[Note: This interview was first published in the Massenet Newsletter in July, 1983.]
A CONVERSATION WITH
By Bruce Duffie
When one hears the name of Julius Rudel, one
immediately thinks of the New York City Opera, for much of his highly
successful career has centered around that company.
Rudel was born in Vienna in 1921 and studied
at the Vienna Academy of Music. He emigrated to the United States
in 1938 and continued his musical studies at the Mannes College in New
York. He joined the staff of the New York City Opera in 1943 as a
rehearsal pianist and made his conducting debut with the company later
that year. He was named Musical Director in 1957 and the rest, as
they say, is history.
During his long association with it, the company became
important house, producing many
interesting and varied works, and introducing and developing
singers. Many of the artists went on to international careers,
the best-known being a quartet comprised of Beverly Sills, Placido
Domingo, Sherrill Milnes, and Normal Treigle. Now, Miss Sills
has inherited the mantle of Mr. Rudel – at least in the administrative
offices of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center.
In addition to his many responsibilities at the
NYCO, Julius Rudel found time to conduct and be administrator of many
other musical organizations. Besides conducting opera
companies and orchestras, he has been the Musical Director of the
Caramoor Festival, Musical Advisor for Wolf Trap, and Music Director
for the first four seasons of the Kennedy Center in Washington,
D.C. He has also garnered honors and titles and reviews which
speak of the diversity of his chosen repertoire, his devotion to giving
New York an “Ensemble Opera,” and performances which are never dull.
In this day and age, achievement is often judged by
the recorded legacy, and Julius Rudel has conducted several outstanding
recordings including complete editions of Handel’s Julius Caesar with
Sills and Treigle, Boito’s Mefistofele
with Treigle, Caballé, and
Domingo, and Louise with
Sills, Gedda, and Van Dam. Or particular
interest to members of the Massenet Society are his recordings of Manon
with Sills, Gedda, Souzay, and
Bacquier, Thaïs with
Moffo, Bacquier, Carreras, and Diaz, and Cendrillon with von Stade, Welting,
Last fall in Chicago, Rudel prepared and
conducted two productions – Tosca with two different stellar
– Bumbry/Marton, Domingo/Luchetti, Wixell/Nimsgern, directed by Tito
Gobbi, and Mozart’s Così Fan
Tutte which he conducted from the
harpsichord in a production directed by Graziella Sciutti.
Between rehearsals and performances in Chicago, he was flying back and
forth to Buffalo for duties there with the Philharmonic.
Despite this impossibly hectic schedule, the Maestro agreed to take a
few minutes before a performance to chat with me
about matters operatic. Far from being tired and wan, he was
bright and bubbly and completely alive to all that was going on.
Sitting in his dressing room, we chatted about many things, and here is
some of what was said…..
Bruce Duffie: Let
me first ask you a perhaps indelicate
– do you like not being the director of the New York City Opera?
Julius Rudel: I
love it, and that’s not indelicate at all.
BD: I assume that
you did like it when you were doing it.
[Wistfully] I did. It was a challenge and
enjoyed the opportunities to do certain things with some ideas I had,
and to discover some people and work with them. But after all, I
was there for 22 years and that’s a long time. It turned into a
real burden because the administration got more and more demanding and
left less and less time for music. So I finally decided I’d had
enough of that.
BD: So you’re glad
to be free of administrative decisions?
JR: I’m delighted.
BD: How much do
the financial and economic problems enter
decisions that are made away from the manager’s office?
JR: In a sense
those problems enter into every
You live in a real world and others decide what can be done and how far
you can go and what you can hope to cover. You have to be aware
of that whether you are the manager or not.
BD: Do you have
more compassion for those who make the
JR: I certainly
do. Only when you’ve done it do you
realize how complex it is and how many conflicting demands are on the
BD: Is being a
general manager of any opera house becoming
JR: I don’t
know. It’s the nature of the thing to
have more limitations. It’s still manageable and some of it’s
done very well I think.
BD: Do you enjoy
the works of Massenet?
JR: Yes I do –
particularly the ones I’ve conducted.
a consummate man of the theater – most skillful and often inspired, but
even when not inspired, at least most professional.
BD: That’s not to
say merely workmanlike composition, is
JR: Oh no, I’d
never say that at all. He’s uncanny
specific limitations he set for himself in any given scene or
expressive place. He can make do with the most limited means
and bring them off extremely well. It’s more than skill, it’s an
uncanny sense of what’s required.
