Donald Runnicles is an imposing man, he stands tall and has a booming voice with a slight Scottish accent. Music director of the Deutsche Oper since 2009, when he arrived in the middle of a financial crisis in which the house was almost merged or downsized, he has attracted rave reviews for new productions of Wagner, Britten, and Janáček; and helped the house find its way back to sturdier footing. We speak for 45 minutes or so in his wood-paneled office backstage at the Charlottenburg opera house, interrupted by crackling stage announcements through a loudspeaker. Consistently modest, reluctant to talk about his own work except in relationship to the art others make, his focus on psychology—administratively, musically, and collaboratively—surprises me. As we talk, it makes more and more sense: I come to feel that he is in some way conducting me—drawing out questions, shaping the conversation.

VAN: Many conductors have four, even five positions, in addition to a lot of guest work. You’re known for having a deeper relationship with orchestras and opera houses—and seem to envision your artistic relationship with an institution as inclusive of the administrative; your concept of the artistic relationship is bigger than just what happens when you stand in front of the orchestra. Does this relate at all to your training as a vocal coach rather than an orchestral conducting student?

Donald Runnicles: That’s a good question. I’ve never really given it that much thought, whether my training had something to do with my interest in the holistic approach, which I think is what you’re asking. Opera is this synthesis of all the art forms. And I include the administrative; that is in some way an art form when dealing with artists. I’ve always been interested in how things work. My training was working with singers, then standing in front of an orchestra, being able to conduct some performances without rehearsal—being thrown in the deep end—and I learned a great deal from that. But I’ve always been fascinated by this German word with which I’m sure you’re familiar, the Gesamtkunstwerk, which obviously was originally used in a different context. Any operatic performance is a Gesamtkunstwerk, where all of the Künste come together.

I enjoy being a music director, I enjoy the administrative because it’s a means to an end. I marvel at what’s going on onstage, under the stage, above the stage. I love going to lighting rehearsals. I love how a lighting designer can turn a dark space into this magical fantastical space with four lights. Or two spotlights. I genuinely love that. I love make-believe. I believe that we all want to be led somewhere for a few hours, like a great fairy story, or a great book. You can travel in time, travel to exotic places without moving, and that’s what happens with opera, too. The lights go down and for three or four hours you’re transported. Of course as a guest you travel to great orchestras and houses but when you are at home as I am in Berlin you are privy to what works well in the house, what works a little less well; it’s fun to go to meetings where all the department heads talk. The whole is so much bigger than the sum of its parts.

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And the easiest thing for me to do in the middle of all of that is conduct. Conducting the orchestra, making music; that’s my training. But the necessary psychology, humanity, empathy, modesty that it takes if an opera house is to succeed, where people feel that we’re all learning for one another; that for me is the greatest place to be. Let’s say the curtain is coming down as it did last April for the last production of Götz Friedrich’s “Ring” (which the director, wherever he is, would have laughed long and loud about if he knew we were still performing it in 2017). We have just been on an enormous journey together. Not just those working in the opera house, but the audience who have joined us for four nights. It’s probably one of the greatest stories ever told. It’s certainly some of the greatest music you will ever experience. And most importantly, it is life-changing. We’ll never know this, nor can we ever know this, but I guarantee there were hundreds of people there whose lives were changed forever. It might be people who were listening to it for the very first time, or it might be people listening for the last time, without them having known.

Talk about relationships: I’ve been lucky to work very closely with the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus. And there was a book the Atlanta Chorus had, a book with many of Robert Shaw’s quotes about music. If he was getting frustrated with the chorus, if they were being complacent, he would say, “Ladies and gentlemen, you have to imagine that there are people out there listening to the St. Matthew Passion, even though you’ve sung it a thousand times, for the very first time. Imagine what that is going to be like. Equally you have to imagine you will be performing for a lot of people the St. Matthew Passion for the last time. It will be their last time hearing that work.” As a performer that’s something you always have to be aware of. Why do I like all aspects of the opera? That’s why. Because there you have the feeling you’ve changed lives, performed one of the greatest works of art there is, it’s unique—the moment that final chord has disappeared into the ether it’s gone forever until you start it again. It’s that quality of the music and of communion between the orchestra and the stage and the lighting and the greatest singers in the world and one of the greatest audiences in the world (certainly one of the most knowledgeable, for better or for worse) that makes me feel like I couldn’t have a better profession.

