Runnicles calls for Scotland to be brave about opera

Runnicles calls for Scotland to be brave about opera


norman lebrecht

March 06, 2021

The Berlin conductor, Scotland’s most successful baton export, reminisces about his country’s musical glory days in the 1970s in an interview with Edinburgh Music Review.

He throws down a gauntlet to its present regime:

Since the beginning of time, the classical music world has perennially questioned its continued existence and relevance. Even though I remain optimistic about the future, I do share your concerns over ever shrinking music programmes in our junior schools. Whether it is the provision of learning musical instruments or the promotion of talented young artists, the inexorable attrition of music in our schools imperils both the general education of our children and the audiences of tomorrow. It is sadly only through the tireless advocacy of a luminary like dear Nicola Benedetti, that attention is drawn to the plight in the UK. If I can play a role as ambassador for our precious art form, I welcome the challenge! One final aspiration – may Scotland one day again take pride in and embrace a Scottish Opera whose international repertoire and renown will inspire new generations of musicians much as it did on that memorable night in 1971.



  • christopher storey says:

    I’d hardly describe him as Scotland’s most successful baton export – what about James Loughran ?

    • Peter Phillips says:

      Both fine conductors – no need for comparisons. Loughran did some great things with the Hallé. Following Barbirolli was always going to be a tough call.

      • christopher storey says:

        Loughran was also outstanding at Bamberg. I am quite fascinated by the negative votes on my earlier mention of him. perhaps someone would like to explain – if they can that is

    • George says:

      Why do people make these futile disparaging remarks? It adds nothing of value.

    • Nick2 says:

      With respect, Loughran was nowhere close to the level of Sir Donald – or Sir Alexander Gibson for that matter. He was a fine conductor but rarely reached the heights.

      I recall hearing him in a concert in the mid-1980s in Hong Kong with the Vienna Symphony. It was the first concert on a tour that was to be mostly in Japan. Beethoven 5 was in the repertoire and I suspect as everyone knew it so well it had had little rehearsal compared to the other works. Whatever, it is the only time I heard the symphony start “TA-TA-TA-TAAAA”! That a conductor cannot start Beethoven 5 was extraordinary.

    • Nick2 says:

      Apologies! In my earlier post I should have written TA-TA-TA-TA-TAAAA!!

  • Allen says:

    “…the classical music world has perennially questioned its continued existence and relevance”

    In the UK, anyway.

    If the classical music world cannot demonstrate confidence in its own worth, nobody else will believe in it.

  • Maria says:

    I was in Scottish Opera Chorus in the 80s with the odd outstanding show of international singers and conductors, But it was a financial disaster and an unhappy place to work, so I left after 18 months. The 70s were quite something else and they have a lot to be proud of. Don’t think Scottish Opera even have a full-time chorus anymore but use freelancers when needed? May be wrong?

    • Nick2 says:

      I wonder if the problems encountered in the 1980s were primarily financial. In his biography ‘Alex’, the critic and author Conrad Wilson suggests that the Board of the company was in large part to blame by successively appointing two producers to the post of General Administrator when what the company desperately needed was an experienced administrator who would spend all his time managing the company.

      Instead, a sort of collective madness overtook the Board after Hemmings departure which seemed to lead to a lot of bad feeling in the company. Peter Ebert was appointed but he was a producer who still produced operas even in his management role. He had certainly been the Intendant in a couple of smaller German Houses, but there he would have at his side a strong Administration Director. He did not have that in Scotland. Not surprisingly he resigned before being fired .

      But it was Ebert’s successor who was a management disaster. How could any Board appoint as its CEO John Cox who had absolutely zero experience in managing any company. And after the semi disaster of having in Peter Ebert a manager who also produced, absolutely the same mistake was made in the appointment of Cox who was exclusively a producer!

      As Wilson points out, Cox was soon to become part of an anti-Gibson camp. Saddest of all was when he helped persuade the Board that Gibson should leave the company and his successor was named before he had even resigned. He was created Conductor Emeritus or some such useless title. In his last years he was saddled only with revivals of Butterfly and Tosca. I hope what really happened in those years eventually comes to light in an objective history.