BD: Is Massenet an
JR: Probably in
the German-speaking countries he is, as
for a long time and as Puccini is still to some extent.
BD: Is Massenet
JR: I suppose so –
I should hope so. I hope all
entertainment at its most exalted.
BD: OK, then, is
opera entertainment or is opera “Art?”
JR: I don’t think
there need to be any conflict between art
and entertainment at all.
BD: Are they two
JR: I don’t know
that they are. Mozart had no
writing “Art” – he wrote entertainment. It turned out sublime,
but he had no idea that it would make lots of people rich 200 years
after he died a pauper.
BD: Are composers
today too concerned with their places in
JR: I think so,
yes. It’s sort of become that everyone
is jockeying for position. That’s an exaggeration, but there is
awareness nowadays. You have the examples of so many from
Monteverdi onward who have left an indelible mark over the centuries,
and it hangs heavy over someone who creates now.
BD: They wrote for
a specific production and were pleased
was revived another year.
JR: Oh they were
most happy if they could interest someone
reviving it, and offered to change things around to suit the new
production. They changed things considerably from one time to the
next, and I find it astonishing today that the purists are riding
herd over the slightest changes. They even try to resurrect
everything that the composer might have thrown into the
wastebasket. Items become essential because the composer wrote
them, even though he himself may have discarded them. There is a
great danger in overlooking the fact that composers – even Wagner who
certainly cannot be considered to have been particularly modest – were
willing to live within the limitations of a particular situation.
BD: Is there any
point to going back to original or
versions of operas?
JR: Oh it’s
interesting and certainly it’s good to have
knowledge of exactly what was written. Then you can determine for
yourself what was cut and why.
BD: Do you, then,
over-rule the composer?
JR: I don’t
over-rule him, I humbly beg him to let me do
it. And he never objects… [Both laugh]
BD: Do you ever
get any divine inspiration when you’re
JR: Sometimes you
do feel it elates you to the point that
in Heaven, but that is what genius does to you. I don’t know that
it’s a specific revelation at that moment, but sometimes you feel that
a phrase has gone particularly well, or an act hangs together really
beautifully. After all, we’re re-creating every time, and
sometimes by itself it turns out exceptionally well. Other
times, some little thing is missing and you try to make up for it here
BD: Do you
consider Massenet a genius?
JR: I think we
must be very, very sparse in calling
genius. We can find a few but one needs to be a little but
careful with that term. It should be reserved for the
BD: Can I nudge a
few names out of you for a list?
JR: Mozart of
course. I would imagine
BD: Would you
JR: He certainly
is very high on the list. He is the
man who made the atonal school work, and that’s a great
achievement. I am very much moved by most of his music, but when
you compare the incredible wealth of the output of Mozart and the
incredible level of most of it, and the variety of means – the man was
a master in so many forms – that’s genius.
BD: Is that what
puts Massenet at a little lower level –
had a spark of genius occasionally but the rest is just a little less?
JR: Well, yes, if
you like to classify it that way.
BD: Am I wrong to
try and pigeon-hole him?
JR: I think
so. Why worry about it? We derive
deal of pleasure from Massenet as we do from a number of others.
We worry ourselves as to where exactly they fit in. It doesn’t
hurt to have an idea of the background and the circumstances of a
composer’s output and his life, but I don’t think it should in any
sense influence us. Just because someone has a hard life is no
reason to like his music more.
BD: Should we try
to find something to enjoy even in poor
JR: Well, there
but for the grace of God go I. I
out to be a composer, but when I was 19 I decided that the world had
enough bad composers and I stopped composing. I think that a lot
of others have probably done the same thing.
BD: Should we
listen to the music of bad composers?
JR: If you derive
any satisfaction from it. If it
mood or if you’re curious, yes. Sometimes you learn something
from a negative source. You can also learn something from a bad
singer or a bad conductor.
BD: That’s one of
my own hobby-horses – to get more works
presented. Do you feel there are too few works represented in the
JR: Yes, but you
can’t fight it. You can try to
audiences to enlarge their horizons, and occasionally you will
succeed. But right now, it’s the “Golden Dozen” and that’s it.
BD: Does it come
down to a matter of taste?
JR: Taste is
always important in the whole process of
BD: How can we get
the public to respond to the
works of Massenet?
JR: I don’t really
know. We cannot ignore history,
and a lot
of things have happened since these works were first done.