Something like the “Ring” is obviously so overwhelming that it’s going to be different every time you approach it. Do you feel that process is connected to non-musical as well as musical collaborators? Does that experience of you going into a lighting rehearsal and being transfixed by the stage magic connect to how you’re thinking about what you’ll do with the music in that moment?

You ask some of the best questions I’ve ever had in an interview. Absolutely it does. And once again you come back to the fascination with the art of somebody else. My fascination with a great director will always remain a fascination. I don’t know how they do it. I mean, I can see them doing it. But I always feel as if they’re seeing something I’m not seeing which all of a sudden manifests itself in somebody disappearing and a character appearing. Does that make sense? They tap into something in a person that neither the person themselves, nor I, are aware is in them, to go further than they ever thought capable of going. I remember back in 1996, doing “Don Giovanni” at the Salzburg Festival with Patrice Chéreau. I was transfixed. He had about a half an inch of chair left under him, he was right there with the singers. He would have his singers in tears. Normally that would be an incredibly uncomfortable situation, feeling a bit voyeuristic, but no, these signers were in tears because they were being pushed far beyond where they’d ever gone before—they were tapping into some part of themselves. Great directors see something that we mere mortals don’t see. And one of the reasons he elicits such phenomenal performances is because he was really meddling dangerously with them as people. The singers are crying but it’s not stop, it’s don’t stop, push me further.

To come back to the question: my performance can change very much not because I’ve set out to be faster or slower or louder, but because a director will have given me insights into a character that I myself have never thought of. Any conductor who maintains that he or she will always conduct the same performance is disingenuous. I know that my best conducting is usually with great directors. The “Tristan und Isolde” here, directed by Graham Vick—watching that get put together, watching Graham draw things out of Peter Seiffert, his vision of this whole story, the old-age home in Act III. One of the best Tristans I have ever conducted is this one in Berlin because Graham has touched things that are so moving: a Tristan who is getting older, an Isolde who remains only in his mind. We keep coming back to works of art: as I get older, as you have children, so many things about your life change, and these works remain. And this Tristan, I know, just in this last run with Nina Stemme: we were crying, Nina and I, when we came together at the end. Because we knew we had been part of something incredible. Of course it was the music, and of course Nina’s supreme artistry, but it was also Graham’s work helping us become the vehicle through which this music flows, so to speak. But at the end of it we realized how huge this evening had been. We were sobbing like babies at the end and it was not for anyone’s benefit. But it was realizing: my goodness, this production has taken us to a different place. You realize you’re changed. Invigorated. Exhausted.

Has the work begun on the new Herheim “Ring” for 2020?

It began in 2010.


We were fully aware that there was going to be a life after the Götz Friedrich “Ring.” And over these past few years with Dietmar Schwarz at the helm we have been aware that we will bring a new one but that we will not end without a very worthy successor. We’re thrilled that Stefan Herheim will be directing it, so in that sense we’ve known since 2010. Four years ago the first conversations began with Stefan. You may know Stefan has been approached by many other notable opera houses before us to bring the “Ring” and has for a variety of reasons said no, so we were expecting him to say no to us. But he said yes, so over the past few years we’ve been working.

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Do the things that you learn from one director come with you as you do the piece again with another director? When you conduct the Zambello “Ring” in San Francisco this summer, will you still have ideas from Herheim and Friedrich?

Yes and no. You would like to think that, say, once I conducted “Don Giovanni” with Patrice Chéreau it wouldn’t matter who directed, I’d be able to think and recreate it. But it doesn’t work that way. It happens in the moment. You can’t fake it. You can’t show up at another production with it. Each and every production at the Deutsche Oper, we hope, will be phenomenal, and there are some guarantees. But chemistry is never guaranteed. That’s why you get together years in advance to find out: Do I even like you? Do you even like music? Do you like this opera? Do you have a square you want to put into a circle? Those are all things you have to ascertain quite early. There are many singers who having worked with Harry Kupfer or Götz Friedrich or Christof Loy then go somewhere else and work with a less charismatic director or a director with fewer ideas, and will go into their vocabulary, pulling what they’ve learned from other directors. But it isn’t quite as red-hot, white-hot. In the conviction of the moment. With everyone. And let’s be honest as well: To work constantly at the level of Chéreau? I don’t think you could stand it. It’s unbearable. I’m being facetious. But it’s unlikely that every production is going to be that electric.

