Talk about history. Julius Rudel has witnessed, first-hand, musical events most of us will know only from books.

As a boy in Vienna, Rudel watched Richard Strauss conduct "Der Rosenkavalier" and "Elektra." "He was a wonderful conductor, very understated," Rudel said in his warm, deep voice.

Rudel was 2 when he watched Maria Jeritza sing "Carmen," and he said he remembers that she "was a fabulous performer. I remember some of the action. I was so overwhelmed."

Asked about what conductors he emulated growing up, Rudel initially skips over obvious names like Arturo Toscanini or Bruno Walter. Instead, he cites Hans Knappertsbusch, a name now almost forgotten.

In some ways, Rudel belongs to a bygone musical era. That could explain why, when he conducted the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra from 1978 to 1985, some saw him as conservative after his predecessors, Michael Tilson Thomas and Lukas Foss.

At 81, though, Rudel has an elegance all his own -- especially in the world of opera. He headed up the New York City Opera for years, and it promises to be a glitzy event when, fresh from conducting "Tosca" at the Metropolitan Opera, he arrives this weekend to lead a BPO concert called "A Night at the Paris Opera."

Joined by four singers, Rudel and the orchestra will be performing excerpts from Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffman," Gounod's "Faust" and Bizet's ever-popular "Carmen."

In some ways, the subtlety of French opera suits this elegant, somewhat reserved maestro.

"It's a different kind of sensuality from the Italian," Rudel said. "They're both Latin, in a sense, but I think that French music tends to be a little more seductive. Subtly seductive. I think the Italians go straight at it. They go straight at the jugular."

Selling out the hall

Edward Yadzinski, who used to play saxophone and bass clarinet with the BPO and now serves as the orchestra's archivist, looks back on the Rudel years as a fine time. Rudel, Yadzinski points out, led the orchestra to Carnegie Hall and also on its first West Coast tour. "And we played Schubert's Great C Major Symphony at the Kennedy Center," he adds. "We sold out the hall. It was marvelous."

Yadzinski also remembers Rudel conducting Verdi's "La Forza del Destino." "It was riveting," he said. "It scared the blazes out of me. And that was just the overture! The singers hadn't even started yet.

"It was a difficult time," he points out. "The orchestra was in very severe financial crisis. But through it all, the orchestra was very fond of his music making -- and boy, a lot of things go well when that's good."

Rudel's son, Anthony, who married a woman from East Aurora and maintains ties to this area (he was in town for our dramatic storm this past Christmas), was so impressed by the grounding his father gave him in opera that last year, he wrote a novel about Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

"When I was 6, I used to sit in the pit with my father," the younger Rudel recalls. "I'd sit on a little stool next to him. Usually during 'Don Giovanni,' he didn't have a podium. He'd conduct from the harpsichord."

Anthony Rudel said his father has fond memories of Buffalo. "He's looking forward to going back there," he said.

The maestro, asked about his Buffalo years, names a few highlights: "There was a St. Matthew Passion that I thought came off very well," he said. "The Mahler Fifth. Prokofiev's Third. The Liszt Faust Symphony."

He also remembered his old apartment in Delaware Avenue's Executive Tower. "From up there you had a nice view. You could see all over the lake. Very pleasant."

Notes of nostalgia, however, are absent. Early in his life, Rudel became used to moving around. He was 16 when he and his family, who are Jewish, had to leave Vienna because of the gathering Nazi threat. "There was no choice," he said. "It was that or oblivion. For me, it was very lucky that I was able to come to America and continue my studies here."

In America, Rudel enjoyed the cultural change of pace. "My grounding is very European, and then when I came here, I fell in love with American way of music making -- the openness and the quite well-preparedness," he said.

After the war, Rudel returned to Vienna, to conduct the European premiere of "Kiss Me Kate."

It was a triumphant trip. Audiences embraced the musical, and its success sweetened Rudel's return to the country that had, in effect, exiled him. "It was strange, and strained -- both," Rudel admitted. "But after a while you begin to zero in on people you like and work with. And the atmosphere tends to help you get over the awkwardness."

The dinner crowd

In a way, opera came naturally to Rudel.

"The European path of a conductor usually was by way of the opera house," he said. "You sharpened your technique, your sensibility and your control in the opera house. Fritz Reiner, Arturo Toscanani, Bruno Walter, any of them, they would start in the opera house."

This weekend, four singers will be joining Rudel in Kleinhans. Soprano Jonita Lattimore recently starred in "The Marriage of Figaro" at the Tulsa Opera, while mezzo soprano Jessica Grigg recently made her debut with the Lyric Opera of New Jersey. Tenor Jon Garrison played Tamino in the Metropolitan Opera's "The Magic Flute," and bass Les Young was praised in Opera News as "first class."

All four could be called up-and-coming talent -- and if Rudel is involved, we should probably keep an eye on them. That's because he is known as a discoverer of opera talent.

One singer who came to fame under his baton was soprano Beverly Sills. Asked about her, though, Rudel downplays his role in her career. "She was always very good, well prepared, solid and so on . . . but no one could foresee that suddenly there would be this spurt," he said.

The debut of the great bass Samuel Ramey was more dramatic. He burst on the scene, Rudel recalled, as Zuniga in "Carmen."

"I remember in the first act, it was riveting right there and then. This voice coming up! We hadn't heard a voice like that."

Placido Domingo, too, impressed Rudel at first hearing.

"He auditioned for me," Rudel said. "He was so musical. He looked nice -- tall, handsome and so on. I engaged him right away."

Looking back on his career, Rudel names a few nights he sees as highlights. "My first time at the Staatsoper. My debut there," he said. "Or, when I conducted 'Don Giovanni' in Prague. That was frightening. To think of standing at the same place Mozart did!"

At moments like that, Rudel shows a touching awe of his own place in the musical world. "It was just a dream," he said. "I had no certainty at all about it that it would happen, that it could happen."

Julius Rudel leads the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in Kleinhans Music Hall. Admission is $20-$60, with a 50 percent discount for students under 23 with a valid ID. For information, call 885-5000.