I first heard Julius Rudel conduct on two consecutive nights in the fall of 1957, my first year as a graduate student in New York: Turandot with Frances Yeend and Susannah with Phyllis Curtin and Norman Treigle. I had never heard either opera, and his dynamic leadership as the conductor made a huge impression on me. He had joined the New York City Opera in 1943 even before the company started performing. He worked as an accompanist and played a spinet piano in a room at the New York City Center, as he told it, with one electric light hanging over his head and assumed the leadership of the company shortly before my first City Opera performances.
Years later after schooling and the army I came back to New York and vividly remember his opening the spring season of the City Opera in 1967, the second year in the State Theater, with Placido Domingo singing the title role of Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo. He bowled me over with the amazing sense of drama in his conducting and his ability to make even thorny music exciting and fascinating. Rudel also never failed to balance an orchestra so that words and singers’ voices could be easily understood and appreciated.
The next few years were the last years of Rudolf Bing at the Metropolitan Opera. Not to discount his remarkable tenure or the fact that the most famous international opera stars were singing at the Met, I remember the City Opera in the late 60s and early 70s as presenting the most exciting opera in New York. The combination of Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle, both in their prime, conducted by Maestro Rudel, brought to so many performances a total experience. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Coq d’Or with the two of them made this fanciful opera an immediate hit. I remember them also in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, Gounod’s Faust, and Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Rudel conducted many performances of Massenet’s Manon with Sills, still the best performances of the opera I have ever attended, and Treigle’s greatest triumph, Boito’s Mefistofele. The production of that opera by Tito Capobianco as well as the orchestral and choral sound he drew from his forces live in my visual and aural memory as vividly as in 1969.
What Rudel did at the City Opera in those years created a real company, singers who worked extraordinarily well together and enjoyed each other, played to each other’s strengths, and consistently gave the audiences evenings of intense theater. I recall the night in the fall of 1970 when Sills had one of her greatest personal triumphs, Queen Elizabeth in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. At the conclusion Treigle, every bit as big a star as Sills, was sitting right in front of me, and at the conclusion he leapt to his feet literally jumping up and down, cheering for the cast and for Rudel. The sense of community in that company at that time made great performances frequently happen.
As time went on, Treigle retired, Sills went on to the Metropolitan, and the thrill of those six or seven years faded, but those of us who experienced it will never forget it. Maestro Rudel retired in 1979, turning the company over to Beverly Sills. He and the New York City Opera were synonymous, and its greatest years were with him at the helm.
He went on to conduct frequently at the Metropolitan Opera and many other companies in the United States and in Europe, always bringing his perception of the music and consideration for the singer to everything he conducted. I knew him first when I was an editor at Opera News, then as a critic for the New York Post. He had a marvelous way about him of answering questions with great sincerity and saying exactly what he wanted to say on the subject in question whether it was responsive to your question or not. His very Viennese nature did not change because he lived in New York, and he taught me much about the fascinating ways of his birth city.
I have no idea what he thought about my being appointed General Director of Seattle Opera, but I do remember one bit of advice he gave me. There was a new production of Faust by Frank Corsaro in 1969 with Sills and Treigle. It was generally applauded with one exception. On the first night Sills as Marguerite walked up a flight of stairs on stage right. At the top was a grim executioner with an ax. The curtain fell as she reached him. At the time it seemed incongruous, with the chorus singing of the Resurrection of Christ and the very religious and effective music that ends the opera, and many commented on it negatively. When Julius congratulated me for my appointment to Seattle, he said, “I have only one thing to tell you. If you don’t like something onstage during rehearsals, don’t ever let it get even to a dress rehearsal and certainly not to a first performance. If it gets to the premiere, you will never be allowed to forget it.” And then he mentioned the Faust. He said, “I hated the executioner, and he never appeared after the premiere, but no one ever spoke or wrote about that Faust without mentioning the executioner.” I have lived by that advice.
Julius Rudel loved opera, produced it with joy, conducted with keen understanding of the composer’s wishes and the inherent drama in the music and knew how to get the best out of musicians and from those who worked for him. His opera knowledge, musicianship, and general intelligence, made him the very essence of an esteemed musician. I treasure my memories of him.