26 June 2014
Julius Rudel, 93, Conductor-Administrator Who Shaped American Music Scene at Helm of New York City Opera, Has Died
Rudel in rehearsal for New York City Opera's 1966 production of Giulio Cesare
© Beth Bergman
Vienna, Austria, March 6, 1921–New York City, June 26, 2014
Julius Rudel, New York City Opera's longtime general director, has died. He was 93.
Rudel was a conductor who commanded both style and substance. Whether in the classic French works, with his performances of Manon, Thaïs and Louise, or in twentieth-century rarities such as Prokofiev's Flaming Angel and Henze's Young Lord — or Boito's Mefistofele, which he helped restore to the repertoire — Rudel's conducting possessed a dramatic spine as well as idiomatic spin. A man who in person seemed to stand for elegant old-world European style, he became a more persuasive advocate for American music than many of his colleagues born in the U.S.
Rudel's artistic home was New York City Opera, where he began when the company was part of New York City Center. Eventually, he became City Opera's fourth general director, and under his guidance, the company carved out an important role for itself as a brave and tireless presenter of American opera. His tenure with NYCO lasted twenty-two years, during which he forged a connection with the company that none of his successors came close to establishing. He was an innovator, a taste-maker, boundary-breaker and, above all, a musician's musician.
Born in Vienna on March 6, 1921, Rudel grew up idolizing Gustav Mahler and watching his musical hero Bruno Walter on the podium at the Wiener Staatsoper. By the age of fourteen, he had written an opera, both text and music. He fled Vienna when he was seventeen, on May 25, 1938, carrying a ring and watch that his mother told him to sell if he needed emergency money. His family had secured him a visa, and he went to Paris and later to New York, to live with relatives and attempt to acclimate himself to American life. His mother and brother followed soon after. Rudel received a scholarship to the Mannes School of Music, where he earned a conducting diploma, and in the fall of 1943 joined the staff of New York City Opera as an auditions pianist. The following year, he made his NYCO conducting debut with The Gypsy Baron, starring William Horne and Marguerite Piazza. He became a member of the assistant conducting staff, playing rehearsals and coaching singers — learning his craft. He was also a regular presence in the NYCO pit.
When Joseph Rosenstock succeeded Laszlo Halasz as general director, in 1952, American work began to enter NYCO's repertory in a central way, and Rudel's role with the company deepened; he was especially happy to conduct a new production of Marc Blitzstein's Regina, starring Brenda Lewis, in 1953. In 1956, Erich Leinsdorf became the company's general director, a difficult time for Rudel, who conducted only a pair of Rigolettos in the fall 1956 season. (Rudel later recalled that Leinsdorf's season produced one solitary hit, Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, starring Phyllis Curtin and Norman Treigle.) But Rudel maintained a strong connection to the company, where high-level work was done with limited means; he later characterized this as NYCO's "baling-wire-and-chewing-gum-and-spit" era. In 1957, following the resignation of Leinsdorf, Rudel was named general director of the company.
Rudel lost no time putting his personal imprint on the young company. In 1958, supported by a generous grant from the Ford Foundation, he presented a full spring season of American opera, which included the NYCO premiere of Douglas Moore's Ballad of Baby Doe, the world premiere of Robert Kurka's Good Soldier Schweik, Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars and Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti. In his 2013 memoir, First and Lasting Impressions, co-authored with Rebecca Paller, he recalled, "Our American Season ended most successfully.... It was exhausting yet exhilarating, and we all knew that something special had taken place." He also presided over additional American seasons that included Gian Carlo Menotti's Maria Golovin and the world premiere of Hugo Weisgall's Six Characters in Search of an Author.
In the early 1960s, Rudel initially resisted the campaign to leave City Center and bring NYCO to the new performing-arts complex at Lincoln Center. "I simply would not accept the 'big guy' getting to call the shots over the 'little guy,' he wrote — the "big guy" being the Met's Rudolf Bing. Among other things, Rudel objected to the muffled acoustics in the company's new home, the New York State Theater. But when NYCO opened in February 1966 with Ginastera's Don Rodrigo, starring young Plácido Domingo, it was the beginning of a glorious new era. Rudel's triumphs there included Giulio Cesare, which, despite its chopped-up edition, made a star at last out of Sills; Donizetti's Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux; Manon; and Le Coq d'Or. NYCO had carved out its own repertoire, its own audience, all at popular prices, and Rudel exulted in being part of a new golden age. Under his leadership, NYCO's identity was never in question. He also served as the first music director of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (1968–76), of the Wolf Trap Festival, and of the Caramoor Festival in Katonah, New York.
In 1979, following a bitter and complicated power struggle, Sills succeeded her mentor as NYCO's general director, with lasting resentment on both sides. Rudel continued to conduct at many of the world's leading theaters, including the Met, where he had made his belated debut with Werther in 1978.
"There is nothing more deadly than the daily grind of perfunctory opera," Rudel once told a reporter. "Each performance has to seem to the artists to be the performance, a new opera, even if it's their 151st Traviata." His bountiful career is the proof that he lived by those words.
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