Nicola Rescigno, cofounder and artistic director of the Dallas Opera, was born on May 28, 1916, in New York City. Though his father, an Italian immigrant, was a trumpeter with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, he initially discouraged his son’s entry into music. Rescigno attended a Jesuit prep school in Italy, and in the early 1930s he studied law and earned a degree at Sapienza University in Rome. But afterwards, he returned to New York and studied at Juilliard. In 1943 he debuted as conductor of La Traviata at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He soon became conductor and music director of the San Carlo Opera Company, which toured America and Canada to bring popular opera to audiences. It was in this capacity in late 1944 that Rescigno first came to Dallas for a week of performances. His star continued to rise as music director at San Francisco, Connecticut, and Havana operas.
In 1954 Rescigno served as artistic director of the Lyric Theatre of Chicago, which he cofounded with business manager Lawrence V. Kelly and general manager Carol Fox. The season opener, which featured the American debut of the acclaimed Maria Callas in Bellini’s Norma, earned Rescigno an international reputation. By the end of the second season, however, both Rescigno and Kelly resigned because of artistic control issues with Fox.
In 1957 Rescigno again teamed with Kelly to found the Dallas Civic Opera, later renamed the Dallas Opera. Serving as artistic director and principal conductor, Rescigno dazzled Dallas audiences with an opening concert at State Fair Music Hall on November 21, 1957, featuring diva Maria Callas performing with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The following night, he conducted the company’s first opera, Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri. It was also the American debut of Franco Zeffirelli as set designer and stage director. The opera company launched to rave reviews. Newsweek commented, “For a couple of nights running…Dallas, Texas, was the operatic capital of the United States.”
During the 1958 season, Zefferelli staged the production of La Traviata for Callas. Rescigno, who with Kelly, scouted talent from all over the world, had a knack for introducing top notch artists to the United States, and he garnered for the Dallas Opera the reputation of maintaining impeccable musical standards. In Dallas he conducted the American debuts of Joan Sutherland, Placido Domingo, Teresa Berganza, Gwyneth Jones, Jon Vickers, Magda Olivero, and others. Under his artistic direction, John Houseman and Jose Ferrer made their operatic directorial debuts.
He conducted the U.S. premieres of Handel’s Alcina, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, and Cimarosa’s Il Maestro di Cappella among others.
With the death of Lawrence Kelly on September 16, 1974, Rescigno also assumed the duties of general director for the Dallas Opera until Plato Karayanis was hired for that position in 1977. Rescigno made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera with a performance of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, which included Beverly Sills in the cast, in 1978. He continued his role as artistic director in Dallas until he announced his resignation in late 1989. The move stemmed in part from years of disagreements with Karayanis over the artistic direction of the company. He conducted his last performances—a production of Madama Butterfly—at Fair Park Music Hall in January 1990 and left Dallas. Dallas Morning News music critic John Ardoin wrote, “The Rescigno years have been a remarkable era that brought the city its first international acclaim as an arts center, and during this time there were few opera companies in the United States that could boast the full-time care and services of so respected and admired a musician.” His extensive discography included many live recordings with Callas.
Rescigno, a Catholic, performed as a guest conductor in a limited capacity, but soon retired to his home near Rome, Italy. He died in Viterbo, Italy, on August 4, 2008, at the age of ninety-two. A nephew, Joseph Rescigno, was also a conductor.