It makes sense that not everything comes with you. It wouldn’t make sense to conduct a Kupfer production as though it were a Chéreau production.

Right. And I have one of the easiest jobs. All I have to do is coordinate it all and try to get the best from everyone. But I have the music in front of me. I have everybody. An individual singer, doing it from memory, can’t just do their own thing. Because they have five other people, protagonists, on stage that they have to factor in. So they have far less freedom in what they do. They can’t just go crazy with their Harry Kupfer stuff because nobody else knows what they’re doing. There’s an element of pragmatically, realistically, falling back on what will work for everybody, which makes the very special moments unforgettable.

Photo © Pablo Castagnola
Photo © Pablo Castagnola

It’s interesting. You’re very modest about what I think a lot of people would assume is the meat of your work, standing and conducting. You seem to view it more in terms of coordination, you keep calling it “easy.”

Well, it’s easy only insofar as I have the music in front of me. That’s my profession. I should know how to conduct an orchestra. I know how to be clear, I can conduct soloists. It’s less knowing the music and more about giving each and every person the feeling that they have a degree of freedom even though you have a hundred people in the pit and an 80-person chorus on stage and soloists. You’re doing a “Lohengrin,” the Act I finale: even though I have to coordinate I also have to give each and every person, because each and every person is a soloist who wants to express themselves through music, it’s my ambition to give each and every person the feeling that they are expressing themselves personally. Much the way a director in great work with the chorus gives each and every person, even though you have 24 sopranos, the feeling that each is channeling something in them personally. The feeling that I’m touched by what you say to me even though 23 other people are doing it alongside. And I think that becomes the harder thing. It’s not the physics of conducting, it’s the psychological component.

I don’t want to make myself sound like a brilliant psychologist, but what I mean is that the physical doing this [waves hands] is the easiest part. It’s a question of what you are conveying with that. Which can’t just be this is one and this is two and this is three, but with that conveying a mood or a character without being able to say anything. Easy is a facile word to use. But when you think of it, a conductor is a completely silent role. If you were to get in the first row close to me you would probably hear some extraneous noises, but ultimately one has to quite literally bring the best music out of everybody. And your role is purely to do that. This part [waves hands] should be easy. This part [taps head] is harder.

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When you find yourself in front of a new orchestra, what’s the first thing you have to figure out about them?

Who’s in charge. An orchestra is a metaphor for life. There are the normal law-abiding citizens, there’s a police force, there are mischief-makers. It’s like a little town. And there are those who are passive, and those who are active. You work that out over a number of rehearsals, but you do have a feeling that there are always certain people in any orchestra, who occupy different positions, to whom others look to find out if they’re enjoying a conductor or not. That may sound a little strange, but an orchestra is an entity, a collective; and a really great orchestra have lived together for a long time and they develop their own personalities. It can and will sometimes go completely independent. If it doesn’t work with any given conductor, a good orchestra is in a position to exclude that person, politely, respectfully, and fall back on themselves. There’s an inner discipline, inner authority.

Beyond that the most important thing I tell every young conductor working with a new orchestra is: don’t interrupt. Listen to them. Genuinely listen to them. Listen to how they play something, listen to how they respond to you. Before you start interrupting and telling them what you’d like them to do, find out what they can do by themselves. And I don’t mean that condescendingly. If I go to an orchestra the first thing that I will do is read a movement of something without interrupting. They have a chance to get to know me and I have a chance to get to know them. Do they play early or late? Do they do something independently? Sometimes you’ll find a young conductor goes in and after 45 seconds feels they need to establish authority and stop and move a crescendo or something. And there’s a good chance the conductor has lost the orchestra. They make up their mind in the first 45 seconds. Minute and a half. That may sound glib. But you get on a horse, and that’ll take you. 45 seconds or less to know who’s in charge. And you have to have a certain humility. You make no sound at all. They do everything. So listen to them. ¶

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Ben Miller is a writer and historian, an opera queen, a regular contributor to the New York Times, and, with Huw Lemmey, the author of Bad Gays: A Homosexual History (Verso, 2022).

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