Marc A. Scorca: Maestro Joseph Rescigno, welcome. I'm delighted to speak with you today.
Joseph Rescigno: Thank you very much, Marc.
Marc A. Scorca: Who brought you to your first opera?
Joseph Rescigno: My uncle brought me to my first opera when I was about four. It was La bohème at The Metropolitan. Now, strangely enough, at the age of three, the first time I asked for a birthday present, I asked for a recording of Till Eulenspiegel and it was Rodziński conducting. And I listened to it, and almost wore the 78 out. The next year, my father gave as a birthday present to my mother, a 78 (like maybe it was 10, 12 of them) of La bohème with Albanese and Gigli. And I listened to that a number of times. And my uncle then took me to The Met to see La bohème with Albanese and Jan Peerce. What I didn't realize, and I had no recollection of it, was that I totally embarrassed my uncle. After the opera, he brought me back to see both Mr. Peerce and Licia and I said to Jan Peerce, "You were very good. Not quite as good as the recording of Gigli that I was listening to before, but you were very good." And my uncle told me this story, maybe 30 years later, and I said, "Oh my God, did I say that? Oh, how terrible. And what was the reaction?" He says, Peerce was wonderful. He said, "Well, the boy's got a good ear."
Marc A. Scorca: Oh, what generosity! Isn't that wonderful? Now, of course I know it, and so many people do, but your uncle is the great conductor Nicola Rescigno, founder of Lyric Opera of Chicago and The Dallas Opera, but in reading your biography, I noted that your grandfather started to teach you sight singing, and he wasn't any ordinary grandfather. What was his musical background?
Joseph Rescigno: My grandfather was, for 35 years, one of the trumpet players at The Metropolitan Opera. And he joined when he was only 17. And I think initially he played second trumpet, but he finished the last 5-6 years as third trumpet. Unfortunately, around the age of 55, he had to leave the orchestra, because he became hard of hearing. And I was his first grandchild, born about three months after he left the orchestra. And he just sat by my crib, and more than my mother or my father or aunt, he spoke to me and spoke to me and taught me how to speak in two languages before I could walk. And then when I was about three, he started showing me music and showing me solfeggio and how to sight sing. And then finally, by the time I was five and could just barely read a book, I could sight sing in four clefs, so, with fixed do. His misfortune was my great fortune.
Marc A. Scorca: Sure. Because he got to be with you for those extended hours and just bringing you into the musical world and then your uncle and his great work. So music was just flowing through you from the time you were born.
Joseph Rescigno: Yes, it was; it really was. My Mother was also a pianist. My Mother was my uncle's rehearsal pianist, and that's how she met my Father.
Marc A. Scorca: So your Mother was your uncle's rehearsal pianist.
Joseph Rescigno: Correct. I'm trying to think what company it could have been. I think maybe the touring company: the San Carlo. But in my grandfather's generation, there were 10 musicians. His first cousin, also called Joseph Rescigno - his name was Joseph Rescigno; his first cousin was Joseph Rescigno, and he was a horn player, who played principal horn for the St. Louis Symphony and then one of the horns for Toscanini in the NBC symphony. Then my grandfather's brother was Pasquale Rescigno, who was a pianist and a coach. He was Cornell MacNeil's coach, when he was singing at The Met, and I found out later, (he) was, early on, for the first maybe six years of its existence, one of the rehearsal pianists at New York City Opera. And, then in Italy, there was a bassoonist with the San Carlo and another cousin...But apparently, there were something like 10 musicians in my grandfather's generation and only my uncle in the next, and I'm the last musician. My nephew or niece did not go into music.
Marc A. Scorca: But it's rather like the Puccini family, because Giacomo Puccini was the fifth generation musician, and you have these generational inheritance of music. That's just fantastic.
Joseph Rescigno: This doesn't happen very often now, but this was almost the norm in Europe: bakers and painters and musicians and lawyers and merchants and bankers, the Medici and all that. If you are exposed to a certain kind of work, which I was, and maybe because of my grandfather, I was just in love with music since I was right out of the cradle.
