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First and Lasting Impressions: Julius Rudel Looks Back on a Life in Music

spacer By Julius Rudel and Rebecca Paller
University of Rochester Press; 192 pp. $49.95
 

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Julius Rudel has a great tale to tell. When he came to New York in 1938, fleeing Austria and the Nazi Anschluss, he was an opera-loving teenage pianist with no professional prospects, one suitcase, and seventeen dollars in his pocket. Within two decades, he had become the guiding force behind one of the city's preeminent performing-arts institutions. This engaging memoir is partly a chronicle of that personal odyssey. But it is just as much the story of New York City Opera, the company that he led through the most significant period of its existence. 

Rudel joined NYCO right at its inception in 1943, working as a répétiteur under its initial director Laszlo Halasz — imperious, deceitful and, in Rudel's estimation, only marginally gifted as a conductor. The salary was a pittance. In fact, Rudel didn't get paid at all for his first weeks of work: Halasz labeled his effort an "audition." Still, the fledgling company was an exciting place to work. Rudel coached, he conducted, and he worked out scheduling — an immersion course in the business of putting on opera. When he was handed the reins in 1957, it was essentially a last-ditch rescue operation; a disastrous season under Erich Leinsdorf had left City Opera on the brink of annihilation. Rudel made the company a success. It became a haven for new works, with a roster of home-grown singers such as Phyllis Curtin, Walter Cassel, Frances Bible and Norman Treigle who embodied theatrical values uncommon to the opera stage.

But one singer stands out as Rudel's Most Unforgettable Character. Beverly Sills was a company stalwart in the 1950s; the title role of Douglas Moore's Ballad of Baby Doe made her something of a cult figure. But her status changed in 1966, when she outmaneuvered Curtin for the role of Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare, scoring a seismic success and becoming City Opera's de facto prima donna assoluta. In 1978, as her singing career wound down, and as Rudel grew weary of battling with the NYCO board, it made perfect sense that she should be named his successor, but the transition was not an easy one. The Times trumpeted that the company was "ousting" Rudel; at a subsequent board meeting, rather than explaining that Rudel had made the decision himself, Sills remained "uncharacteristically silent." "From that moment on," Rudel writes, "our friendship was marred." 

Rudel's post-City Opera career has been a happy one. His guest-conducting stints have taken him to the world's great houses, including the Vienna Staatsoper, whose upper reaches he haunted in his childhood. At the Met, he has racked up an impressive 268 performances. But in the book's wistful last chapter, Rudel contemplates the melancholy fate of his former company, now a nomadic, four-operas-a-season operation.

As a good memoir should, First and Lasting Impressions gives you a sense that you have met the subject himself. The man we encounter in these pages is intelligent, warm and fervently committed to achieving excellence on the opera stage. He settles some old scores here, but although his words are frank, they are never malicious. The book has one peculiar fault: it repeats key facts from chapter to chapter, as if the authors didn't expect us to read it from start to finish. In this, they are wrong. Any reader with an interest in Rudel, in New York City Opera, or in the running of an opera company will devour it from cover to cover. spacer 

FRED COHN

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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10