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A place of serenity for my soul

Donald Runnicles

Donald Runnicles is General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Here he describes replenishing his batteries in the mountains of Wyoming and gearing up for rehearsals of von Zemlinsky’s THE DWARF.

Der Zwerg (The Dwarf)
Opera in one Act by Alexander von Zemlinsky
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Stage director: Tobias Kratzer
With Elena Tsallagova, Emily Magee, David Butt Philip, Mick Morris Mehnert, Philipp Jekal et al.
24 March 2019

We’re in Jackson Hole in Wyoming, 2,500 metres up, just to the south of Yellowstone National Park. Deep blankets of snow and minus thirty degrees Celsius. It’s a place that’s somewhat out-of-sync with the outside world, but that’s exactly what attracts me to it. My wife and I come here every winter and spend our time skiing and tobogganing and cosying up in front of the fire. As I write these words I’m looking out at the Grand Teton range, part of the Rocky Mountains. The peaks jut up like a huge, natural cathedral. When I look at them, I feel tiny. It’s like I’m surrounded by a wonder of the world that really has no connection to us people.

Music is always with me. When I’m walking in the woods it’s never out of my head. The music is simply there; I have no say in the matter. Gustav Mahler’s “Song of the Earth”, for instance. The song cycle is partly about mountains representing the hereafter. When the sun rose this morning that was the music in my head. It’s fiendishly hard to explain why such a thing as music exists. Maybe music is what we create when words fail us. Maybe it’s our way of articulating what can’t be expressed in words. I lose myself in nature and music in order to be one with the world.
I’m an early riser. I often spend the first hours of a day working, when the quiet is still unbroken. The score of THE DWARF is lying on my desk. It’s an uncomfortable story, all about prejudice: how do we treat people who are different to us, who have a different colour skin, a different identity? People are capable of doing evil deeds. I and director Tobias Kratzer have spent a lot of time hashing over the subject of why people write operas. Kratzer believes opera should always have a relevance for young people. To what extent can they identify with the characters, and so on? It’s something I’m thinking about, too. I love the music that Alexander von Zemlinsky wrote for DWARF. It’s very close to Gustav Mahler’s stuff, and the two composers were contemporaries.

I usually spend two months here in Wyoming in the summer. I’m Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Grand Teton Music Festival. We invite about 250 musicians to give concerts here over the summer. We play a lot of Mahler, some Wagner. I tend to favour music with a spiritual dimension; it goes well with the setting: you emerge from a Mahler symphony and clap eyes on the mountains and get a similar rush of grandeur and majesty to the sensation you’ve just had in the auditorium. I get nourishment from music and the natural world. After an intense season I use this landscape, the air and the light, to stock up on energy, because I do quite a lot of travelling. Sometimes there are tough situations to deal with, like when a director’s thoughts on a particular character don’t seem to me to gel with the music. In English we say: a challenge is either a problem or an opportunity. The key thing in my view is teamwork. I always try to be constructive – with the musicians, directors, my team, the orchestra, the artistic directors. We talk everything through until we’re all pulling in the same direction. I think it’s fair to say we’ve pulled that off quite well over the years. The months in Wyoming are a reminder of why I do the job I do: my time in the mountains recharges my batteries, simple as that.