Marc A. Scorca: So your first real instrument was piano, and you must have been very adept, because at the age of nine you performed a movement of a Mozart piano concerto with orchestra.
Joseph Rescigno: Correct. I began studying at seven and a half maybe? And then, after maybe one year I played a Chopin waltz and some other things, when I was about eight and a half. And then when I was nine, I did the first movement of the Mozart A major, number 23. And it was interesting. I was always fascinated by conducting. (When) I was nine and just turned 10, I was lucky enough to watch three weeks of rehearsals in Chicago (with) my uncle (in) his second year of his stay with them. And it was Trovatore with a cast that - my God, now - is legendary. (Maria) Callas was Leonora; Ebe Stignani was Azucena, and (Jussi) Björling was Manrico; (Ettore) Bastianini was di Luna. And (William (Bill)) Wildermann was Ferrando.
Marc A. Scorca: So one American in there, if you don't count Callas: one American.
Joseph Rescigno: And from the first music rehearsal with Alberta Masiello playing the piano, all the way to opening night, I watched this and my father, who was a doctor, wrote this note saying that I was too sick to attend school for three weeks, knowing that I was in Chicago doing this. And it was an unforgettable experience. I also got to watch Tullio Serafin, who was the other conductor (my uncle brought him in as a guest to do Cavalleria and Pagliacci). That I just watched the performance. But can you imagine where (Giuseppe) Di Stefano is Turiddu and (Mario) Del Monaco is Canio. I mean these things just don't happen any more.
Marc A. Scorca: No and I could go on and on about theorizing about why not, but just how extraordinary. I'll come back to some of this in a moment because I'm kind of curious. With your great success and talented piano, what made you want to go for conducting? What was the thing that means "I wanna lead the orchestra?"
Joseph Rescigno: Two things: watching at nine that rehearsal process of Il trovatore in Chicago. And then later, I don't know if I was 16 or 17, but I played for Bernstein. The only time I got to meet him. He was looking for soloists for Young People's Concerts, and I played the fourth of Beethoven - some of each movement for him. And I thought I did quite well. And my teacher was pleased. And then a couple of contestants later, André Watts played the Liszt, and I said to myself, "I'll never be a pianist." I play well. I play very well, but I don't play that well. And actually I told that story to someone (I'm talking now maybe 20 years ago), who knew André Watts. I didn't. I don't know him, but Watts told him, "Well, I think Rescigno made a very good decision. I saw him do a Butterfly that I liked very much."
Marc A. Scorca: Here is Andre Watts: someone you never met, who enabled you to become a conductor. In reading some of the background material, one paragraph said that you engaged in a traditional house apprenticeship in the European manner, talking about some of your early opera work. And I was curious to know what that meant: 'to engage in a traditional opera house apprenticeship, in the European manner.'
Joseph Rescigno: Well, for most of the 20th century and even the latter part of the 19th century, working in an opera company was an indispensable route to becoming a conductor. A few conductors, like (Arthur) Nikisch, even Toscanini were players in the orchestra. Toscanini went from being a cellist in the orchestra to making a spectacular debut at the age of 19 conducting Aida, and the conductor - I don't know - got sick or something. I don't know. But most conductors were rehearsal pianists and did other things. I, myself was a rehearsal pianist, first when I was a student (when I) spent a year and a half as an undergraduate at Fordham University to study in Europe. I chose Rome and my uncle was conducting in Reggio Emilia, and not only did he bring me up because this was the Christmas break - the breaks were longer back then in Italy than they would've been in the US at the time. And I played some rehearsals for him in Trovatore, and some rehearsals for Maestro (Gianandrea) Gavazzeni, who was rehearsing, more or less at the same time, Bohème. And then later I was my uncle's rehearsal pianist in Dallas for a season. And for three years, I was the rehearsal pianist, the chorus master, and the backstage conductor for Hartford, with both Carlo Moresco and Anton Guadagno, (who) were the two conductors in Hartford. And I played rehearsals and did backstage and Maestro Moresco was unbelievably generous. The first opera I was doing was Madam Butterfly. The rehearsals were over and I had been his rehearsal pianist and at the general he said, "Do you think you can conduct this opera?" And I said, "Yes, I do." He said, "Okay, I'm gonna sit down at the piano, and you conduct me." And I did. And I said, "Why are you saying this, maestro, to me." "Because I think I might be sick at the second performance." And so I stupidly said, "Well, maestro, I'm doing that long backstage thing at the entrance of Butterfly, and the Humming Chorus, and without a backstage conductor, how is that gonna work?" He says, "Oh, maybe five minutes before this show starts, I'll be feeling better." And that's exactly what he did. He did my backstage. It was of unbelievable generosity. And one of the nicest men. It was great. And then the next year, I did the matinée for Fledermaus for them.
