Maestro Joseph Rescigno Discusses The Flying Dutchman

On October 25, 2013, I spoke with Maestro Joseph Rescigno who will be
conducting Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman at Arizona Opera
beginning November 15th. The cast includes Mark Delavan as The Dutchman, Lori
Phillips as Senta, and Raymond Aceto as Daland. The director is Bernard Uzan.
Mo. Rescigno told me that the production was designed to have the orchestra pit
covered with stage flooring so that the singers would be much closer to the

MN: Does it make the production easier to put together?

JR: No, in some ways it’s harder. Since the singers will
be behind me, they will only see me on the TV monitors. I will be upstage with
the orchestra and there will be a scrim behind me. The singers are downstage
and the scenery consists of moving and still projections. I did Tristan and
like this in 2004 and it turned out very well. I wouldn’t
consider this kind of staging for something that’s really fast moving like
Rossini or Mozart, but for Wagner it can work. I can remember a whole season of
opera produced that way in Washington, DC, when the theater was being

MN: How do you see The Flying Dutchman? Of what
should the listener be aware?

JR: This is my third production. The first two were in the
late nineties. It’s a transitional piece because Wagner was only beginning to
establish his style. He took some aspects from Carl Maria von Weber and others
from Italian composers like Vincenzo Bellini. For me, there is a fine line
between those styles. It’s important not to do The Dutchman in a
ponderous manner. It has an early romantic feel to it, but at the same time it
has moments of greater drama and intensity than Bellini ever gave us.

There are quite a few places where rubato is warranted. Such momentary
“tempo bending” for expressive purposes would be entirely in keeping with
Wagner’s own comments about his music and the influence the Italians had on
him. That is pretty evident in this opera. For example, in the scene where
Senta sees the Dutchman for the first time, the orchestra plays while the
singers stand transfixed. Then Daland sings an aria and some snippets of the
Senta-Dutchman music come into it. When they do, I like to bring back the
earlier tempo. It gives variety to the scene and makes subliminal connections
across sections. Also, in certain sections, we can be guided by the musical

When you look at Senta’s Ballad along with ballads by Chopin and Brahms,
you know that kind of music has a certain tempo. When done too slow, it becomes
ponderous. It is helpful, of course, that Wagner gave metronome settings for
this opera. For example, the ballad is marked sixty-three. (Maestro sang the
first line: “Trafft ihr das Schiff” with a pleasant lyric baritone sound).
That tempo is important for the ballad.

I need different tempi to establish the dances: At the end of the first act
there is a type of sailor’s Hornpipe. (Maestro sings a little bit of it).
Wagner would develop his style further in his next few operas. All of this is a
wonderful amalgam of the older styles of Bellini and von Weber mixed with
Wagner’s own nascent style which he crystalizes in The Ring of the Nibelungen
and Tristan. If you understand this, you won’t take the dances too fast.

MN: Who were some of your favorite artists of the past?

JR: One of them was Leonie Rysanek whom I saw in many
roles. She had an enormous amount of energy and intensity. Her presence on the
stage created excitement. Over the past twenty-five years I think there has
been much too much emphasis on the elimination of mistakes and not enough on
individual interpretation. I think it’s one of the reasons we don’t hear
many recitals any more. It used to be that when you heard Claudio Arrau and
Vladimir Horowitz play the same piece, their interpretations were entirely
different. When you heard George Szell and Leonard Bernstein conduct the same
work, each of them put his distinctive imprint on it. Now far more artists have
similar interpretations and similar sounds.

One of my favorite tenors was Giuseppe di Stefano. I often went to hear him
when I was young and I was lucky enough to have conducted his last operatic
appearance in 1980. These artists had huge personalities. Who cares if there
was a wrong note here or there? Their performances were thrilling. I would not
complain about a few sharp or flat notes in any performance by Callas or

MN: What do you think of the current role of competitions?

JR: These days, everything has devolved into a contest.
Music is not a contest. Neither is cooking. Now, the winner on a cooking show
is the one who prepared the best dish using garlic, oranges, and licorice!

MN: Do you like to cook?

Yes. I love food and I enjoy preparing it, sometimes for a special occasion
and sometimes to relax. My specialties are risotto alla Milanese, spaghetti
carbonara, and seafood.

MN: Did you study music privately while you were in

JR: Yes, I did, and I think it is important for a conductor
to study composition and become totally proficient on an instrument. I studied
piano with Ada Kopetz-Korf and composition with Nicholas Flagello while I was
an undergraduate at Fordham University. After that, I went on to graduate
school at the Manhattan School of Music.

MN: Did you have a relationship with the New York City
Opera (NYCO)?

JR: I made my debut there in 1985, and between 1999 and
2007 I conducted a production there almost every season. For a musician growing
up in that city, the company was always just “there.” It was one of those
companies that the city’s music lovers never imagined could actually
disappear. While it was not among the companies from which I got my first big
breaks, it served that important role for many, many musicians and, therefore,
for my industry. Its loss is extremely painful.

During the 2008-2009 season, when the New York State Theater was closed for
renovations, the company gave only two performances, but reportedly paid
members of the chorus, orchestra, and administration their full annual
salaries. By the time George Steele arrived it was already too late to save the
company, so I would not pass any judgment on what he did.

The demise of NYCO is a real tragedy. One of my first jobs out of graduate
school was as the assistant to Laszlo Halasz, its founder. The creation of the
company happened with the support and prodding of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia at
about the same time that he helped create the New York City Ballet with Lincoln
Kirstein, and the long defunct New York City Symphony with Leonard Bernstein.
The mission of all of these companies was to provide quality performances of
both traditional and contemporary opera for the people of the city who could
not afford expensive tickets.

MN: Did your uncle, Nicola Rescigno, help you get

JR: Yes, he recommended me for the Dallas Opera student
performances, which I conducted from 1976 to 1981. I also owe my start at the
Florentine Opera in Milwaukee to him. When the Dallas stage manager became the
general director at Florentine, he called my uncle and asked him to conduct
La Gioconda. My uncle could not do it and he recommended me since I
had conducted it the previous year. Not too much later the artistic director
resigned and they invited me to assume that position. I’ve been there ever

MN: What are some of your favorite operas?

JR: I love Don Giovanni, Die Walkure,
Falstaff, and Otello. I’ve never done a Benjamin Britten
opera, but I have done an early song cycle of his and his Serenade for
Tenor, Horn and Strings
. I’d love to conduct Peter Grimes and
The Rape of Lucretia. The story of the latter is somewhat problematic,
but the music is fantastic.

image_description=Joseph Rescigno [Photo by Christian Steiner]
product_title=Maestro Joseph Rescigno Discusses The Flying Dutchman
product_by=An interview by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Joseph Rescigno [Photo by Christian Steiner]