[This interview originally appeared in Opera Scene Magazine in April,
1983, as part of the series devoted to young performers. It has
been slightly revised and updated for this website presentation.]
Conductor / Administrator
Joseph De Rugeriis
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Joseph De Rugeriis, born July
16, 1948, was an opera conductor and administrator who died on Jan. 23,
1996 at St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan. He lived in San
Francisco. The cause was AIDS, said William Purves, a friend.
Mr. De Rugeriis, who was a native of Philadelphia and a graduate of
Columbia University, performed a variety of administrative roles in the
course of his career at opera houses in Baltimore, Chicago, San
Antonio, San Francisco and San Diego. In 1971-72 he was executive
assistant to the composer Gian Carlo Menotti.
He also conducted operas in the United States and abroad, including
productions at the Washington Opera and at the Festival of Two Worlds
in Spoleto, Italy.
He is survived by his stepmother, Virginia, of Philadelphia, and two
half-brothers, Mark and James, both of New York City.
-- From an uncredited obituary in
The New York Times (with
Since it began last year, Opera Scene
has had an ongoing series devoted to The
Young Singer. It is the opinion of the Editor that young
talent should be given exposure in these pages, and in most instances
we find that the youngsters themselves have a great deal of interesting
things to say. It has happened that through the luck of the draw,
the series has thus far presented nothing but tenors. So, next
month, our pages will be graced with a lovely and talented young
soprano named Michelle Harman-Gulick, who will be singing the leading
role of Yum-Yum in Lyric's Mikado.
This month, we are very pleased to expand the scope of our series on
the young singer to include a young conductor. Joseph De Rugeriis
made his Chicago debut last season with the Chicago Opera Theater and
their production of The Abduction
from the Seraglio by Mozart. Though in his early 30s,
Maestro De Rugeriis showed a firm control of the production, and
presented an elegantly styled concept of the music of Mozart.
Notwithstanding the world premiere of a brief march which Mozart
composed and then discarded, the production was a great success.
De Rugeriis is also involved in administration, being the Musical
Administrator of the San Diego Opera, a post which requires many
diverse activities. Previous to his post there, he studied at the
Mannes College of Music in New York, and also in Siena and Rome.
Among his other professional credits are productions in Palermo, Milan,
Michigan, and being the personal assistant to Gian Carlo Menotti in
Spoletto. [See my Interviews with Gian
This month, Joseph De Rugeriis returns to Chicago as conductor of The Consul by Menotti, a production
which is being directed by the composer. Opera Scene is very pleased, then,
to present as part of our series this conversation . . .
Let's start with Mozart. How is he different to conduct than any
other opera composer?
Joseph De Rugeriis:
The three things that I have told the singers about music -- which I
think are important to them and have always been important to me as an
interpreter -- you have to look at music in three senses: dynamics,
which is what's loud and soft; rhythm, what's long and short; and
phrasing, the beginning, ending, and shape. With all three of
those, you deal in contrasts between the two elements of each
part. So the difference in conducting Mozart as opposed to, say,
Puccini, is by and large musical first and textual second. You
get a sense of the action in the music, whereas in Puccini you get a
musicality in the text. He's definitely looking at the text and
characters first. In Mozart, there's more musical justification
BD: So with
Mozart it's the music, and with Puccini it's the words?
BD: OK, but
is there any composer who has a perfect balance of the two?
You have the "cabaletta rhythm" in the earlier works, and in the later
works the "parlante" style where things are very tight. It's very
difficult to verbalize the approach to Mozart which is so different
from the approach to Puccini. This having been my first Mozart
opera, it has certainly helped.
Really? You have a command of Mozart style which usually takes a
long time to develop.
JDR: I was
surprised because I thought it took a long time, also, and suddenly I
had this command and affinity for it which really surprised me.
I've mostly conducted spaghetti and meat ball operas . . .
