New York — In his 42 years on the operatic podium, Julius Rudel has earned the reputation of being not only a versatile musician, but a maestro who can think fast on his feet and avert musical disaster before it takes hold. So much can go wrong in the course of an opera performance -- in the pit and on stage -- and only the conductor can keep a performance from grinding to a halt. In his years at the head of the New York City Opera, Mr. Rudel learned how to anticipate problems before they turned to disasters. His stories of things that went wrong could fill a book.
He began his training as a troubleshooter in 1944 at the New York City Opera, when it first began operations. His position as a ``repetiteur'' -- or musical assistant -- was his first professional job. More than 40 years later, he is probably the busiest operatic conductor of the day, leading a peripatetic life that spans the continental United States, Western Europe, and just about anyplace else where opera -- and symphonic music -- are happening.
Rudel headed the City Opera for 22 years -- now considered the company's golden age. He oversaw the move to Lincoln Center, after which it became a nationally and internationally celebrated fixture of this city's artistic life. Since his departure from that company, he has appeared regularly at the Metropolitan Opera (where he is conducting the new production of Handel's oratorio ``Samson''), and in Chicago, Houston, and the major musical centers of Europe. He was also head of the Buffalo Philharmonic for six seasons. But opera is what he is best known for.
``I was always interested in music as drama, and in drama per se,'' Rudel recounted in his West Side apartment, surrounded by the memorabilia of his career to date. ``When I was a little kid, the first thing I used to do was take an old shoe box and make a theater stage out of it.''
He pursued his musical goals as a child growing up in Vienna. But then Adolf Hitler intervened in the political life of Austria, and the young Rudel was one of countless citizens forced to become pilgrims in foreign lands. After settling in New York and finishing his musical studies as the Mannes School of Music, he landed the job at the City Opera.
``Let's face it: It was wonderful to get into the City Opera at the very beginning of it and really literally grow up with it, musically and in every way.'' He had an old-fashioned apprenticeship right here in New York (Rudel eventually became a US citizen), rather than in a small European house.
``Much of my repertory -- certainly much of the standard stuff -- I first conducted without ever having had a rehearsal. You step in and you do. That was the kind of model by which European opera houses brought their conductors up. Any one of them -- [Fritz] Reiner, [George] Szell -- started as they were thrown in, did what was expected, and more.''
As artistic director, he oversaw every aspect of the company, including the conception and execution of new productions. ``I know I made life miserable for directors. I've sometimes spoken out for a certain thing in front of the cast. And then they would sometimes latch onto an idea as presented and have the director deal with it. But mostly, you can arrive at a situation that is at least honorable and viable.''
Unless he chooses to put it all in a book, we will never know how many productions Rudel managed to turn into ``viable'' successes. Suffice it to say that during his tenure, City Opera productions were widely acclaimed as fresh and innovative.
This last year has been spent with ``Samson,'' in a production that started in London and moved to Chicago before coming to the Met. I asked him if he had any problems with doing Handel in theaters vastly larger than those of Handel's time. ``I don't think it's bad to do Handel in a big house. The emotions are all large scale. The music is, in a sense, extrovert. The feelings are so grand and big, I think it can be done.
``In London there was a great deal of negative response, not from the audience. Never once was there a boo.''
It was the critics who jumped on Rudel for his austere performance edition (he kept Handelian embellishments to a minimum, and insisted that the aria ``Let the Bright Seraphim'' be performed in its original, unostentatious version), and for being an American conducting what they felt could only be done by Britons.
Rudel's other New York assignment is a concert performance of Richard Strauss's ``Intermezzo'' at Carnegie Hall this Saturday. ``It's a new challenge. I'm glad we're doing it in English [the Andrew Porter translation],'' he notes. The conversational style of the libretto makes it imperative that the audience understand as much of the dialogue as possible.
``It puts an extra burden on me,'' Rudel notes. ``One really has to be sure that the orchestra doesn't cover the voices, yet I have to be careful not to make the orchestra pale and uninteresting -- to get as much color out of it as I can.''
Between New York dates, Rudel shuttles to Munich. The day after ``Intermezzo'' he is due in Milan for RAI (Italian Radio) concerts, then back to Munich for at least three operas. Later this spring he conducts Strauss's ``Ariadne auf Naxos'' in Houston (beginning April 25). Then it's on to Denver conducting Mozart's ``Don Giovanni'' (May 10, 13, 16). Cincinnati will hear him (June 19 and 21) in still another Strauss opera, ``Der Rosenkavalier.'' In among all this will be more European dates. And during the summer he will stop off at Caramoor (New York State), the Kennedy Center (Washington, D.C.), and Meadowbrook, summer home of the Detroit Symphony.