He speaks rapidly, his words clipped and precise. You might be tempted to say he has an Italian accent-but no, not really. There are no stretched vowels or rolled consonants-he pronounces English as near to perfection as anyone in America today.
No, it’s not an Italian accent. It’s an Italian manner: the sudden gesture that flies out from his hands in the middle of a sentence, the lightning intensity of mood.
And therein lies the identity not only of Nicola Rescigno, but of the Dallas Opera, the company he cofounded thirty years ago. Rescigno is a native American-as American as Mario Cuomo or Frank Sinatra-and, like Cuomo and Sinatra, his ancestry is pure Italian. The Dallas Opera is as American as Dallas itself, but, like Rescigno. the company’s roots, and, incidentally, its greatest strengths, are in the Italian repertoire.
In opera, the singing stars are the most visible component, the face of opera that the public sees. The sets are the clothes that dress the opera. And the various staff workers are the arms and legs and arteries and nerves of the same body.
But the heart of the opera, the pumping muscle that gives the pulse of life to this gigantic animal, is the conductor. And for three decades–during which the Dallas Symphony has passed through no less than seven principal conductors-the heart of the Dallas Opera has been Nicola Rescigno.
It was more than forty years ago when Rescigno first saw Dallas and Dallas first saw Rescigno. In December of 1944. the young conductor was on the road with the San Carlo Opera, a touring company thai was responsible for bringing opera to much of the U.S. and Canada for the first time.
“We traveled by train, and were responsible for our own accommodations. It was Christmastime, there was a war going on, and I could not get a room reservation in Dallas. I wired my friend Mary Mccormack, a soprano I had known in New York, and pleaded with her to find me a place to stay. I’ll never forget the telegram I got in reply, in which she said. ’1 had to go to bed with a state senator, but I got you a room at the Adolphus.’”
Though McCormack’s tale was a joke (“probably a joke.” Rescigno says with a grin), it gave the young conductor a first impression of Texas as a wide-open, anything- goes sort of place-an impression that stuck with him for years. In 1953, he cofounded the Lyric Opera of Chicago with the brilliant young business manager and dreamer Larry Kelly and the ambitious Carol Fox, and conducted the U.S. debut of Maria Callas in the fall of 1954. A bloody parting of the ways (in-eluding a battle in court for the control of the company) ended with Rescigno and Kelly on the outside looking in. but still wanting a company of their own.
“When the time came to get serious,”Rescigno says, “there was no place butDallas. We had developed a taste for mag-nificence in Chicago, and Dallas, as virgin territory, appealed to us. There was a theater, and a very good orchestra. John Rosenfeld [former music critic of The Dallas Morning News] remembered my San Carlo appearances favorably, anil he was interested in having a resident company-though I don’t think he imagined anything so grand as we had in mind. But there were people who did want what we wanted, particularly Henry S. Miller, who helped us get started.
’And then there was the Texas mystique. Early on, the great artists we brought here were willing to come, at least in part, because of a great curiosity about Texas. And that helped, a lot.”
With Kelly handling the fundraising. Rescigno the musical side, and both working with a single vision of artistic grandeur, the young company quickly emerged by the early Sixties as one of the most daring in America, thanks to several appearances by the great soprano Maria Callas as well as a number of notable revivals.
“For a while, we were the naughty boys of opera-very extravagant and expensive in our tastes. But that is what gave us our reputation for excellence.”
Photos of Rescigno in his younger days reveal a bony, almost wraithlike presence. He doesn’t tell his age, and, though the march of time has softened his features somewhat, he is still trim and muscular in shirt sleeves, and he leaps over the rail of the orchestra pit during dress rehearsals with the ease of a teenager.
He was born in Manhattan, son of Joseph Rescigno, the Metropolitan Opera’s Italian-bom principal trumpet player. His father taught him to read music at the age of six, and he moved quickly on to piano. Al age ten, he went with his brother to study at a Jesuit school in Rome, eventually rounding out a classical Italian education with a doctorate in jurisprudence.
“My father didn’t want me to be a professional musician,” he recalls. “When I took the final examination for the degree, I promised the professor 1 would never disgrace the profession of the law by actually practicing!”