Marc A. Scorca: How wonderful. I just love those stories. I am stunned and I've been making notes as you go, about the incredible conductors you either played for as a rehearsal pianist, or somehow worked with. You have just named Guadagno, Serafin, Gavazzeni. I've read about (Herbert) von Karajan, (Erich) Leinsdorf, Anton Coppola, Laszlo Halasz...
Joseph Rescigno: The way I got to meet von Karajan. In 1969, at the urging of Ellen [indecipherable] (who) was a wonderful, wonderful singer, then singing teacher toward three generations of singers, many of them went on to great careers. She was for many years, a teacher at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, in the summertime. And this was a third year of what turned out to be a five year conducting competition, like the Metropoulos in New York, and then was dropped. And she urged me to apply and see what happens. And it was being run by a great composer and conductor, a man called Bruno Maderna. And it was four finalists, and I was one of them and Maderna assigned each of us to an hour and a half master class with one of the great conductors conducting at the festival. And the conductors assigned were Karl Böhm, Karajan, the very young Claudio Abbado and also a fairly young (Christoph von) Dohnányi. And he assigned me to Karajan. And so I had an hour and a half masterclass with von Karajan, and then a day before I was gonna leave after the whole competition was over, either because the pianist was sick, or for some reason, I got this message from his secretary. Did I know Don Giovanni? Yes. Could I play it? Yes. Would I play a rehearsal? And I did a rehearsal for him, and that's how I got to meet Maestro Karajan. And then with Maestro Leinsdorf, I got the job as a conductor in Milwaukee, in '81. And, John Gage who was the man who hired me, and who made up the program for the next few seasons said in two years, he wanted me to conduct Salome.
Joseph Rescigno: I never had done anything like that in my life. And so the first thing I did was: I took two semesters in the evening at NYU Deutsches Haus for just conversational German. And then I had already made friends with Richard Woitach, who was a friend until he died. I visited him shortly before he passed away. He lived just across the street from me and we knew each other very well. And I called him. I knew that he was Leinsdorf's favorite assistant at The Met. And I said, "Do you think you could ask Maestro Leinsdorf? I just admire his Wagner and Strauss so much. And could he give me just a lesson?" Well, two days later I got this call; it was Leinsdorf, "I'll give you half an hour, come on over." And he lived on Fifth Avenue, 82nd Street. So I went over there and he started by asking me some questions, and I guess he liked my answers because he gave me two hours, and just scratched the surface. And he gave me six sessions of about two hours each, not only on Salome, but so many things. I learned more in those six lessons than I think I learned in four years of school. The man was not only a great conductor, he was just about one of the greatest teachers I've ever come across. He had this ability to be so concise. And he had something that hopefully I share in a little way with him: certain principles that he gave me, and one was something my uncle had said, and coming from two different places, but the idea of connecting sections, almost in an arithmetic way; that if an adagio is following an allegro, there is a connection; it's not just wild, different tempo. It keeps the flow of a symphonic piece or an opera, or whatever. And then a few years after that in 1986, I got to conduct Lucia at Lyric, Chicago. And while I was rehearsing, Leinsdorf was doing a concert with the Chicago Symphony, and each of us went to the other's dress rehearsal.
Marc A. Scorca: How wonderful.
Joseph Rescigno: Very, very nice man. With Maestro Halasz, I was his assistant and then his associate for five years, out of school.