      • Brian Bannatyne Scott says:

        As a) the person who conducted the interview with Sir Donald and b) as a singer at Scottish Opera in the early 80s when John Cox was General Director, may I categorically refute the notion that Scottish Opera’s woes stemmed from Cox’s time in charge. John was an excellent administrator. It was his successors who fouled up with the appointment of John Mauceri and then Richard Armstrong as musical directors. Alec was becoming ill and was not forced out. After Cox’s period, in my opinion, the company lost track of its Scottish roots and began to decline. I was not alone in being a Scottish singer who was not welcomed back to the company. Indeed, until illness and Covid prevented my return in the lasy couple of years, I have not sung with Scottish Opera since 1985, despite some success internationally. I am by no means alone in this sad situation!

        • Nick2 says:

          I must defer somewhat to your judgement since I did not know these years. However, I must also point out that in her book “It is a Curious Story”, the excellent Glasgow writer Cordelia Oliver actually quotes John Cox as saying that he had no knowledge whatever of Opera administration! Further, like Ebert before him, he was permitted to take time out to produce 2 or 3 operas a year – this at a time when the company was in desperate need of a full time experienced CEO.

          Secondly, another close observer of Scottish Opera, Conrad Wilson, squarely places much blame on the appointment of Cox for the rapid deterioration of the company and for his growing rift with Gibson. When the CEO tells the media that the Music Director is “a sacred cow” and new blood is needed, it was perfectly clear what he meant.

          As for the equally poor appointment of John Mauceri to succeed Gibson, this took place during Cox’s term and he must surely have steered the Board towards the American.

          Knowing some who had worked with Scottish Opera in the 1980s, Sir Alex was clearly consumed by the company’s continuing crises. But to suggest that he was pushed from his post after 25 years because he was ill is, I’m sorry to say, plainly not the case.

          • Brian Bannatyne Scott says:

            You are indeed correct to point out that the appointment of Mauceri came about at the end of John Cox’s regime, and was a mistake. This happened after I left in 1985, and so I didn’t have direct experience of the events. It may be that John Cox was already looking for new ventures and was not as committed to the company as one might have hoped. Whatever the reasons, the departure of Alec was a huge disaster for Scottish Opera from which it took decades to recover and many would say has yet to recover. My purpose in replying to your original comment was largely to defend Mr Cox’s worth as an administrator,, from my experience. The shows I took part in from 82 to 85 demonstrated a reasonable grasp of organisation and joined up casting. He did indeed have time off to fulfil his own directorial work, but I never felt he was neglecting the company. For me, watching from the outside after leaving and moving to London in 1985, the company, for whatever reason, made the disastrous decision to become “International” and to cut itself off from its roots as a Scottish Opera for Scotland. The chorus, orchestra and most of the soloists when I left, were largely Scottish or at least Scottish based. They were seen by the core audience as products of the Scottish system and this allowed their audience to identify with them. The point that Donald Runnicles was making in our interview (and I would encourage everyone to read the whole interview on the Edinburgh Music Review website) was that our old music teacher at George Watson’s College in the 60s, Richard Telfer, was one of the Founders of Scottish Opera along with Alec Gibson and that their vision of a genuinely Scottish opera for Scotland had inspired him (and me) to become professional musicians,, and that vision, for whatever reason, has been lost sight of. That was the clear message of the interview- not to get into the nitty-gritty of blame which you and I have inadvertently sparked off! It’s that vision of a genuinely Scottish company, and I don’t want to put words in Donald’s mouth here, from his position as one of the world’s finest conductors, that he is in a privileged position to look for. Similarly, I would like to think that no-one could begrudge Donald’s status as one of the best conductors ever to emerge from Scotland as his CV is magnificent, ranging from early positions as GMD in Germany, conducting at Bayreuth and the Met, Music Director of San Francisco Opera, chief conductor of the BBCSSO and presently, General Music. Director of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. Pretty impressive, I’d say, and he has remained a genuinely nice guy. Sorry to ramble on, but I really hope that this interview can inspire rather than provoke. We all need inspiration at this difficult time for the Arts, and indeed for life in general.

          • Nick2 says:

            I regret I do have to come back to you re your latest post. I have read of Richard Telfer’s major contribution and his close relationship with Sir Alex (incidentally I never heard of anyone calling him Alec). I also have nothing but the greatest regard for Sir Donald whose cv as you suggest is indeed mighty impressive. I have been to the wonderful Grand Teton Festival but not during his tenure there.

