Toronto Wagner Society Fall Season 2017: Notes on Our Programs

(Text by Frances Henry, photos as indicated.)

Meistersinger At Bayreuth (Video)

We began our season in September with a complete video showing over two nights of the new production of Die Meistersinger directed by Barrie Kosky and conducted by Phillipe Jordan which opened the Bayreuth Festival in 2017. This eagerly awaited production was shown on German television and made accessible to me by a fellow Wagnerian in Germany. It was a momentous occasion as Kosky is the first Jewish director to present this work and his very masterful and innovative interpretation recognizes and accepts its inherent anti-Semitism.

The subtitles were in German and this apparently put off some of our members as did perhaps the showing over two evenings. Only about two dozen or so members attended this marvelous production.

Tomasz Konieczny, Bass-Baritone

Our next event featured a Q. and A. with Tomasz Konieczny who was in town to sing Mandryka in Strauss’ Arabella. This wonderful bass-baritone who sings primarily in Europe was not known to most of our audiences but his terrific performance here was very well received. Konieczny had earlier indicated that he did not want to answer questions in English in public but we were able to assure him that I could translate if he spoke in German and our newsletter editor, Richard Rosenman of Polish origin himself, could certainly translate his Polish. As it turned out, Konieczny would start an answer in English but as soon as his thoughts became somewhat more complex he would hastily switch to German to express himself more fully. I was then able to roughly translate the gist of what he was saying into English and the evening went very smoothly. I think everyone present found it to be a very successful and informative evening. Now what did he say?

He was born in Lodz, Poland and at first wanted to be an actor having studied at the Film, TV and Theatre Academy in Poland. He worked in many films as an actor and director. Later he began vocal studies in Germany and quickly rose through the ranks and was engaged by the Mannheim opera where he sang many roles. Later, he began to specialize in the Wagnerian repertoire singing everything from Alberich to Wotan and will be the Telramund to Waltraute Meier’s Ortrud in Bayreuth in 2018. He identifies the Vienna State Opera where he has had some outstanding successes as his ‘home’ company.

Tomasz Konieczny.  Photo by Richard Rosenman.

He made some particularly interesting points about the relationship between singers, conductors and the orchestra. These relationships are very intimate because each must

understand and listen to the other. He has a particularly strong relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic because the orchestra members can look at the stage and the singers almost face the orchestra. He also noted that this orchestra sits very high almost on par with the audience which also allows for a very close relationship with the audience. He describes this as a ‘magical moment’ when all come together. This is not a power play moment in that it doesn’t make the orchestra play louder. When the orchestra are able to show their interest by looking at the stage, then you know ‘you’ve won’.

However, the orchestra can be very ‘fresh’ and mean and it is not everyone they like. They can undermine performers by playing louder. He also identified three style of playing with different conductors. Those they respect they do their best to play well; when the concertmaster takes the conductor’s place, they try to make it work and finally when they play with the conductor they don’t like and ‘make a mess of it’. He gave an example of Franz Welser-Möst becaming suddenly ill and the management could not find a quick replacement. They played the last two acts of Parsifal with the pianist-coach conducting the singers and the concertmaster of the orchestra conducting the orchestra and together they provided a ‘brilliant performance’. He was asked to compare Thielemann and Schneider. He described the latter as ‘old school Kapellmeister like Kleiber’ who don’t think of themselves as creators but as servants of the music. Thielemann whom he admires enormously is a creator. Conductors need a ‘big personality’.

He does not like modern productions and describes them as ‘a big problem especially in Germany’. He called them ‘kind of a terror’ and suggested that sometimes a concert is better. He prefers to sing in Salzburg, Vienna, or France. He also said that he likes Toronto as a city very much, had high praise for our opera house and enjoyed working with the COC.

Donald Runnicles, Conductor

We added an event in November to take advantage of world famous conductor Donald Runnicles’ visit to Toronto to conduct the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The TSO generously provided their help in making a meeting with us possible. We were invited to attend his rehearsal with the orchestra in Roy Thomson Hall at 1 p .m. followed by a private meeting with him in a small studio. Maestro Runnicles met with us for forty five minutes. Despite the daytime meeting a substantial number of our members attended this very memorable event and were absolutely mesmerized by this compelling and articulate man. I did not formally introduce him since the TSO had provided biographical information. All I said was we were here to listen to Maestro Runnicles discuss Wagner and before I even had a chance to ask my first question, he said ‘ yes, and now Wagner…” and off he went for nearly fifteen minutes answering my first four unasked questions!

Runnicles father was a choir master and organist and young Donald was introduced to music at an early age by singing in the church choir. He studied music and opera and began his professional career in Mannheim Germany as a singer’s coach. Now 63, he is the music director of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, has directed many opera festivals in Germany and all over the world and most notably spent 17 years as director of the San Francisco opera. He has also coached and conducted at Bayreuth and was assistant to Solti. His credits are far too numerous to list here. Suffice to say that Runnicles is a fervant, even passionate devotee of Richard Wagner’s music dramas. His lifelong passion with Wagner began for him at age 17 on a school tour to see a performance of Rheingold in Glasgow. He had only been given a brief synopsis of the story, neither spoke nor understood German but he was ‘grabbed into it by the throat..’. This experience led to studying Wagner’s music, learning German and exploring his world and the German musical repertoire as well as its literature. Runnicles is also somewhat unusual among conductors for being equally comfortable in both the operatic and symphonic repertoire but he does specialize in the romantic period where Wagner is supreme in opera and Mahler in the symphonic genre.

Donald Runnicles with the Wagner Society
Conductor Donald Runnicles during a Question & Answer Session with the Society. Nov. 2017. Photo by Jim Warrington.

Maestro Runnicles has some profound things to say about what the music of Wagner. He maintained that one of its most profound effects is that it brings one into another level of reality… into another world populated by gods, and dwarves and mythic beings. It is not so much an addiction in a drug related sense but the power of living through another reality. For five hours you leave your own self behind. At the same time, however it can affect and even help one in understanding one’s own life. He cited a few examples. He mentioned a case in point from the life of noted Wotan singer: James Morris. Morris and his wife had for some years of marriage yearned for children without success. Then, fortunately, twins arrived unexpectedly. One day at a piano rehearsal of Wotan’s Farewell, Morris began to cry because he unconsciously related this incredibly moving piece to his young twins. In another event, the Maestro held an audition of a very promising young soprano who sang the Liebestod without too much affect. When he suggested to her that she think of someone she had lost recently, the music and her emotion just poured out of her. Runnicles thinks Wagner is far more than a drug; it is, in fact, an obsession.

Maestro Runnicles continues to work on both sides of the pond and has no interest in retiring. He favours the new Regietheatre but only if a director is trying to tell the story in a new and relevant way. He also noted that Wagner always wanted new productions and he would never have been satisfied to see his productions done the same way again!