BD: Is Mozart
[Hesitating] I'm having a hard time answering that because opera
has never been real fun for me. I'm a little on the serious
side. It's fun in the sense that there are certain rewards and
certain highs, but it's not fun in the way that I think of fun.
Going to the movies is fun, or the circus is fun.
BD: Then do
you find opera invigorating?
Yes. Invigorating, exhilarating, lots of energy, but I'm always
aware of things like purpose and responsibility. Most of the
therapists I've had in my life find me real difficult. They tell
me that I'm trying to make opera a way of life and it's not. I
tell them that it is. Why can't it be? I've learned very
painstakingly that life can't be an illusion. You have to stick
BD: Is opera,
then for you, reality?
afraid it is. I have experiences which relate to a lot of the
things in Abduction.
I'm 2000 miles away from home right now, so what does it mean for those
people on stage to be away from home, and what does it mean to see
friends and family again. These are little human values that are
so prevalant in Mozart. That's another difference between Mozart
and Puccini -- there are more archetypes in Mozart, and the human
values are more able to be appreciated by a larger spectrum of people.
Puccini is more specific.
Sure. Madama Butterfly
was really crazy. "Till death do us part" was taken real
literally. Psychologically, I think that opera is very
specific. One enjoys Puccini's setting of it and watching this
woman's life, but the audience is somewhat removed from that experience.
BD: We're not
as removed from the situation in Abduction?
JDR: I don't
think so. For me, the challenge of opera is to get the audience
involved, and you do that by showing them the emotion in the
music. So the way a violinist bows a phrase is very important in
Mozart. Not that it's unimportant in Puccini, but the way you
punctuate a musical statement in Mozart really needs to be thought
out. Puccini's punctuations are very much dictated by the
they're more obvious in Puccini?
JDR: I think
so. Hopefully I make them obvious in Mozart because I think you
need to make them obvious.
BD: But in
Mozart you have to find them, whereas in Puccini they leap off the page
Right. Butterfly utters a pathetic phrase and there's a thud in
the bass drum. One of my favorite words is prismatic. I've
even told the singers to go home, take a penlight and shine it through
a prism and look at the colors. This helps especially in the
ensembles to "see" the different colors.
BD: You are
also an administrator. How do you balance your musical decisions
with the monetary ones?
JDR: All the
musical ideas of the company have to be translated into dollars and
cents, looking for wherever you can cut costs.
BD: Are there
any decisions that can be made purely on artistic merits, or is
everything tempered by financial considerations?
JDR: I would
say we make a few purely artistic decisions for which money is no
object. I think that is true of any opera company. If you
want Pavarotti, you pay his fee -- assuming he's available. We at
the San Diego Opera are not that kind of opera company, so those kinds
of decisions are few. The majority of decisions are, I'm afraid,
financial. I'm being very honest to say it, and it's very painful
to have to say it.
BD: Is the
San Diego public ready for operas by Chabirer and Zandonai?
JDR: We don't
approach our public that way. To say "is it ready" implies that
it has a basis from which to compare, and San Diego is really "ready"
for anything. To ask if they're ready for Aïda is just as valid a
question as asking if they're ready for Guilietta e Romeo of
Zandonai. They may be a bit more familiar with Aïda, but that's not quite the
BD: But to
prepare for Aïda, they
will have heard a few Met broadcasts and have a large selection of
recordings from which to choose.
JDR: And for Guilietta, they know it's a
Shakespeare play which they've probably read and maybe acted in
school. Our other novelty -- Gwendoline
by Chabrier -- is being billed as an American Premiere, so the interest
there is the new work with the added attraction of a singer having an
American debut. Henry VIII
will have Sherrill Milnes as Henry VIII, so the interest there is
Milnes as Henry. That's how we bill things in San Diego.
BD: Would you
get more notoriety for Milnes as Henry VIII or for a nobody as Aïda?