            I regret also I have to refute your suggestion that anyone can be the CEO of a full time opera company, especially one going through very difficult times, AND take time off to produce even a couple of operas each year unless there is a very strong administration manager who basically handles the administration. After all that basically takes a couple of months out of his year. The Board was totally wrong to appoint Cox to what was a full time management position. After all he was appointed as General Administrator, was he not?

            Sorry to keep this thread going but I believe it is very important that facts, not speculation, are needed. The reason I know that Sir Alex was pushed is not merely because this is what Conrad Wilson writes in his biography. It is also a result of a friendship I enjoyed with the late Morven Bruce whose husband was on the Board during the 1980s. Appalled at what I was hearing about Sir Alex, I contacted her. She suggested I write to her husband the Hon Jamie Bruce. In the course of our correspondence, he pointed out the Board had been persuaded that a new Music Director was needed to take some of the work off Sir Alex’ shoulders. When any Board is “persuaded”, it is the General Administrator who generally does the pushing. But Jamie added that Sir Alex would continue to conduct regularly and have his “pick” of new productions. Whoever spun that yarn to the Board was frankly telling an outright lie.

            I have to refer to your comment about Cox perhaps not paying enough attention when Mauceri was appointed. 1. If he did take his eye off the ball, that was gross negligence. 2. Negotiating the contract for a Music Director usually takes quite a few months. So Cox must certainly have been involved. Someone had to put his name forward to the Board. I read in Scottish Opera’s 50th anniversary book that Mauceri had only worked with the Company once – taking over tour performances outside Edinburgh and Glasgow of Otello from Sir Alex 10 years earlier. No Board member would be in any position to propose him unless his name had first been put forward and endorsed by the General Administrator. Even if others were there i in drawing up a short list, Cox makes st have been a major player.

            Lastly, totally agree that Scottish Opera should again become the company which Gibson and Hemmings developed by using the finest Scottish talent alongside international artists of the finest affordable quality. On that at least we are on the same page!

          • Brian Bannatyne Scott says:

            At last, briefly on the same page. No further comment from me, except to say that most people I knew, including myself, always called him Alec, which, certainly where I come from (Edinburgh) is how most people called Alex are called. In the great scheme of things, Alec or Alex was a great conductor, as is Sir Donald!

          • Nick2 says:

            Apologies, I did not know that Alex and Alec are virtually interchangeable. But I can not agree more about the two great Scottish conductors. Would that Scotland will develop more as time passes.

  • Patrick John Gordon Shaw says:

    Wishful thinking, Sir Donald!
    While Scotland’s Royal Conservatoire of Music may rank among the top in the world, government funding for music in schools remains appalling! The First Minister would much rather channel monies into an account earmarked for a second independence push!

    Whether Scottish Opera can once again rise to prominence after years of overspending is also a moot point! The luminaries who founded the Company in the 1970’s and the artists who then brought it such renown are largely gone. On verra!

  • Nick2 says:

    Like Sir Donald I also attended that 1971 Ring cycle in Glasgow. How marvelous that he recalls the wonderful conductor who devoted so much of his career to the two major Scottish ensembles, the Scottish Opera and the SNO. Many have lauded Sir Alexander Gibson who, because of the limited free time from his Scottish commitments was never accorded the international reputation he surely deserved.

    David Ward, too, was a quite magnificent Wotan. Not surprising given the he was chosen by Hans Hotter to study the role with him in Munich. I also saw Ward in the first cycle at Covent Garden in 1965 in Hotter’s own production with Solti conducting. It is such a shame that whilst his Hunding still exists on disc in the Leinsdorf Walkure, I do not know of any recorded performance of his Wotan.

    • olivia nordstadt says:

      Ward was my first Wotan – Rheingold in the legendary Solti CSO performance in NYC in April 1971. I also heard him as Bluebeard at the MET and in Billy Budd at the same venue. It is a shame that he did not make more recordings. However, his Wotan and Dutchman from venues such as CG, the MET and San Francisco may easily be obtained on the bootleg market – often in multiple versions.

      • Nick2 says:

        Can I also add Ward’s marvelous Friar Lawrence with Monteux and the LSO which remains available. I also happened to see that Billy Budd at the Met with Peter Pears and another Scottish Opera regular, Peter Glossop. His Iago to Charles Craig’s Scottish Opera Otello was the stuff of legends

    • Alan says:

      Nick2, have you tried the Opera Depot website. American, with a lot of very tasty live Wagner. I seem to recall a few David Ward performances. Not sure about live Wotan but worth checking.

