At 84, Julius Rudel still gets a trill out of conducting

October 20, 2005|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In the gloomy warehouse where the Baltimore Opera Company held early rehearsals for its season-opening production of La Traviata, conductor Julius Rudel perched on a stool, keeping an ear on every note from the singers, an eye on every movement.

Periodically, when there was a little break in the action, he approached them to offer a quick, quiet word of advice about phrasing. And when Julius Rudel offers advice, only the incurably smug would ignore it.

The conductor exudes an air of gentle authority. No wonder. At 84, he has seen and heard just about everything in the opera world. And you won't find a whiff of anything jaded about him. "I guess it's ingrained," Rudel says of his indefatigable enthusiasm. "Every production gives you a chance to freshen up. You always rethink things. You always find another angle."

Rudel, a trim man of moderate height, genteel manners and an easy smile, doesn't much like the word "senior." It certainly doesn't apply to his schedule - about 50 opera performances and maybe 35 orchestral concerts a year. Many a conductor half his age would covet such an engagement calendar.

Rudel hasn't slowed down much since stepping down as music director of the New York City Opera in 1979 after more than two decades. He became music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic the same year and held that post until 1985. Guest conducting at top opera houses around the world has long been a part of his life as well.

Rudel found himself drawn to opera in his native Vienna from an early age. Barely into his teens, he became a regular at the celebrated Vienna Opera House. "We used to stand in line for hours and hours, kids my age, to get the standing-room tickets," Rudel says, "then rush up four flights."

The future conductor and his pals came to the attention of the leader of the resident claque. Soon Rudel was heartily cheering singers who had paid for the claque's services.

"The leader would give us a few groschen and say, `Tonight you're working for the tenor or the soprano.' We would initiate clapping at the right moment," Rudel says. "It was a great way to learn the repertoire."

Rudel studied at Vienna's Academy of Music, but acquiesced when his parents insisted that he have something to fall back on. "Parents would do that, you understand," he says with a grin.

He learned the leather craft and even made a couple of wallets ("I still keep one, just for sentimental reasons"). But Vienna was soon unsafe for a Jew to pursue any profession.

Rudel's mother, who had just been widowed, arranged for her son to emigrate to the United States. He arrived in New York in 1938 with a few dollars in his pocket and resumed his studies at the Mannes College of Music.

He became a rehearsal pianist for the New York City Opera in 1943, a staff conductor at the company the next year, music director in 1957. Rudel's tenure included a remarkable track record for launching young singers - Beverly Sills and Placido Domingo among them.

Stints as music director of the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap in those organizations' early years, and many well-regarded opera recordings are also part of Rudel's impressive resume.

"Julius is one of the most versatile and knowledgeable conductors I know," says Willie Anthony Waters, general and artistic director of Connecticut Opera. "He knows so much repertoire and moves equally successfully among the various languages and styles. His French opera to this day is almost second to none. Yet, he's just as comfortable with Italian rep. His Anna Bolena [by Donizetti] was one of the most exciting bel canto performances I've ever heard."

Rudel also earns high marks for championing new operas, including such challenging works as Alberto Ginastera's Bomarzo ("an excellent piece that could and should be in the repertoire," he says) and Hugo Weisgall's Six Characters in Search of an Author.

And then there was the sensational revival of Handel's Julius Caesar at New York City Opera with Sills in 1966. "Early-20th-century attempts to resuscitate Handel were badly misguided," Rudel says, "based on a wrong set of values.

"We made a conscious attempt to go back to the historical situation. Some things didn't work out, but I think our effort did something to restart - no, I don't want to be too greedy - to help restart the revival of interest in baroque opera."

Rudel relished the opportunity to explore a wide range of repertoire at City Opera. "We could try out things, and give a lot of people their first taste of opera - as performers and as audiences. That was fun," he says.

The music-director job then "became tedious because of new regulations, new contracts, new attitudes and financial situations."

Rudel, who conducted several Baltimore Opera productions in the 1960s and last appeared with the company in 1994, is enjoying the chance to work again on La Traviata. He hasn't conducted it in about a dozen years.

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