07 July 2014

Julius Rudel’s Lasting Impressions

I met Julius Rudel several times: when I worked at the Kurt Weill Foundation, he was on the Board, and our paths crossed a few times later. He struck me always as serious and self-contained, his words and movements measured precisely to the circumstance. I’d have loved to praise him to his face, yet he really didn’t seem to require anything I had to offer, beyond a cup of coffee or the famous German cold-cuts that Lys Symonette brought to the office to serve to visitors.

Who knows whether, at 24, I had the words to express myself? Through his leadership of New York City Opera and his recordings, through his work with so many singers I admire — first and foremost Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle — Rudel did much to shape my earliest ideas of opera: not as a dusty museum or ruined temple, but as something vital. What do you say to a man who gave you so much?

Rudel died June 26, at age 93, and most obituaries noted his poignant reflection, “I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would outlive” NYCO; many articles also turned to his recently published memoir, First and Lasting Impressions, written with my friend Rebecca Paller. I’d read the book in a gulp and had meant to write about it here months ago, but got caught up in writing my own book. Belatedly, then, I’m urging you to read it — if you haven’t already.

What you’ll find are not so much insights into Rudel’s character or his personal history, nor even a succinct, compelling statement of the artistic vision that led Rudel to program wide-ranging repertoire, with a special interest in contemporary and American works, or to engage so many extraordinary artists during his long tenure at NYCO. Some things one does because they’re so right, they require no explanation. Does anyone really need to be told why a balanced repertory or a balanced diet is essential to good health? Yet Rudel’s matter-of-fact account can’t mask the revolutionary nature of his approach, one that has informed dozens of American opera companies in the years since.

Because Rudel’s economy in writing is so much like the reserve I found in his person, much can be gleaned from the subjects he chooses and those he omits, and how he treats them in his book. He writes of the effects of stardom, or the quest for it, on both Sills and Treigle; in both cases, the toll on friendship proved heavy, and in Treigle’s case, almost immediately.

Rudel writes warmly about his collaboration with Sills, and when describing her apparent collusion with a board member that allowed her alone to take over the direction of NYCO, though they’d planned to share the job, Rudel manages not to say that she betrayed him — but he does note that his wife considered it betrayal. It’s also worth pointing out that Rudel held his peace for more than 50 years, whether from gentlemanly courtesy or from an understandable desire not to get into a public debate with Sills.

The Sills and Treigle stories are remarkable, as I say, because there are few other tales anything like them in First and Lasting Impressions, and very little here that illuminates the character of any of Rudel’s associates. For the most part, the backstage account of his years at NYCO — which are, as he must have expected they would be, the most interesting parts of his book — consists of an almost dizzying recitation of operas programmed and artists engaged, from which the most famous triumphs emerge almost shyly.

What one comes to understand, as others have pointed out, is just how difficult it is to run an opera company. Thus, when Rudel publicly criticized the last director of NYCO, he understood the challenges and risks at stake: he also knew what it took to find solutions, and he saw scant sign of the necessary agility as George Steel tripped — and fell — on the path Rudel had blazed.

For me, Rudel’s lasting impression is first, and perhaps foremost, his legacy as a general director, in the form of a network of operas and singers that enlightens and sustains me still. Yet increasingly over the years, I’ve come also to appreciate him as a conductor, and above all the respect that he brought to the music he performed.* Many other conductors consider bel canto repertory, for example, singer-centric and artistically unrewarding: Rudel consistently found beauty and interest, even dramatic urgency, in the most rum-pa-tum passages, and he understood the value of singers’ own musicianship. Because I grew up listening to Rudel’s recording of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, I was surprised to learn that many conductors and musicologists disdain the score.

In Rudel’s hands, Hoffmann is at once sparkling and ominous, intoxicating and oneiric, very much the artistic masterwork that Offenbach hoped it would be. (And to an artist, is there a more terrifying theme than Hoffmann’s: that the Muse, which makes you great, is allied to the forces that will destroy you?) The long experience Rudel shared with Sills and Treigle, performing this opera together so many times, lends the recording richly theatrical characterizations — and yet when I heard Rudel conduct Hoffmann at the Met, with Alfredo Kraus, years later, he managed to create much the same magic, with artists he didn’t know as well.

Rudel was with Becky Paller the last time I saw him, following the dress rehearsal of Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, one of NYCO’s final productions at Lincoln Center. He was frail, and we didn’t speak long. But at least I had a chance to say to him the most important thing: thank you.

Sills as Cleopatra in Julius Caesar.

*NOTE: Rudel’s respect can be heard even in the recording of the score for which he’s been criticized as most disrespectful: his performing edition of Julius Caesar. With “Early Music” an institution unto itself today, it’s easy now to say that Rudel shouldn’t have made drastic cuts in Handel’s score, but in 1966, no one knew whether New York audiences would tolerate a four-hour opera (at least, not one that wasn’t Wagner’s), and NYCO probably couldn’t afford the overtime pay for it. (Special allowances with the unions had to be made a few years later, when Sills performed a restored edition of Lucia di Lammermoor.) It took a great deal of effort and imagination to bring Julius Caesar to NYCO, and Rudel could far more easily have turned to another work if he didn’t hold the opera in especially high esteem. Just listen to the recording: from the first thrilling notes of the overture, you’ll hear how much Rudel loved this music.


Daniel James Shigo said...


Anne said...

Rudel consistently found beauty and interest, even dramatic urgency, in the most rum-pa-tum passages,

This is what it is about: The passion...and if one has it, it can express itself in almost any vehicle.

Rudel certainly knew how to lead a world class opera company in his time, but we aren't in his time. Society today is not even as helpful as offering indifference.

Theses days the powers that be seem to enjoy shuttering art institutions and to particularly enjoy bringing down opera companies like hounds around a wounded stag.

A wonderfully written tribute.
How fortunate you were to be able to say thank you to him! I'm sure it meant a good deal to him to hear it just then