Marc A. Scorca: At City Opera?
Joseph Rescigno: No. He had already left City Opera long before, but he had something called the Concert Orchestra of Long Island. And he had about 20-25 really talented high school kids, some of whom became...one was the principal horn of the National Symphony; one went on to play in other things. And at the same time, I (for six years) taught at the Manhattan School of Music: I had the preparatory orchestra - the high school orchestra. So Halasz would have these high school musicians, and I would rehearse them four or five times. And when they were solid, he'd bring in an equal number of professionals and two rehearsals, everyone together, and that would be the concert, or sometimes, maybe one more rehearsal, and that's how he put on some of these operas. The only opera I was assigned with him, to conduct myself, was a Bohème, but he gave me maybe seven or eight symphonic programs that I conducted the high school students, and then conducted the professionals when they were put together. And so that's how I met him. And then all my life until he passed away, I was one of the people that gave a eulogy at his memorial service. I was very friendly with him. He was like a grandpa. He had a kind of a biting wit, and I know there were some people that didn't care for him, but he was very nice to me. Very nice, always.
Marc A. Scorca: So when we think about von Karajan, Leinsdorf, Anton Coppola, Halasz, Guadagno, Serafin, Gavazzeni, your uncle: are there other standout things, like what you learned from so and so; what you observed in this one stayed with me forever. Some other important lessons of observation.
Joseph Rescigno: Absolutely. I was 19 and I went over to Italy. One of the reasons I chose Rome to study...my undergraduate was not in music. I was a dual major of Italian literature and philosophy at Fordham University. And because I had a 3.8 by the latter part of sophomore year, I had the option of going to Europe, but what they said was (because of the philosophy), "Well, you can go to Rome, it works out perfectly for your Italian literature classes. But the only philosophy we can sanction is at the Gregorian University," which was the Jesuit university for the world. And back then all classes and tests and texts were in Latin. But I said, "I can do it. I've taken already five years of Latin. I can do it." And I did. But going there and taking these (classes)...I spent more time doing music, and in conducting I got to work with Franco Ferrara at Santa Cecilia, and in piano. In the summer before school started, I went to Accademia Chigiana in Siena and played for (to me), one of the greatest pianists of all time, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. And I played for him. And after hearing a few pieces, he says, "Well, the index and the fourth finger of your right hand work very well." I thought to myself, "Well, better two outta 10 than the none." And then he said, "What do you plan to do? What are your ambitions?" And I said, "I'd like to be a conductor." And he became angry and said, "What? Are you wasting my time? I only work with people who wanna be pianists." And I said, "Maestro, I really feel that there are two things a conductor should do. I used the word 'lottare' (wrestle) with an instrument, and study composition and compose. And I had been working very hard with Nicolas Flagello in composition, and I'd been working with Ada Kopetz in piano. So he calmed down for a second. He said, "All right," and he gave me a few lessons. And for the next year and a half that I was in Rome, I studied with his assistant, Alberto Neuman, but just hearing him play...Another person who just opened my eyes to what was possible with a great chorus master was Roberto Benaglio. He had been for 20-some years the chorus master of La scala and upon retirement, my uncle brought him to Dallas to be his chorus master there. And it was just a lesson in the possibilities of what choruses can do. And the other thing that was interesting: one of the years, cause for six years, I conducted the student matinées for my uncle in Dallas at that time. And one year I had the apartment right next door to Maestro [indecipherable], and I noticed that every morning he'd play Bach on the piano. And I asked him, "Is this something you've (always) done? He says, "Tutto la vita," all my life. He says, "Mi fa sano," it makes me healthy.
Marc A. Scorca: Isn't that wonderful. You know, there are a couple of other people you've mentioned, and they're not the headliners, but I just wanted you to share with us a few words. I put down Richard Woitach, who I knew back in the gosh in the 1970's. Lovely man. What made him so special?
