By Rebecca Paller
New York City Opera welcomes back Julius Rudel, a maestro as eternally youthful as the company he led for 22 years, as he returns to conduct Mozart's Cosě fan tutte in October and November.
It's hard to believe that Rudel, City Opera's general director from 1957 to 1979, has been gone from the company for more than 25 years. Gone from the company but not from the public eye, as he's kept up a busy schedule guest conducting at leading opera houses and orchestras in the U.S. and abroad; spending summers in residence at the Aspen Music Festival; and every so often pulling a rabbit out of his hat to dazzle us with unfamiliar works like the 1999 American premiere at Spoleto Festival USA of Kurt Weill's ambitious, chilling 1931 opera Die Bürgschaft. And since the maestro continues to conduct so frequently in New York — luminescent performances of Manon, Faust, and The Magic Flute in recent years at the Metropolitan Opera, plus a steady stream of appearances with the Orchestra of St. Luke's — he remains a familiar figure to local audiences.
The years have been kind to Rudel — who was born in Vienna and came to New York in 1938, after Hitler's annexation of Austria. Today, at 85, he still looks much the same as he did in his City Opera heyday, with that shock of well-coiffed hair (now all white), the casually elegant clothing, and a spryness that would put most people half his age to shame. As he reminisces and pulls down from the wall a photograph of himself as a young man with famed soprano Jarmila Novotna and tenor Charles Kullmann at Lewisohn Stadium ("As a boy I applauded them from the fourth gallery at the Vienna State Opera — never dreaming I would one day conduct them in concert."), I can envision him as a teenage student, freshly arrived in New York, cutting class to queue up for standing room at the Old Met or — a few years later — indulging in his newly acquired passion for Broadway musicals (he liked Brigadoon by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe — "a fellow Viennese" — and of course anything by Kurt Weill).
In early 1943 Rudel read in the morning paper about the formation of the City Center of Music and Drama — to be housed in the former Mecca Temple (a 3,000-seat auditorium that the City of New York inherited from the Shriners after nonpayment of taxes). He made a beeline for the rather shabby building on West 55th Street, walking in without an appointment. Even then he projected an air of calm authority.
"Was I nervous? No, I was too dumb to be nervous! I had barely finished getting my diploma at Mannes [College of Music], but I figured that if [Mayor Fiorello] LaGuardia was involved in the undertaking, the opera would be good," Rudel recalls.
New York City Opera's first general director, conductor László Halász, was impressed with Rudel and promptly signed him on as a rehearsal pianist at a salary of $50 a week, "with the promise that I could conduct a performance as a reward."
"Those first days at City Opera were a real eye-opener," says Rudel, who accompanied everyone who auditioned, including then-soprano Regina Resnik and mezzo Martha Lipton, who were cast in the company's first productions (Resnik in Carmen — as Frasquita one night and Micaëla another; Lipton as Nancy in Martha). "It was very intense yet there was no nastiness, no backbiting. The war was on and the company was a marvelous blend of talented newcomers seasoned with more mature artists. Dusolina Giannini, an established star, was our opening night Tosca, and we had wonderful singers like George Czaplicki [Scarpia in the inaugural Tosca] and Vasso Argyris" — Bacchus in City Opera's 1946 American premiere of Ariadne auf Naxos, a huge success that put the company on the map.
And yes, Rudel got his promised "reward" in the Fall 1944 season and made his debut conducting The Gypsy Baron with Marguerite Piazza and Emile Renan. "It was a sink or swim operation. Most of my regular repertory I first conducted without a stage rehearsal. I found it a very exciting way to work."
Among the other "bones thrown his way" were scattered performances of standard fare (Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, Madama Butterfly) plus contemporary fare like Menotti's Amelia Goes to the Ball in 1948 and the final performance of William Grant Still's Troubled Island in 1949 — the first of City Opera's 28 world premieres.
Throughout the regimes of Halász and his successor, conductor Joseph Rosenstock (general director from 1951-1956), Rudel was given more and more administrative work to do, including setting up the complex rehearsal schedules. In late 1956 the company was in financial shambles after the next general director, conductor Erich Leinsdorf, had presided over a too-ambitious fall season ("an experiment, where every production was done on the same concentric turntable — totally unworkable"). As the company's board considered possible candidates to fill the general directorship, they received a petition from members of the company asking them to appoint someone who had grown up within the ranks: Rudel. His opening night production in fall 1957 was Turandot, starring the great American soprano Frances Yeend. Howard Taubman of The New York Times praised Rudel's conducting and concluded, "Let us hope this cohesive and glowing Turandot is but the first proof of his magic."
The following spring Rudel began a bold initiative that would prove to be an unprecedented landmark in the history of American opera: City Opera's legendary "American Seasons."
"The first American Season was really Morton Baum's doing," said Rudel, referring to the brilliant lawyer and former alderman who — with City Council president Newbold Morris — was the early driving force behind City Center.