Hopefully for both. That's the gamble you take. We have to
be very careful how we cast the standard operas. It's funny, it's
more "West Coast" to cast singers. Chicago and New York cast
operas. In San Diego we often get a singer to present a role for
the first time in his or her career. This season, Christina
Deutekom will do her first Turandot. That is the casting we try
for, that is notoriety, but often we discover an artist, and that
artist goes on to Salzburg or the Met and we can't compete.
idea was the first Verdi festival?
JDR: That was
Tito Capobianco's idea to do a big work and a small work by Verdi each
season. This year it's Ballo
BD: How do
you decide which versions to present in that Verdi festival?
Verdi Festival is not really a scholarly undertaking. It's an
attempt to stimulate San Diego artistically for the month of
June. The festival is only a couple years old so we still want to
get more of the existing groups involved. The visitor and
convention bureau is just beginning to take an interest and we're
starting to put together package deals.
BD: Is there
any way of coordinating your festival with what's happening in San
Francisco and Seattle?
travel agency in New York does just that, but artistically it would be
very difficult, and there is a healthy sense of competition which
sometimes gets unhealthy. So I'm not sure where it's all going to
go. But during the second year of our Verdi Festival, Kurt Adler
of the San Francisco opera announced his summer operas. Now I'm
sure that's the only time he could schedule things, and yet it smacked
a bit of upsmanship which I find unnecessary.
BD: Do you
like conducing opera in translation?
taught this a lot in adult education classes. You have to
remember that the text always came first and what becomes important in
translation is to try to preserve the sound of the text. Perhaps
this is easier when the original is Italian than German because there
are more vowel sounds to play with. For example, "Che gelida manina" is often
translated as "Your tiny hand is
frozen." But in ours, we said "How cold your little hand is."
The vowels don't match exactly, but the kinds of vowels are the same
and there aren't so many different vowels. So the whole line is
much more soft and much more singable. I am a great advocate of
opera in translation for a company like the Chicago Opera
Theater. A company that is international, however, really needs
to have a commitment to authenticity. And when you do opera in
English, it affects the casting choices that are available. Most
international singers simply can't sing in English.
BD: Can't or
Can't. We spend far too much time with the specifics of this
business and too little time with what is for me much more important,
namely the generalities. What is the place of art in American
life? PBS is wonderful, but why should people read Nicholas Nickelby when they can see
it on the tube? We seem to be catering more and more to the
illiterate instead of making a real commitment to literacy. I
taught at a very sophisticated school in Rome, and one time a parent
came in and told me that her son was reading too much because of the
stimulation he was getting in my class. She was upset that he
wasn't spending time watching television with the family, and was
complaining that every child can't be studious. What could I
do? I find that when I give adult education programs in San
Diego, not only are they hungry, they are starved for something
imaginative. But education needs to make a very big commitment to
patience. Teachers these days have to have the patience of the
woman who taught Helen Keller. I saw the Met Bohème live and then on TV,
and it's simply not the same thing.
opera belong on television?
JDR: That's a
very hard question because certainly it does a great service to bring
opera to many who would otherwise never have the desire to go even if
they have the opportnity. I won't allow it to replace actually
going myself to the theater, and in the case of the Met telecasts,
there are statistics to show that they have been directly influential
in getting people to go to more opera. Maybe I'm wrong about Nicholas Nickelby -- I guess I have
seen a few copies on the street because it's on TV during this
time. Maybe the commercials should push the book during the
intermission . . . [Both laugh] My feelings on
all this might be different from others because I was a late
musician. I was a lawyer for most of my education and switched to
music later on.
BD: Why did
you go into this artistic field?
it is the greatest potential to improve myself as a person and thereby
improve others. Maybe I could have done the same thing in
business, but where I felt I could do it was in this field. I am
not your tunnel-vision conductor who does nothing but conduct.