Joseph Rescigno: Richard was one of the most intelligent human beings I've had the privilege of knowing. He was an incredible wit, brilliant pianist, so nice, terrific musician, and one of those people who worked in the artistic vineyards without always the adulation of [indecipherable] What I loved about him was, he shared, for example, the same thing that my grandfather had; that I saw in Bruno Maderna, when I worked with him: a love of music, so profound, it was almost like a religion. And, he was one of those people that, I think, believed in the redemptive qualities of music. They say that Wagner had this theory of redemption through love. Well, I think that these people like Richard believed that music could elevate the spirit and bring not only enjoyment, but a kind of spiritual solace. It was another proof of the existence of the soul.
Marc A. Scorca: Oh my goodness. How beautifully said. What about Alberta Masiello? If you grew up with a Saturday afternoon broadcast, you knew the name of Alberta Masiello.
Joseph Rescigno: She was also a monstrous talent. Apparently, she was along with people like Willie Kapell one of the great pianists of the Juilliard School, but she suffered like (Franco) Corelli and a few others, horrible nerves. She hated doing that. So, she played, but apparently the nerves were so bad that it diminished some of the quality of her work as a performer. She briefly worked even as a contralto. I think she sang Carmen at City Opera. I am absolutely convinced if she were a young lady now, she'd be maybe the premier woman conductor of the world. Unfortunately she was living at a time where it was virtually impossible for women to be accepted as a conductor. But I think my uncle was actually quite instrumental in giving her, basically what turned out to be the majority of her career. He brought her in '54 to be his rehearsal pianist in Chicago. She could play anything. I saw her a few years later play the quintet from Carmen with all thirds in her right hand, just knocking it off like it was one of the Chopin études. But she was a legendary pianist and coach at The Metropolitan Opera.
Marc A. Scorca: You've already mentioned Nicolas Flagello, who was the brother of Ezio Flagello, wonderful bass-baritone.
Joseph Rescigno: Great bass. Luckily, I was able, towards the end of his career, to conduct Ezio. For three years, I was the artistic director of a company called Artist International, which was a presenter and the Opera Company of Providence, Rhode Island. I had taken that position from a lady called Margaret Ruffino, and one of the things we were planning was Don Pasquale. And I called my teacher's brother Ezio, who had cut way back because he had had some operation on his throat and so for the first time, he was starting to do some buffo things instead of the more straightforward bass and bass-baritone roles. And he was just the most marvelous Pasquale in that production and Tony Stevanello staged it.
Marc A. Scorca: Oh my goodness. It's amazing to hear these names that I grew up with, and so many of us grew up with, who were part of the American opera network, which was so small in those days. Everyone knew everyone. Before we go on and talk a little bit more about your great career in Milwaukee, I just have to ask: what was it like hearing Callas in the theater?
Joseph Rescigno: I was lucky enough to have seen her in six different operas. I first heard this Trovatore, then I heard her in Dallas in that concert with my uncle, kind of a calling card, and then I saw the first production that they did which was Italiana in Algeri with Simionato, but then in Dallas I heard her do Traviata, and at The Met I watched her do Lucia and Tosca: - the first Tosca, (not the one in '64). And also a concert Pirata with my uncle, with American Opera Society. She was unforgettable. She was a perfectionist. She was the first one at every rehearsal and the last to leave. And these stories that she wasn't nice? She was very nice. I mean she didn't have to go out of her way to be nice to a kid between the ages of nine and 16. And she was just really nice. I also remember how...I don't know, maybe she had difficulty with her own parents or something, but she just adored my grandmother, Nicola's mother. Every chance she could, she'd go over and my grandmother went to every one of my uncle's rehearsals and stayed with him in Chicago and stayed with him in Dallas and would cook for him. But, Callas was electric.
Marc A. Scorca: Wow. Just incredible to hear. So 38 years in Milwaukee at Florentine Opera, and there has to be something deeply rewarding about such an extended tenure of getting to know a community and guiding it through artistic discovery after discovery. What was it like to spend 38 years helping shape a musical life in a city?
