The conductor Julius Rudel, who ran New York City Opera during its golden age, from 1957 to 1979, died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 93 and died of natural causes, according to his spokeswoman, Lisa Jaehnig.
Rudel was born in Vienna in 1921 and emigrated as a teenager to the United States. He conducted more than 150 operas in the greatest opera houses in the world. But he was best identified for his 37-year association with City Opera, which began when, as a recent graduate of the Mannes College of Music, he joined the new company's music staff in 1944. He worked his way up to principal conductor and general director in 1957.
Under Rudel's leadership, City Opera came to be nationally respected for its performances of Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini. He hired key singers -- notably Beverly Sills -- and managed its artistic transition from City Center to Lincoln Center in 1966. In recent years, Rudel was a forceful critic of City Opera's management and its board, before the company went bankrupt in October 2013.
Along with Bel Canto works, the Vienna-born Rudel was particularly known for his advocacy for Baroque repertoire. In a 1984 interview with Bob Sherman on WQXR, Rudel discussed his decision to mount Handel's Julius Caesar at New York City Opera, a time when the Baroque composer's operas were barely known to the public (listen above).
"At that time everybody thought, 'why do Handel in an opera house? It's boring,'" Rudel said. "People tried to dissuade me. But with Julius Caesar, at least you have something to grab the unsuspecting opera lover with the title."
Rudel added that the Met's then-general manager Rudolph Bing had just commissioned Samuel Barber to write Anthony and Cleopatra. "Mr. Bing was very angry with me because he thought I was trying to show him up with a similar subject," he recalled. "Of course, I had no such intention." He added, "I didn't realize that this was the beginning of a whole revival of Handel's operas, which has taken wing since then."
Rudel was the first music director of the Kennedy Center in Washington and of the Wolf Trap Festival. He held directorships of the Cincinnati May Festival, the Caramoor Festival and the Buffalo Philharmonic. He led 250 performances at the Met as well appearances at the Paris Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Vienna State Opera.
The University of Rochester Press published Rudel’s memoir, First and Lasting Impressions: Julius Rudel Looks Back on a Life in Music, last year.
He leaves behind three children, seven grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.
Listen to the full interview above and read Fred Plotkin's Aug. 2013 appreciation.
Julius Rudel appeared on The Vocal Scene with George Jellinek in 2001. Listen to the full show:
Below: Rudel conducts an excerpt from Otello in 1994 (YouTube).