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Donald Runnicles

May 13, 2009

In his extraordinary 17-year run as music director of the San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles has enriched the cultural life of the Bay Area. As a conductor, he has shaped many memorable performances, bringing forth Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs cycle, John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, and Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise with equal passion and acuity.

He ends his tenure — but not his association — with San Francisco Opera this season with a Verdi double-header. He conducts Verdi’s La traviata, starring Anna Netrebko starting June 13, and on May 29, the opera toasts his tenure with a Runnicles-led gala performance of Verdi’s massive Requiem Mass, featuring soprano Patricia Racette, mezzo Stephanie Blythe, tenor Stefano Secco, and bass Andrea Silvestrelli.

The 54-year-old maestro, who chose the stirring Requiem as his swan song as music director and chief conductor here, will take on two major European posts: general music director of Deutsche Oper Berlin and chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. He’d just returned from a restorative week in Kauai with his “beloved” partner, Adele (leaving behind the five kids, two of his and three of hers whom they share from previous marriages) when he spoke by phone the other morning about his San Francisco experience, Verdi’s Requiem, and the future.

You’ve had a great run in San Francisco, performing a rich range of music. What are some of your most memorable experiences?

What is most memorable for me is this long-standing relationship with the orchestra, this long-standing relationship with the chorus, and being really committed to the highest possible standards. I have taken the international status of the Opera very seriously. I’m proud of what we achieved in a wide and diverse range of repertoire.

In terms of contemporary productions, Doctor Atomic and the Messiaen are standouts for me. [Runnicles conducted the first performances of the former and the first North American performances of the latter.] The Messiaen was a landmark in the history of the company. It’s a vast, complex work that puts demands on the opera company unlike almost any work except the Ring. It’s one of the great works of the 20th century. What was also wonderful about it was that San Francisco became the epicenter, so to speak, of many events and seminars and recitals around the actual opera. It’s wonderful when an opera, or any art form, can feel central to the life of a city. And it really did feel central. The fact we had six packed opera houses is a testament to the audience here in San Francisco being open to new challenges, and a testament to the Opera for putting on that work. I’m very proud of that.

How did your tenure here change you as an artist?

These have been profound years for me. I have learned so much through my work with the orchestra and the chorus. I think trust and respect are paramount when it comes to building on a relationship. Over the years, getting to know one another, you realize that less is more; you realize how much you can achieve purely by the gesture, by the look of the eye. You can read one another so well without a word having to be spoken.

When did you first hear Verdi’s Requiem, and how did it affect you?

I was a program seller at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh as a boy. I’ll never forget the performance. It was Carlo Maria Giulini with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and, I believe, the London Symphony. It had an utterly visceral effect. You leap out of your seat when you heard those bass drum thuds in the Dies Irae, the second movement. That was the first Verdi I ever encountered. I was 13 or 14. I had no inkling I would spend my life in opera. Verdi, for me, was synonymous with the Verdi Requiem. It’s a staggering work. I’ve conducted it on several continents. When David Gockley graciously offered me the chance of having a concert to mark the end of the tenure, I didn’t have to think much, because the work showcases not only four great soloists, but showcases the orchestra and the chorus. It’s a supremely theatrical work, in the sense that it’s almost pictorial in its terrifying visions. It’s apocalyptic.

How has your sense of the piece and approach to it changed over the years, matured?

Every time I come back to a work like that, I try to learn it for the first time, to encounter it for the first time. I always find the more I work on it, the more I’m focused on the intimate things, on the personal, on the quiet. The large moments happen rather by themselves, but the more intimate, more personal moments — where you feel Verdi’s pain, where you feel a certain degree of autobiography — those are what you focus on more and more as you get older. Because we’re all faced with the same issues of mortality. As one gets older, and one is, sadly, more surrounded by the illness and death of loved ones, there are no longer the buffer zones of one’s parents. These things can happen to us at any given time. That naturally imbues one’s musicmaking with a degree of personal significance.

There’s a great, for lack of a better phrase, symphonic arc in the work. Not only because the initial Requiem returns at the end, but this feeling of the cyclical nature of life, beginning and endings. It should be like a profound journey. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, from the Four Quartets, we set out on a long journey from one place, and in the end of the journey we return to where we came from and recognize it for the first time.

Why did you want to present La traviata this summer?

Looking at the repertoire, what was appropriate, I thought it was high time La traviata came. For me, it was fitting that I work with Anna Netrebko. From her first appearance here, we’ve done a lot of work together. I’m thrilled once again, as my tenure comes to an end, to work with an artist who represents everything that’s great about San Francisco Opera. She was in the Merola program, and look where she is now. It’s not entirely due to Merola, but it does reflect how any great singer should approach their life and singing — give it time and work with the best. Traviata always reminds me of the park concert. Looking back, the [yearly] concert in Golden Gate Park has always been a thrill. It's a unique experience with a unique audience.

What do you when you’re not making music?

Spend time with the children. I’m an avid book reader, an avid tennis player, and avid cyclist. Right now I’m reading a long novel by Mark Halperin, A Soldier of the Great War. His prose is breathtaking. When I finish that, I’ll probably reread it. It’s that good.

What do you listen to for pleasure?

I listen to a great deal of Renaissance and early Baroque music, Victoria and Morales. I adore the music. My seminal experiences were in the church as a choirboy. My father was an organist and choirmaster. We sang all the Anglican services. In this profession, one has to have a large ego but ideally without being egotistical. When you think so much of this music is anonymous, written purely for the benefit of others. Music that was dedicated to the Greater One. I find it very therapeutic to come back to that egoless music.

Do you plan to stay in San Francisco?

We’ll continue to live in San Francisco through the Ring [he’s conducting the Wagner cycle here in 2011]. We love it here. We’ll be traveling a little more, and most likely move to Berlin in a couple of years. I will miss San Francisco.

Are there things you haven’t done musically that you’d like to? What do you see for yourself in the future?

I would like to do the things I’ve been doing up till now and do them better.

Jesse Hamlin has written for The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications over the past 30 years on a wide range of music and art, covering jazz musicians and symphonic conductors, sculptors, poets, and architects. He has also written for The New York Times, Art & Auction and Columbia magazines, as well as liner notes for CDs by Stan Getz and Cal Tjader.