do, whether it's chatting with you, working with my assistants or my orchestras, or when conducting an opera dealing with father/child content."

He recalled a recent conversation with the great Wagner bass-baritone James Morris following a production of Wagner's "Die Walk�re" in Vienna during which Morris, in the role of Wotan, had choked up in the final farewell duet with his daughter Br�nnhilde. It was the first production Morris had sung since his wife, Susan Quittmeyer, gave birth to twins.

'Lived a wonderful life'

Morris explained to Runnicles that although he had sung that role often, having children helped deepen his understanding of the part. "I've sung that role so often, and I know how to sing it," Morris explained to Runnicles. "But I swear, now, having those young children myself, and now imagining that it was Jennie that I was taking leave of forever -- it just completely got to me and deepened my performance."

"That's what we're talking about here," Runnicles summarized. "I think that within the past 10 years here, I've lived a wonderful life. I continue to live a wonderful life. That can't help but inform and imbue my music making -- for better or worse, I might add."

�1999-2004 by MediaNews Group, Inc. and ANG Newspapers

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