[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.  Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.
It is the first of two interviews with De Rugeriis.  The second can be seen HERE.  BD]

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 additions) 

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 [program shown below].  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.

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 . . .

Bruce Duffie:    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 for things.
BD:    So with Mozart it's the music, and with Puccini it's the words?

JDR:    That's very general.

BD:    OK, but is there any composer who has a perfect balance of the two?

JDR:    Verdi.  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.

BD:    Really?  You have a command of Mozart style which usually takes a long time to develop.  [Vis-à-vis the program shown at right, see my interviews with William Eichorn, Sheryl Woods, Dominic Missimi, and Alan Stone.]

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 more fun?

JDR:    [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?

JDR:    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 with reality.

BD:    Is opera, then for you, reality?

JDR:    I'm 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.

BD:    So Puccini is more specific.

JDR:    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 dramatic situation.

BD:    So 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 at you.

JDR:    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 same thing.

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?

JDR:    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.

BD:    Who's 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 and Corsaro.

BD:    How do you decide which versions to present in that Verdi festival?

JDR:    Our 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?

JDR:    One 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?

JDR:    I've 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 won't?

JDR:    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.

BD:    Does 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?

JDR:    Because 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.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Does contemporary opera speak to audiences the way Puccini does or Mozart does?

JDR:    Anything 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.  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 [where are you going?] 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 them.

BD:    Do people get thrilled after a tragedy as well as a comedy?

JDR:    Sure, 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?

JDR:    Probably 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.

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.

BD:    Are 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?

JDR:    I've 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 death.

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 on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning 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 like 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.