Meanwhile, the young Rescigno had been concentrating on his real interest, studying at the Academy of Music in Rome and sleeping himself in the Italian operatic tradition. When he returned to New York, he began looking for a way to break into conducting.
“When I decided I was ready to conduct, I went to the manager of the Salmaggi Opera, a popular company that played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and asked him for an engagement, He knew my lather, and my uncle, the opera coach Pasquale Rescigno. and, to my great amazement, said, ’Yes. come next Saturday and conduct Traviata.’ No audition, no rehearsal. Maybe he was impressed by the young punk who put himself forward like that.
’Anyway. I didn’t mention anything about it at home that week until Friday night at supper, when I said, lWhy don’t we go to the Academy of Music in Brooklyn tomorrow?’ Everybody looked at me like I was a nut- we could all go to the Met whenever we wanted, why should we go out to Brooklyn? And I said. ’Because I’m conducting.’ “
Rescigno says he will never forget the forks dropping on the table, “Papa looked at me and said, ’It’s taken me thirty years to build a good reputation as a musician and you’re going to ruin it in three hours.’”
But they went, though Joseph Rescigno stayed outside, nervously pacing the sidewalks and grabbing orchestra musicians between acts to find out how his son was doing.
The young conductor survived his Brooklyn debut, and with professional experience under his belt, was soon hired as assistant conductor for the San Carlo company. After only a few weeks on the road, the principal conductor was engaged at the Metropolitan Opera and turned the San Carlo over to Rescigno.
“It was a marvelous company and a marvelous experience. Imagine! 1 conducted every night of the week plus two performances on Saturday and two on Sunday. It was the best possible school. A career is based on talent in the long run, but often breaks depend on good luck. My luck was the fact that I was an American who could conduct Italian and French opera. A native-born American conductor was a real rarity in those days, and 1 was kind of a novelty.”
Good breaks continued to come Rescig-no’s way through the next few years, including his spectacular early splash in Chicago with Kelly and finally with the Dallas Opera (under its original name, Dallas Civic Opera) in the late Fifties and early Sixties.
It was not so much as an Italian company, but as a company that continues and renews the Italian tradition, that the Dallas Opera made its greatest impact. Management is quick to point out that the great standards of the German repertoire, including all four segments of Wagner’s Ring cycle, have appeared on the stage of the Dallas Opera. But, in Dallas, the monuments of the North have always been a sidelight to the Italian tradition and the closely related French heritage.
An Italian flavor continues to dominate the company’s repertoire, and probably will for as long as Rescigno is artistic director. The 1987 spring season will focus on Italian bel canto music, as well as yet another rarity revived from the Italian heritage, Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia. The fall season for 1987 will feature Rescigno conducting three more Italian operas (Puccini’s Tosco and Turandot and Rossini’s L’ltaliana in Algeri). Italian conductor Reynald Giovaninetti will conduct a French romantic opera. Massenet’s Werther to round out the season.
Rescigno is now at the point in his career when he can look back with satisfaction on the mountains already climbed. He can enjoy his international reputation as a specialist in the baroque and Italian bel canto repertoire, and be choosy about the engagements he takes on. As he looks back, his proudest accomplishment is the building and nurturing of the Dallas Opera. After Larry Kelly’s death in 1974, Rescigno took on the post of general director for three seasons before turning that job over to Plato Karayanis in 1977. Now. he has enjoyed the last ten seasons in the role he relishes most-that of conductor.
Indeed, he tends to view his thirty seasons with the Dallas Opera as one long performance. “There are moments I treasure.” he admits. “The opening concert with Callas, when we knew we had made it and that there would be a Dallas Civic Opera, or the beau-tiful Figaro we did in 1973. Things like thai. But the thing I am proudest of is having a company that has lasted thirty years, and taking on big projects like the Ring, and introducing new singers and doing operas that had never been done in America before.”
His face takes on a serene smile-a Mona Lisa smile, if you wish, as only an Italian can give. “We did those things to the satisfaction of a lot of people, including me.” he adds. “And I have been the most difficult of all to satisfy.”