"Baum knew Mac Lowry [W. McNeil Lowry of the Ford Foundation], and they often discussed the fact that so many American operas go by the wayside. Somehow we came up with the idea to mount an entire season of works that had been written in America."
The Ford Foundation provided $100,000 in seed money and the five-week 1958 Spring season opened with Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe (which received front page reviews and gave Beverly Sills her first breakout success, as well as becoming a company signature piece), and included Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, conducted by the composer. City Opera also presented the world premiere of a work that has since found its way into the international repertoire: Kurka's punch-packing satire The Good Soldier Schweik, conducted by Rudel and directed by Carmen Capalbo, who had helmed the hit 1954 Off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera starring Lotte Lenya. Rudel brought two other new stage directors to City Opera that spring: José Quintero, who staged Weill's Lost in the Stars (conducted by Rudel, with a young Shirley Verrett as Irina), and Frank Corsaro, who directed a new production of Floyd's Susannah starring soprano Phyllis Curtin and then long reigned as the company's most innovative director. (His classic 1975 Die tote Stadt returned to the repertory last month, with Corsaro again at the helm.)
For the world premiere of Hugo Weisgall's Six Characters in Search of an Author in Spring 1959, Rudel hired William Ball, whose direction of an Off-Broadway production of Chekhov's Ivanov had impressed the conductor with its "operatic quality." He also invited Ball to direct the company's very first production of Cosě fan tutte — which became the runaway hit of the fall 1959 season.
"Although it was in English, even the Europeans found it interesting and stylish. What a cast — Phyllis Curtin, Frances Bible, John Reardon, John Alexander, Judith Raskin, and James Pease — they were all wonderful.
"In some ways Cosě seems almost naďve and simplistic. But if you listen to the music, it gives you such depth of emotions — and even the funny things have weight," says Rudel. "And it's the most sophisticated of librettos — a real Sondheim type of libretto, dealing with [relationships] and large issues."
Soprano Phyllis Curtin, who was Fiordiligi in that historic City Opera production, recalls, "It was a lovely performance, so well rehearsed. I've known Julius for a long time, so he won't mind if I say that by the time we were on the stage I was so wonderfully unaware of him! And Bill Ball, though he came from the spoken theater, took the time to learn that the direction comes from the music."
Curtin and so many other City Opera alumni still speak of the collegiality and the "family feeling" that existed at the company. During Rudel's tenure a group of distinguished singing actors — Norman Treigle, Frances Bible, Chester Ludgin, and Patricia Brooks — chose to spend their entire New York stage careers with the company, and another type of loyalty kept bringing singers like Sills and Sherrill Milnes back to perform long after they were commanding large fees at the international houses. Sills has frequently spoken about the joy of rehearsing new productions with Rudel and the almost telepathic relationship she had with him during performances — "he seemed able to pre-guess me by about five seconds."
Throughout the 1960s Rudel continued to expand the company's repertory with several more world premieres, notably Robert Ward's The Crucible and Jack Beeson's Lizzie Borden, and with pioneering international fare like Shostakovich's Katerina Ismailova (the Khrushchev-era revision of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, in its New York premiere) and the first American performance of Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel.
Rudel also led the company uptown to modern quarters in February 1966, inaugurating its new home, the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, with the North American premiere of Ginastera's Don Rodrigo. The twelve-tone opera about the doomed eighth-century Spanish king won kudos for conductor Rudel, director Tito Capobianco (whose creative productions were a hallmark of the company in the 1960s and 1970s), designer Ming Cho Lee, and the rising tenor Plácido Domingo.
In fall 1966 Rudel scored another coup by mounting a dazzling opening night production of Handel's Giulio Cesare for Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle mere days after the Metropolitan Opera had opened its new house with Barber's less-than-awe-inspiring Antony and Cleopatra.
Giulio Cesare, with its vocal fireworks, was a phenomenal success for the company — as was Treigle's stunning star turn three years later in Mefistofele and Sills's amazing performances in the Donizetti "Tudor Trilogy" the following decade. But Rudel also treasures the less flashy successes of his era. During the first performance of the new Corsaro production of Pelléas and Mélisande in 1970 (with Patricia Brooks and André Jobin), he initially sensed the audience was uninterested. "There was lots of coughing and moving around. Then after the first orchestral interlude, I felt the interest increase, and the performance took off." The production was revived several times.
During Rudel's 22-year-tenure as general director, he oversaw 15 world premieres of operas by American composers, as well as countless debuts for major singers, and a sharpening theatrical sophistication for the company. Looking back today, he views his City Opera legacy as "the recognition that America has great talent — in performers, in composers and librettists and directors — and we must give them a chance.
"My dream when I was young was just to conduct," Rudel once said. He's been doing that and so much more for the last sixty years — and now he's returning to his longtime home. It's so nice to have him back where he belongs.
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