Joseph Rescigno: Well, some people thought I was foolish; that I should have left maybe 12, 15 years earlier; that I would've had more opportunities in other places. It was my life, and with each of the general directors, I got to do things that were different. With John Gage, (of course he was the one who hired me) we did our first things, mostly -with the exception of Salome - (works from) the Italian or French school. But what was very rewarding, besides getting to work with some wonderful people, like Johanna Meier for the first time, among others, I got to do Kristine Ciesinski's first Salome, and Maria Spacagna's first Butterfly. And in both cases, I coached them and worked with them, and so that was very good. Then with Dennis (Hanthorn), (who) was just a model of what a general director should be. He was a musician himself. He had been a horn player, but he just was dedicated to the art form. He loved it, and not for any personal (artistic goal). He was not a stage director. He was not a conductor. And he was a tireless fundraiser and raised almost double what either of the other directors did. And because of that, and he adored Wagner and Strauss, I got to do operas that I thought I'd never get to do: Ariadne, Elektra, Rosenkavalier, Walkuere, Tristan, Fliegende Hollaender, and having this wonderful symphony, the Milwaukee Symphony, which is better than 95% of all the opera orchestras in the United States. So this was an immense advantage. And then with Bill Florescu, I got to do more new music. I got to do the world premiere of a very challenging piece. I'm so sorry it hasn't been given a second production, Rio de Sangre. I tried with the Rome Opera. I thought maybe it would have a better shot in Europe at this point. It needs a really wonderful orchestra and it needs rehearsal time. Case in point: I did Little Women in '07 for Louisville Opera, and I pretty much learned the opera in two weeks. I worked on Rio for 11 months, and the only opera I did (that) was a little bit harder was Rosenkavalier. It's wonderful, but it requires a big chorus, 6-7 characters (hard to sing), about a 65 piece orchestra and a 14 piece salsa banda on stage. There's a nightclub scene where they do different things. And there's a riot scene pretty much just for the chorus and orchestra that we had to have a tech rehearsal at Florentine of three hours, just for this eight minute scene. And it was recorded and it was very well received and I am so grateful that I got this opportunity just as I'm grateful to Opera Theatre of St. Louis that I got to do the world premiere of Minoru Miki and Colin Graham's Jōruri. Actually I got to do more world premieres in the four years that I had Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal. In my last year, I finally talked the board president to allow me to program a new Canadian piece on every concert. In kind of sad times, in many ways, one of the positive things going for opera right now is we're renewing the river of operatic music. The spring was almost dried up. It was becoming just a museum of past. And with this new emphasis on living composers and doing this, it's returning to be what it was for most of its great history.
Marc A. Scorca: Absolutely. Now I did wanna ask you a couple of questions related to this. So you've done big companies: Lucia at Lyric Opera of Chicago; Jōruri at Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Florentine, Milwaukee...the relative pleasures of big companies/small company, because they're very different. The big companies, producing to some conceptual level of quality, the smaller companies connecting with their communities in a special way. How did you relate to the big company/small company dynamic?
Joseph Rescigno: One of the reasons I think I stayed so long in Milwaukee and liked it, is we could do actually what was kind of my uncle's dream and Larry Kelly's in Dallas and the two of them along with Carol Fox co-founders in Chicago, both Dallas and Chicago became very important companies, but they started out doing the highest quality, but only two productions, maybe and to reestablish...Dallas never had an opera company. And Chicago had the Chicago Civic. That's why they're calling the theater, the Civic, and my uncle actually: the first important company he ever conducted for in the United States was the Chicago Symphony.
Marc A. Scorca: Before it closed in the depression?
Joseph Rescigno: Exactly. Not the depression; it stayed open until like 47/48.
Marc A. Scorca: I didn't realize it had gone that long.
Joseph Rescigno: It did. And Fausto Cleva was a mentor of my uncle and brought him there. It briefly closed during the depression then restarted again, but then finally closed. And four years later in '54, Kelly, who was from Chicago and Carol Fox also from Chicago, and Carol Fox had my uncle as a coach, and they formed this company and called it the Lyric and...
Marc A. Scorca: and started at a very high quality.