I'm extremely committed to education. The great thing about this
engagement here at the Chicago Opera Theater was that it was such a
team effort. There is freedom to make suggestions to others on
the team, some of which are accepted, others of which are not.
BD: So you
want to have more influence on the production as a whole?
JDR: I think
so. That is what it should be about. The music shouldn't be
devoid from the stage. If I'm conducting something fast and
agitated, the singers can't stand still on the stage. That will
not produce the dramma per musica
that the art form is about. I try to find through the dynamics
and rhythm and phrasing where the drama is in the music. In
rehearsals, I've described the action to the players in the
orchestration, and they respond by making the phrases the way I want
them to be.
BD: Can there
ever be too much rehearsal?
JDR: You can
overkill or peak too soon and let the performance fall flat. You
have to be careful, though, because time is money and there is never
enough, really. You have to budget your time carefully, and as an
administrator I sit down with the others on the team and decide how to
get the best out of what we have.
contemporary opera speak to audiences the way Puccini does or Mozart
written in the twentieth century is incredibly individualistic.
Twentieth century music can mean so many different things and there is
a great deal of fragmentation, so you're catering to a very small part
of a small public. I don't know where opera composition is
going. It will be interesting to see what John Corigliano does
with his commission from the Met. [See my Interviews with John
Corigliano.] We don't have the patrons that we once
did. For all practical purposes, the publisher Ricordi was
Puccini's patron. Verdi had the people at La Scala. Haydn
had Esterhazy. Wagner had Ludwig. Who does Pasatieri
have? Maybe some money from the National Endowment in an
occasional year. Quo Vadis
becomes an important slogan for the twentieth century. We have a
tendency to be somewhat tunneled, and my vision of a tunneled composer
is one who sits writing all day with no concept of what's going on
around him. We haven't thought about some of those deeply
universal questions which I find so stimulating because I do deal with
BD: Do people
get thrilled after a tragedy as well as a comedy?
but for different reasons. They get involved in a tight drama.
BD: Is it
better for your company in San Diego to do an unknown work by Verdi or
Saint-Saens, rather than a world premiere?
JDR: We did
the premiere of Menotti's La Loca,
and we've done other new things.
BD: How do
you balance a season?
one new work every two or three years is important for us, but it's
also important for us to resurrect desirable chestnuts when we can find
the right cast to do them. We were fortunate in Henry VIII to get Milnes. He
also sang Hamlet by Thomas
with us, but we can't really do a Rigoletto
with Milnes when he's just done it at the Met. It would be nice
to ask people to come and see Henry
VIII because it's a great opera, but we draw the crowd by having
Milnes singing. In a way it's a con, but we're back to
economics. Part of my job research is trying to find operas that
are stimulating that we should do. Being half Russian, I have a
particular spot for Russian opera, and one work I'd love to do would be
the Snow Mailden of
Rimski-Korsakoff. But in today's age the costs are immense.
You need so many expensive effects -- including a soprano who melts at
the end, lots of falling snow, a full corps de ballet and a balalaika
band -- that by the fourth item, the idea of producing it has been
scrapped. If we did that kind of thing, Andrew Porter would come
and we would get a wonderful review in The New Yorker, but that is just
not that important to people in San Diego. [See my Interview with Andrew
BD: What is
the role of the critic?
JDR: I asked
that question of Robert Marsh and John von Rhein, and Marsh said it was
to be objective and to be factual. Maybe because it will be
repeated, they should be encouraging to get more audience or be
discouraging so that they will stay away and maybe come to the next
production. Mr. von Rhein said much the same thing. My own
feeling is that opera should entertain, involve and educate.
Obviously, it's impossible not to be opinionated. You've been to
a performance and have had some sort of a reaction.
BD: Are you
disappointed when the audience applauds for the set?
JDR: No, not
at all. I'm also not disappointed when the audience applauds an
aria. I think that turns on a singer. We're not making a
recording, so I tell them to let it all hang out, so to speak. I
think the recording companies often do us a disservice by making people
adopt them as a standard.
recordings too perfect?