Unfortunately, some of the music which seemed perfectly fresh and
genuine then (because it was easily assimilated) has been used by the
media as underscoring. So the freshness is gone and now it sounds
a little like what we’ve heard a lot of when we go the movies.
considering taste, should the opera house be a
a follower of fashion?
JR: Probably the
astute director is both. To believe
something and push it is fine, but if there is a discernible trend he
should try to ride with it. You have to have a certain nose for
it and hope that it works. If you cast a work well and it goes
well, you have a “hit” on your hands.
BD: How much can
you push any particular opera if you
an ideal cast?
JR: There are so
very many ingredients – you measure them
see. If you have a strong lead, it can sometimes make up for a
less-strong department somewhere else. I suppose it’s an
equation, and it’s even greater if all the elements are great.
BD: Have you ever
JR: Sometimes you
have the feeling that you’ll never
equal something that you’re doing, but you can’t stop living. You
have to go on and try to live up to it – or even be a little bit
better. There is always something that you can improve.
BD: We seem to be
in the age of the stage-director.
they getting too much power?
JR: These poor
guys have to re-do an opera and bring
something to it. In most cases, the composer has left pretty
explicit instructions, so what can the stage-director do? The
conductor can always go right back to the score and discover or
re-discover things. For the stage-director there is a limitation,
so out of that desperation – and a certain egoism I would say – grew a
breed of directors. Some try to go with a “sub-text,” and there
something to that if the music is not violated. It’s fine to find
something new that has not been stressed before, or to find new
angles. It’s also fine to take a step backward. There
are certain things that are indicated in the score which are simply not
acceptable today, so adjustments have to be made. The more
skillful and more imaginative the director is, the better he can do
BD: What about
productions that are way out in left field?
JR: That all
depends on how genuine the producer is, and
intent he is on making a big scandal. There are such,
particularly in European houses where the repertory goes on and on and
on, and they search for notoriety. Some houses will engage a
who announces proudly that he has never seen the particular work, and
doesn’t intend to before staging it.
BD: Is it a good
thing for singers and conductors to know
from other performances?
JR: I suppose it
is. You can’t un-hear or un-see
something. We can hope that the artists have enough intelligence,
integrity, and interest to form their own conclusions. And
sometimes you are able to pick up a great idea.
BD: Do you steal
ideas from other people?
JR: I don’t know
that I steal, but there are certainly
things that are commonly known. I do know one stage-director who
gets many requests to borrow an idea or bit of business. He
usually says yes.
BD: What should be
the role of recordings in society?
fold... First, the preservation of a certain
interpretation – putting it on the record as it were – and
for the large public that doesn’t have the opportunity to go to the
live performance, and must make do.
BD: When you’re
conducting, do you feel you’re competing
recordings – even your own?
JR: I’ve never
thought about that. We all die a
deaths, and opera has more than its share of possibilities of things
BD: Do audiences
expect the same perfection in the theater
they have on their discs?
JR: Yes, but even
though a performance may not be
it may have many other aspects that more than make up for it.
BD: What is the
role of television – should opera be on
JR: Why not?
There’s so much junk on, why not
good? There are two ways of going about it – you
repertorially transmit a given performance from a given house to the
air and the audience at home becomes an enlargement of the audience
that’s in the house, or you can create and produce specifically
for the different medium. Each method has its advantages and also
BD: How are voices
different today from when you first
JR: I don’t know
that they are. In one sense, the
preparation now in this country is remarkably good and fairly full –
including opportunities to actually perform within certain
givens. There is less need to go to Europe, but years ago
American artists were happily accepted there. Now there is a new
generation of European singers so they have first call on the
BD: Is there
enough opera being done in America?
JR: From my point
of view, it will never be enough, so
I’m slightly prejudiced.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of opera?
JR: Yes, I’m
optimistic about it, but I’m basically an
optimist. Opera is here to stay and has proven its relevance to a
large enough number of people to show that it has a right to exist.
Bruce Duffie is an
announcer with WNIB “Classical 97” in Chicago, and editor of the
monthly magazine OPERA SCENE. He has also given lectures for
Lyric Opera of Chicago, and contributes regularly to the Massenet
Society as well as the Wagner Society of America.
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© 1982 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in a dressing room of the Civic
Opera House in
Chicago on November 1, 1982. It was transcribed and published in
The Massenet Newsletter in
July, 1983. Portions were also used (with recordings) on WNIB in
1989, 1991, 1993 and 1996. The
transcription was slightly re-edited, photos and links were added, and
it was posted on this
website in 2012.
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.