Joseph Rescigno: It started at a very high (quality), as did Dallas. And I know I was (working) for luckily a number of productions. For example, I got to do a wonderful Otello at Florentine with Ermanno Mauro, and with Spacagna as Desdemona and a terrific Turandot that had Lando Bartolini and Johanna Meier, who came out four months into her retirement to do Elektra. Her career basically was always as Chrysothomis, but I gave her a chance to do her only staged Elektra. Dejan Miladinović was the stage director and Mildred Tyree was Chrysothemis, and Joyce Castle was Klytemnestra. And so we got to do some very ambitious and wonderful productions, but still, it was a company that was very much connected to the community. And I remember in '05, we did a terrific Aida. Three theaters co-produced it. Miami, Detroit and Milwaukee. It was the Bliss Hebert and Allen Charles Klein (production). Guido LeBron was Amonasro, and he and I went to this school on a day off and we spoke to maybe 500 students and Guido talked mostly about his life; being born in Puerto Rico and what it's like to be a singer. And I spoke mostly about what the opera was gonna be about. And one girl, maybe she was 12, she asked Guido LeBron, "Are you rich?" And Guido said, "Well, no, but I get to do what I love, and I'm not starving; I'm doing okay." And so I said, "Why don't you ask me that question?" And she says, "Okay, are you rich?" And I said, "I'm the richest man in the world." "Why?" "Because I got to spend my life doing something I love." And at that point, I just had my 50th anniversary with my wife, and I said, "And for all these years, I'm still married to the same person who, incredibly, still loves me. I don't know why, but she does." And so she says, "Well, if you're rich, how big is your house?" And I said, "Well, I don't have an house; I have an apartment." "Well, how big is it?" "Five rooms." "Well, that's not very big." "Yes, but five rooms in Manhattan are worth 20 in Milwaukee.” I don't think she understood it, but the teachers were sort of laughing.
Marc A. Scorca: That's so funny. I did wanna talk about you and teaching. So you do teach and you are a coach. What is special now at this point in your life about helping younger people who are on the rise?
Joseph Rescigno: Actually, when I was with Manhattan School - that was my first job. I was there between '69 and '76 and had the young orchestra. And then for the last, say, three years of that time, if Maestro Coppola was out conducting some place, I took his classes and for most of the '70's, '80's and even '90's, I coached singers a lot. The last, say, 10 years, I've devoted more to working with young conductors. I've had quite a good batting average. When I was in college, my first opera that I conducted was The Marriage of Figaro. I was already at the Manhattan School of Music; my first year of masters, but I had given piano lessons to a super talented high school student who was the younger brother of a classmate - good friend. And my friend was Philip Conlon and his younger brother was James Conlon, and he played the recitativi for me in that Figaro And lately I've been working with some young conductors and helping them, and the way Leinsdorf never would take a nickel for the lessons he gave me...I, of course, charged singers for coaching, but I never asked for any payment from any young conductor that I work with.
Marc A. Scorca: You're giving back.
Joseph Rescigno: And it's one of the main reasons I wrote this book.
Marc A. Scorca: And I wanted to ask you about that. It's called Opera Conducting; where Theater meets Music. And I'm wondering what are the two biggest points you make in that book? If you read this book, the thing you need to understand. What are a couple of those points?
