Julius Rudel, 'Mr. Opera,' does 'Macbeth' again

March 06, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Julius Rudel isn't sure how many times he's conducted Verdi's "Macbeth."

"Not that many -- maybe 18 or 20 times," says Rudel, who will assuredly add four more to that imperfectly remembered number at the Lyric Opera House starting Saturday, when he leads the Baltimore Opera Company in its production of the composer's first great Shakespearean opera.

"Really, it's not that many," he insists, with laughter. "I've just finished 10 [Mozart] 'Figaros' at the Met -- that piece I've done a lot. I don't keep count, but it's got to be around 200 times."

Meet Julius Rudel, Mr. Opera. His repertory contains more than 150 operas -- from Beethoven to Blitztein, Handel to Henze, Menotti to Mozart, and Prokofiev to Puccini. He's as comfortable conducting Jerome Kern's "Showboat" as he is Monteverdi's "L'Incoronazione di Poppea."

bTC Ever since the 22-year-old refugee from Nazism began work in 1943 as a rehearsal pianist at the fledgling New York City Opera, he has built a reputation as one of the most sensible and knowledgeable people in the operatic world. His ability to elicit the best from singers is legendary. And his courageous programming in his 37 years at City Opera -- the last 23 as general director and principal conductor -- now looks like a golden age in the history of opera in the United States.

Mr. Opera is also Mr. Symphony. When Rudel left the City Opera in 1979, he had long before established solid credentials as a symphonic conductor, and he spent the next six years as the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic. His guest appearances with the likes of the Israel Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony are almost as frequent as his visits to New York's Metropolitan Opera, Buenos Aires' Teatro de Colon or Paris' Bastille Opera.

But Rudel, 72, is a dinosaur of sorts. He's one of the last conductors who came up the old way -- by starting at an entry-level position and laboriously learning the nuts and bolts of putting on an opera rather than achieving quick success in the glamorous symphonic world.

"It's a different ball game now," says Rudel, speaking by telephone from Montreal, where he is guest-conducting the Montreal Symphony. "Going back to Wagner, the tradition was that conductors started in opera and then began conducting symphonic music."

The rationale for such training was identical to that for putting recruits through boot camp. If a conductor could survive opera, he could survive anything.

"Theoretically, a conductor is in total charge of an opera, but things will still -- in fact, almost always -- go wrong," Rudel says. "You have to deal with the singers, the chorus, the curtain and the dancers -- not to mention the ideas of the stage director -- as well as the orchestra.

"You can't be an absolutist, saying the music has to be that fast or that slow. Such decisions are often determined by whether a )) singer can go slower or faster. When you're in the concert hall standing in front of a symphony orchestra, you don't have the layers of conflict you have in the opera house. You might say that the task of the symphony conductor is more purely that of interpretation; an opera conductor's primary problem is that of coordination."

When Rudel was a youngster at the City Opera, he often found himself conducting without the benefit of a single rehearsal with either the orchestra or the singers.

" 'Boheme,' 'Butterfly,' 'Don Giovanni,' 'Figaro' -- all the standard operas I learned that way," Rudel says. "It was wonderful schooling. You had to stay on top and just control it. And if, in addition to mechanically controlling an opera, you could do something with it, then you really had the goods."

This is not, he adds, how the BOC's "Macbeth" is being done. For the past few weeks he met regularly in New York with the internationally celebrated, Baltimore-born baritone, James Morris, who will sing the title role for the first time, and with soprano Pamela Kucenic, who will portray Lady Macbeth.

If only for his service to contemporary opera, Rudel deserves the luxury of such leisure. Important composers, whether Americans such as Hugo Weisgall, Europeans such as Hans Werner Henze or South Americans such as Alberto Ginastera, always knew that in Rudel they had a sympathetic champion at City Opera. It was Rudel who helped put Ginastera on the international map -- something the composer tried to repay by dedicating "Barabbas," the opera the great Argentine did not live to finish, to Rudel.

Rudel introduced Ginastera with an enormous splash by giving the first performances of his first opera, "Don Rodrigo," outside Argentina.

"For the opening [in 1966] of our new home, the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center, I was looking for an interesting score that hadn't been done in New York. 'Rodrigo' was a wonderful, gigantic work. I needed a remarkable tenor capable of handling the title role, and I thought I had a young singer who could do it."

That was Placido Domingo. That brings to mind another of

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