      • Nick2 says:

        No I haven’t but will certainly check it out. Thank you.

      • CJ says:

        You may wish to question the legality of a site like opera depot? It is piracy. No money from sales goes to the artists who created the recordings in the first place. A number of their recordings were never intended for sale and have been copied from broadcasts.

    • Joel Kemelhor says:

      A souvenir of David Ward as Wotan — the finale of RHEINGOLD — was on the “Covent Garden Anniversary” album, on LP from Decca/London in 1968 and recently on CD from the Australian “Eloquence” label. Ward also sang Friar Laurence on Monteux’s recording of ROMEO ET JULIETTE. In the finale of the Berlioz, he sounds like a giant trombone.

  • GlasgowMuso says:

    If he would like to become MD of Scottish Opera, we would welcome that very much indeed. Of course, it would be a pretty hefty pay cut from his usual rate.

    • Maximillian says:

      What a shame that this noble Scotsman has spent so much of his life abroad, with “homes in Berlin and Wyoming” – with the exception of a period as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony. Has he ever conducted opera in a theatre in the UK? Was this largely his own choice (pragmatism, as he puts it)? Can’t blame Brexit for this, but ambassadors for “our precious art form” need to be here, not in Europe or America. Maybe we will cherish our home-grown talent more in the next generation…

  • Hugh Kerr says:

    Some good comments the real problem is that Scottish Opera is underfunded if you compare it to German houses or even Danish Opera. Glasgow’s Conservatoire is number 3 in the world but we need to ensure that Scottish Opera does better and uses the many fine young Scottish musicians and singers. Incidentally the interview was conducted by Edinburgh Music Review’s Brian Bannatyne-Scott who is not only a fine opera singer but was at school with Donald!

    • Nick2 says:

      At he risk of hogging this thread, Scottish Opera is surely underfunded – but then it was equally underfunded in the 1970s. That it could present 120 or more full large scale orchestrally accompanied opera of a very high standard around 1974 at a time when inflation was ravaging budgets – 25% by 1975 alone – is remarkable, the more so when every week of performances was given on an expensive touring basis. Today the company seems to present less than 2/3rds that number with a far larger permanent staff and for much of the year it is in its own home base.

      The fact remains that within a year of Peter Hemings departure the company’s edifice had started to crumble. As Maria points out earlier in the thread, Scottish Opera soon became “a financial disaster and an unhappy place to work.” Neither the Board of the day, Elbert nor especially Cox can escape major criticism for permitting this to happen.

  • Douglas says:

    Let’s not forget Sir Alexander Gibson and his immense contribution to musical life in his homeland.

    In 1959 he was offered the principal conductorship of the Scottish National Orchestra, a post he held until 1984. He also founded Scotland’s first professional opera company. (Scottish Opera gave its first season in 1962 at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow.)

    “During his career, he made guest appearances with all the major British orchestras and extensively throughout Europe, Australia, the Americas, Hong Kong and Japan.”

    In December 1998, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow opened the Alexander Gibson Opera School in his memory.

  • Nick2 says:

    Perhaps I can add that, as Sir Donald points out, 1971 was almost bang in the middle of Scottish Opera’s Golden Years. I believe they started with the glorious Anthony Besch production of Cosi fan tutte with Janet Baker and Elizabeth Harwood (1967?) and began to collapse soon after Peter Hemmings departure for Australian Opera in 1977.

    What extraordinary productions from a company founded only in 1962! Where did all the money come from to enable The Ring to be produced, for a magnificent Fidelio with Helga Dernesch at the peak of her career – sadly before faulty technique forced her down to a mezzo less than 10 years later – the first ever complete Trojans in the UK with Baker, Der Rosenkavalier with Baker, Harwood and Dernesch, David Pountney’s superb Die Meistersinger with David Ward as Pognor and Maria Bjornson’s outstanding sets, Besch’s quite lovely Merry Widow with the exquisite Catherine Wilson in one of her finest roles …. so many productions that thrilled those of us in the audience.

    With so much emphasis nowadays on cash, how was it I wonder that Scottish Opera in those days thrived when inflation was at near banana republic levels? By 1975 it was close to 25%! I’ll bet the Arts Council grant increases were nowhere near that level.

    Will the Glory days ever return? Apart from occasional outstanding productions, I fear not.