Julius Rudel Tells It Like It Is (and Was)

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I recently finished reading First and Lasting Impressions: Julius Rudel looks back on a life in music (University of Rochester Press, 2013). This clear-voiced and clear-eyed memoir, written with Rebecca Paller, belongs on the reading list of anyone who cares about American opera in the 20th century. The book does have its limitations (some of which can be addressed in future editions), but its strengths so far outweigh its weaknesses that they are easy to overlook.

For those of you too young to have had direct exposure to Rudel’s work, a short précis: He was born in in Vienna in 1921 to a Jewish family which, like many, had an appreciation for the arts even if they were not directly employed in them. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Rudel was able to escape, soon followed by his mother and brother. His father died of pancreatic cancer in 1937.

As a young man, Rudel attended performances at the Vienna State Opera, hearing great singers and conductors. His idol was Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), whom we recall as a composer but who also was an indefatigable conductor and arts administrator. Mahler was a Jew, though he converted to Catholicism in the face of anti-Semitism and perhaps sensing that his career would advance further if he were a Christian. But bigots have long memories and, to them, once a person is a Jew he is always a Jew.

For Rudel, arriving in New York was a revelation. The city was feisty, energetic, multi-cultural and would, at the end of the Second World War, be at its zenith. (For anyone who would like to read a superb evocation of the city at that place and time, I recommend Manhattan 1945 by Jan Morris.) Rudel lived with relatives in the Bronx, studied at the Mannes College of Music, met and married his wife Rita, and found his way to City Center on West 55th Street, where a newly-formed group, the New York City Opera, began its life in 1943. Rudel was with the company until 1979, running it for more than two decades, and overseeing an expansion of opera as an American art form that will be the crowning achievement of his many accomplishments.

Sympathetic Narrator

You will have to read the book to learn more of the details. The greatest strength of its narrative is that it is clearly in Rudel’s voice and a very appealing and credible voice it is. He does not pull punches but nor does he try to settle scores. He is not mean in describing the shortcomings of others. Even when there are people, such as conductors/arts administrators Laszlo Halasz and Erich Leinsdorf, whose actions Rudel found seriously lacking in judgment or humanity, he goes to great lengths to identify these maestros' many strengths.

Since I mentioned a couple of reservations, let me dispose of those first. While the writing is in Rudel’s engaging voice, whoever (co-writer or editor) put it in print seems to have only the most passing acquaintance with punctuation. Did this book not have a copy editor? If the book gets the reprintings it richly deserves, someone needs to go through it and use commas, colons and semi-colons in the way the grammarian gods would command. 

Then, there is so much more Rudel knows (and surely addressed in preparing the book). The reader feels the conductor had to leave a lot of precious stuff in the editing room. I hope Rudel recorded additional oral histories of many of the events he discusses or alludes to in his book. I would love to read these as volume two, even if the author waits to release them posthumously (and may that not be for a long time!).

These cavils aside, First and Lasting Impressions is a riveting account of the challenging early years of the New York City Opera, followed by more challenging years that concluded with his leaving his administrative duties (picked up in 1980 by the newly retired soprano Beverly Sills). His post-City Opera career was a productive one that included more than 250 performances at the Met as well regular appearances at the Paris Opera and other European theaters. He conducted at the Vienna State Opera, closing a circle that had begun decades before when his escape from the city likely saved his life.

Researchers will want to study Rudel’s accounts of his relationship with Beverly Sills (right), the leading soprano of the City Opera and later an international opera star with a bouncy public image. She dealt with considerable adversity in her private life, what with two children with serious medical challenges and her own cancer at various points. Rudel emphasizes that Sills found joy, and escape from her woes, as a performer. It is fair to say that she was rather tenacious in trying to realize her goals as an artist, but she was hardly unique in that regard.

It occurred to me, while reading Rudel’s book, that it is time for a serious, balanced biography of Beverly Sills that not only assesses her impact as a performer but as an arts administrator who was very able at fund-raising and spreading the word about opera, a good friend to many, but who also alienated some colleagues through her single-minded pursuit of her own agenda. She was also influential in having Peter Gelb hired as the current general manager of the Metropolitan Opera.

Sills (1929-2007) wrote two books. The first was Bubbles: A Self-Portrait (1976), whose first edition had one of the most famous typographical errors in publishing history: "I have been in the pubic eye since I was three years old." She then wrote Beverly: An Autobiography (1987). Bridget Paolucci published a biography in 1990, but I don’t know of a definitive biography that has been undertaken since her death.

Rudel may be a great musician, but he does not beat his own drum. Part of what is so appealing in his autobiography is that he speaks with authority and tells his stories well, yet they don’t feel like they have been told many times before. The careful reader will deduce that, while Sills had a famous association with the City Opera, Rudel’s was much longer and had more impact. This book is as much a history of City Opera as it is of Rudel, its most important figure. 

Powerful Friends

One of City Opera’s most important achievements, well-documented in the book, was the presentation of 35 American operas—many of them world premieres—during Rudel's 22 years as head of the company. This was possible, in large part, because of the advocacy of W. McNeil (“Mac”) Lowey of the Ford Foundation. It is an example of enlightened charitable leadership that is all too rare nowadays in which many donors seem more interesting in “naming opportunities” than taking risks that can lead to radical changes that are for public benefit. 

Jacqueline Kennedy, another example of quiet but enlightened leadership, makes a brief appearance in the book as Rudel ably describes how she persuaded him to have an important role at the Kennedy Center at its inception. Rudel also recounts the hectic but creatively fertile experience of putting together the center’s first week of programming, including the commissioning of a Mass from Leonard Bernstein.

After encountering examples of enlightened charitable leadership, the reader meets John Samuels III, whose newly-minted fortune in coal, insurance and bonds gave him access to boards in 1975. In short order, he was in positions of power at City Center, the New York City Opera (by then at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center) and the Lincoln Center Theater. Rudel writes:

“Samuels was not well grounded in opera and did not know a great deal about the history of our company. On January 28, 1979, nearly four years after he had assumed the chairmanship of our company, Mr. Samuels stated in a New York Times article that it was ‘a terrible shame that the Met, and not City Opera, had produced Dialogues of the Carmelites and The Bartered Bride.’”

Rudel noted that City Opera had in fact presented The Bartered Bride in 1945 and Carmelites in 1966. He carefully documents Samuels’s managerial choices and their negative impact and then notes, without underlining, the several “soft pledges” of personal financial support Samuels made but never delivered. The history of arts funding in America is littered with soft pledges from patrons who put their own ambitions above those of the institutions they purport to serve.

Ultimately, Rudel left City Opera a year before he had planned to. Sills retired from singing in 1980 and ran the company for most of the next decade. We realize that her effective fundraising skills, steely charm and determination were effective at marginalizing Samuels (who had significant financial reversals of his own). Then she went on to other projects and City Opera had some ups and many more downs. Rudel, in the book, reprints an opinion article called “The People’s Opera, in Peril” he published in The New York Times in 2011. Characteristically, he does not mince words but allows the reader to come to his own conclusions. Read this book, and come to your own.