Die Heldenreise - Deutsche Oper Berlin

A heroic journey

From climate change to refugee crisis: Donald Runnicles, General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and director Stefan Herheim are of one mind: the RING is as relevant today as it has ever been.

Donald Runnicles, Stefan Herheim, what message does Wagner’s RING have for us today?
Donald Runnicles
I can mention one modern aspect straight off: the environment could pretty much be considered a key protagonist. At the start of THE RHINEGOLD we can hear the sounds of the natural world: waves and other elemental forces. Then we’re treated to an act of violence against nature: Alberich wants to grab the gold. Nowadays climate change is the big subject of conversation, but the issue has always been hidden in plain sight in THE RHINEGOLD.

Stefan Herheim Taking refuge is another big subject. We recognise Wagner in a lot of the characters he creates. He was a political refugee for years and spent over 25 years mulling over the RING before he managed to build a theatre and provide a platform for all the exiles and homeless in his masterpiece.

Runnicles Wagner is a child of the revolution of 1848, but you could think of him as a ‘68er as well. Not as a hippie, mind, but he’d have felt at home at a time when things everywhere were being questioned. He was driven by an inner quest for identity – as we are today.

What does the RING mean to you personally?
I never get tired of it. I conducted my first RING in 1990. I wasn’t married at the time and I thought I could relate to the over-courageous Wotan. After the wedding I started appreciating the love stories on a much deeper level. Then my daughter was born and suddenly I saw the ending of THE VALKYRIE in a completely different light – where a father’s got to bid farewell to his daughter forever. Once I was rehearsing THE VALKYRIE with James Morris, the singer, at precisely the time that his twins were being born. He was in tears and had to take time out. When he had control of himself again, he sang better than I’d ever heard him sing. People get different things from the music depending on the stage they’re at in their life.

Herheim It’s not just all the big questions floating around in the RING that prick our artistic conscience. Wagner’s aspiration to change the world also has something to do with it.

What are the hardest things to direct onstage?
Siegfried’s death was the first section of the story that Wagner wrote and he then proceeded in reverse chronology. Someone’s always explaining what happened before the current events – a bit like what you get when you’re binge watching a TV series. The temporal structure is a little strange. There’s a lot of stuff going on simultaneously.

Herheim The slant and significance of the story change depending on who’s telling what to whom and how. In the beginning the story is driven by things like lust, envy, cunning and self-deception and it’s packed with comedy. At the same time it encompasses the entire theory of knowledge and plumbs the depths of the soul to discover the true nature of love.

What do you both get from these four works on a personal level?
On an emotional and intellectual level I find they’re by turns disturbing and uplifting, shattering and enchanting, a confirmation and an irritant. Wagner shifts and varies the themes and motifs, generally pushing and tugging at them as if to explode all painstakingly constructed contexts and reference systems. Surviving all that is a true test of one’s courage, patience, intelligence and sensibility.

Runnicles You always feel in your belly what the music has to say. Sometimes you’ve got themes switching from major to minor key - getting dirty, as it were, like the environment. No one is impervious to that.

And how can the material be presented in a new way?
It doesn’t all have to be new. Grandiose, yes, but not all new.


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