The courage to take risks: Julian Rodescu's rich life in the arts

Julian Rodescu: A life in the arts

6 minute read
Rodescu (right), with the author, 1988: His cup was always full.
Rodescu (right), with the author, 1988: His cup was always full.
"Don't be afraid!"

I was a confirmed choral singer suddenly faced with singing a solo.


I had come to my friend Julian Rodescu for a voice lesson"“ the first of my life.


In half an hour, Julian coaxed out of me a scarily strong voice. All of a sudden, I was singing with more passion than I ever knew I had in me. But Julian knew it was there. Don't be afraid … because you haven't done something before. Be loud … there's nothing wrong with that if you have a good reason. Let go … of preconceived notions and self-imposed barriers.

That's how Julian Rodescu lived his entire life, which ended prematurely last month at the age of 58: always ready to try new things and push new limits. Julian was a cellist who became an opera singer, a singer who became a teacher, a teacher who became an impresario. Also: a Romanian who became an American, and a New Yorker who turned into a devoted Philadelphian.

Anyone who met Julian never forgot him. There was the huge presence, and the enormous basso voice, deeper than any you'd ever heard. If Julian didn't find you a fool, he immediately considered you a friend.

Brunch at Parc

I experienced an example of this quality in September, just a couple of weeks before Julian died unexpectedly. I had come to Philadelphia from New York to meet up with my poet friend Susan Schultz, who was visiting from Hawaii and had a day off between readings. I stayed with Julian and his wife Barbara Govatos, a violinist with the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1982 and my good friend for almost as long.

As it turned out, the two of them had the day free as well, and together we all set out for brunch at Parc on Rittenhouse Square. Before we had finished walking the three blocks down Locust Street"“ which took about half an hour, because Julian kept stopping to greet what seemed like half the musicians in Philadelphia"“ Julian and Barbara and Susan were friends, laughing as though they'd known each other for years.

Mozart in the lobby

Julian was as unforgettable onstage as he was in person. You might have seen him at the Academy of Music or at New York City Opera, at La Scala or at Covent Garden, in roles like Sarastro in The Magic Flute, Fafner in Siegfried, or Sparafucile in Rigoletto. You might also have experienced one of the unusual events he dreamed up, like the animated film Who Stole the Mona Lisa? (set to Stravinsky's Firebird Suite), which premiered at the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts this past spring. Or the Magic Flute that he directed at Swarthmore College's Lang Concert Hall"“ not on the stage, but in the lobby.

If you were very lucky, you got to study with Julian: at Swarthmore, at Westminster Choir College, or at the voice seminar he started ten years ago in Florence, his favorite city in the world. Or perhaps you got the benefit of his mentoring, when he became artistic director of Astral Artists two years ago.

One young tenor whom Julian took under his large and gentle wing became practically like a son to him: Nelson Ebo from Angola, now 27 and studying at the Academy of Vocal Arts. Julian heard Nelson sing in Madrid in 2004, and resolutely helped guide him towards a career.

Audition nerves

Did you participate in a music competition? Julian was a willing and thoughtful judge for several of them, perhaps because a competition played an important part in his own career: In 1988, he was a winner of the Opera Company of Philadelphia/Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition, which he entered partly at my urging.

Julian was nervous about auditioning, but once he sang, the judges couldn't forget the voice that seemed "to resonate from 100 feet below the stage," as one early reviewer put it. Julian's friends teased him about that sort of hyperbole, but he secretly loved it (and never stopped quoting it in his official bio).

Julian could be a clown onstage, literally: He played one in the 1993 world premiere of Burning Bright, which my father, Frank Lewin, composed from John Steinbeck's novel and play. Act I is set in a circus, and Julian was quite a sight in his huge green trousers, gigantic flapping shoes, ridiculous bald cap and big shiny nose. He was equally amusing, but in a frightening way, when he played the officious Master of Ceremonies in the world premiere of Shostakovich's one-act opera Rayok, with the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich.

Movable feast

I'll always regret that I didn't get a chance to visit Julian when he sang abroad, but I cherished his e-mails from the road, in which the loving, detailed descriptions of great churches and museums were rivaled only by the loving, detailed descriptions of great meals: "After crashing for a few minutes, we wandered over to Il Profeta, for a fabulous feast. Claudio, the owner, showered us with extras that we "'had to try.' These included fried zucchini flowers, pasta with a mushroom and mascarpone sauce, and an outstanding yellow squash risotto that passed Barbara's severe taste test. Three of us split a Bistecca Fiorentina that melted in your mouth."

Julian left Nicolae Ceaușescu's Romanian police state in 1963, when he was ten, with his parents, his cherished little sister Alina, and six other family members. He and Barbara Govatos created their own family in 2000, when they adopted Minh Richard Rodescu as a baby in Vietnam. Of all the passionate roles Julian took on, "father" was the one he loved most dearly.

As for me, whenever I let real passion come into my singing voice, I have Julian to thank. By the way he lived, he taught hundreds of people to go all out in life. Don't be afraid … be loud … let yourself go!

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Donations in Julian Rodescu's memory may be made to The Julian Rodescu Memorial Fund, Astral Artists 230 South Broad St., Suite 300, Philadelphia PA 19102, or The Julian Rodescu Memorial Fund, Delaware Chamber Music Festival, Box 3537, Wilmington, DE 19807.

The Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia will dedicate its November 11th concert to the memory of Julian Rodescu. St. Mark's Church, 1625 Locust St., 8 p.m.

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