Joseph Rescigno: Well, the first one is that a conductor doesn't sing, (or at least he shouldn't; if you have to sing a line or two, things are not going well). And he doesn't play, unless he's doing recitativi, and I did that once or twice for Rossini operas but usually in the pits, they're kind of big and it's not feasible. I mean Levine was one of the great pianist/conductors, and he didn't play his recitativi when he did Mozart and just too many things in a larger theater to worry about. But what the conductor does, is he shapes the opera. And the interrelationship of tempi, choosing the speed. I remember asking my uncle something and he insisted to have the command that if this is the tempo you want, hit it all the time, don't do it fast one evening and slower the next. And I said, "Well, doesn't that depend on the interpretation?" And he said, "Nothing so affects the interpretation of a piece of music, than the speed at which you take it." And so I try I to do that. What can tell the drama; what is the speed at which you take a piece of music and the interconnection...for example, I still believe that both Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini wrote at the speed of speech. Sometimes we speak more slowly, and more carefully, and when we're excited, we speak quickly. But we never speak quite as slow as Bellini sometimes, right? Or as Wagner sometimes sings, or as fast as Rossini sometimes sings. And what I find very often today is - as opposed, say, if one goes to - especially pre-World War II recordings, if you can get access to them. But even from the '50's, hearing Puccini, it has that quality of speech. And often certain things are dragged out so slowly today, or with Mozart, the slow numbers like Dove sono or Porgi amor are taken at a funerial pace, and the quicker things go so fast, that kind of jewel-like quality that you hear,...when Michelangel or Gieseking played a Mozart concerto, it was like pearls cascading, or when you hear someone like Eleanor Steber sing, it had this jewel-like quality, and I was brought up...I mean, my uncle was a very fine Mozart conductor, but I heard Karl Böhm a lot; I watched Karajan do this; I played rehearsal for him and this kind of frenetic, crazy, fast tempi that you hear sometimes today, you didn't and not only does this affect the music, it affects the drama; it affects the theater, as it were. All of this hearkens back. I was having my weekly breakfast meeting with an artist manager and a stage director. And, I was saying, "You know, when you really think about it, western human endeavor reached a climax in a couple of hundred years in Athens: there was no greater theater ever written. There was no greater philosophy. There was no greater sculpture.” And it took Europe over a thousand years to recapture that, and we didn't get a sculptor like Phidias until Michelangelo. And for that brief time, everything came together and maybe in a certain way, if one thinks of music theater in the form of opera, from Mozart through Richard Strauss, Puccini, this was like the Greek golden age. And so when people say why do we need to do new music? They did it all. Well, yes, but it doesn't mean that after the Greeks finished, we didn't have continuation. Europe went into the dark ages with the barbarians and the fall of Rome, but fortunately the beginning of Islam...within a few hundred years, it was the Mohammedans who brought in a kind of scholarship and thought and mathematics. I mean the concept of zero is one of the great achievements of human endeavor. So it renewed; it started again in Europe and finally with the Renaissance, not only they turned to Greek and Roman models, but they realized that the great plays of Sophocles, Euripides, these people were done with song. And that began the thought, that began the process of what we call opera or music theater. It was theater with music.
Marc A. Scorca: It is so great to hear you speak about this and to recognize the depth of your training, of your reading, of your constant curiosity that gives you this tremendous perspective. I can't believe that we've come to our hour here. I just wanna say Joseph Rescigno, thank you. Thank you for what you've done for American opera; for opera. Thank you for this hour. And I just can't wait to continue the conversation in person as soon as we can.
Joseph Rescigno: Absolutely. And thank you, Marc for all your tireless work. OPERA America has been an organization, and continues to be one, that sustains opera. And at no time in my life have I seen such difficulties for the art form. You know, it's not so bad for someone at my age, or someone who's just beginning, but for so many singers and musicians that are in their late 40's, early 50's, this is crushing. I fear one thing though: if there's one thing that I think opera companies (and just thinkers) should be mindful of, is that music education is almost non-existent. And why are sports so popular in the United States? Because almost everyone gets to play them. 150 years ago, playing a musical instrument was part of an educated person's upbringing. Okay. That stopped being true at a certain time period, but knowing about plays, music, painting: these things were part of education until the 1990's. It's not being taught. And if someone doesn't know anything about a subject, the people won't go. I think both Symphonies and Operas have to take up the slack, and rather than cutting back on student performances and education, which is something I'm seeing, they should just do the opposite. They should just emphasize this, because unless young people are given access to good theater, good opera, good classical music...the reaction is usually positive. Instead of these clichés, "Oh, it's an elitist art form." No, it's not. It's a beautiful human expression. But this government, for some reason, never took a real interest in the arts; neither party for different reasons. But the result was that education was de-emphasized. In my lifetime, the only president that I saw really doing something for the arts, tragically assassinated, was John F. Kennedy. But hopefully, as we come out of this, it should also be a renewal in education.