JDR: I think
so. It becomes artificial and unreal.
BD: Then what
should a recording be, if there should be recordings at all?
JDR: I think
a recording is fine if it's a documentation of the right singers in the
right roles. The sets made in the early 50s seem to be much more
free of technology and more oriented to the performance. But
today, audiences come in with expectations that are based on those
recordings which are made piecemeal.
BD: Are you,
then, competing against the records?
JDR: I think
so, and I don't think that's fair. My Abduction has to compete with Eugen
Jochum, Colin Davis and Josef Krips, so it becomes an impossible
task. I think it's nice to be comparative in a positive sense,
but there certainly is a danger when being compared to
recordings. I'm not ashamed to be a young upstart, but I should
be acknowledged for that and not told in a review that I should have
listened to such-and-such recording.
BD: Is it
good that you always give the singers their words?
JDR: For me,
it's good -- it gives me greater contact with the singers.
BD: Do the
singers use you as prompter?
JDR: I don't
think they would acknowledge that they do, but they do. But that
comes from my having been a prompter, and also because I do believe in
that. In opera, it's like a mirror. I identify with the
singers onstage, and they sort of identify with me. It is
relaxing and I try to make it as supportive as I can.
BD: Do you
ever purposely drown out a singer if he or she is singing badly?
never been in that situation, so I don't know what I would do.
BD: Where is
your career going now as you see it?
JDR: I don't
know. Obviously, I would like to conduct at the major opera
houses. I would like to present my particular brand of opera to
San Francisco, Chicago, The Met, La Scala, Covent Garden, etc.
But I'm not one for really excessive hustle. I'm not going to be
seen at all the right parties, and I may not make all the right
contacts because that feels to me like begging. I'd rather be
acknowledged for my work. I sent out invitations to the Abduction knowing that if only a
few came I'd be grateful. But I also wanted these people to know
what I was doing. So I really don't know where my career is
going. I never have. If you had asked me last year if I
would be in Chicago, I'd have not known. This is a very important
place for me to be seen and heard, and I'm very grateful for it.
My experience has been that the less I push, the better it is for
me. I don't feel that I have to be at the Met at all costs.
BD: We hope
that you will be back in Chicago.
JDR: I hope
so too. If the artistic quality is high and people respond to my
work, there's no reason for me not to.
Opera Administrator Joseph De Rugeriis, 48
January 27, 1996 By John von Rhein, Chicago
Tribune Music Critic.
Joseph De Rugeriis was a versatile and experienced opera conductor,
administrator, author and translator who served as general manager and
executive producer of Chicago Opera Theater in 1993 during a period of
severe fiscal crisis.
Mr. De Rugeriis, 48, died of AIDS complications Jan. 23 while traveling
in New York City. He was living in San Francisco at the time of his
Mr. De Rugeriis, who was born in Philadelphia, made his conducting
debut with Chicago Opera Theater in 1982, when he led performances of
Mozart's "The Abduction from the Seraglio" to critical acclaim.
Mr. De Rugeriis joined the opera theater staff as general manager in
January 1993. Despite efforts to pull the company out of debt, COT
faced an accumulated deficit of nearly $500,000. In April of that year
the company canceled the remainder of its 1993 season while it
undertook fiscal and administrative restructuring.
Mr. De Rugeriis was part of a new administrative team that, only four
months later, paid off the opera theater's debt and put the company
back in business.
He resigned from COT after the company merged with Chamber Opera
Chicago in late 1993. His most recent position was special assistant to
the general director of Baltimore Opera, until March 1995.
Survivors include a stepmother and two half-brothers. Private services
are planned in Philadelphia, Washington and San Francisco.
© 1982 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on February
8, 1982. Portions
(along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1986. The
transcription was made published in Opera
Scene in April, 1983. It was slightly re-edited and posted
website in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.