SAN FRANCISCO — After more than 40 years on the stage, mezzo-soprano Regina Resnik rarely reaches for metaphors. When she does reach, however, the metaphors have nothing to do with closing doors. More likely, they'll involve turning to a new chapter.
Resnik may have even begun an entirely new book this year. With the Civic Light Opera revival of "Cabaret," arriving Friday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, one of the legendary Carmens of our era has made a grand entrance into the popular musical theater.
And so far, four months after she assumed the role of Fraeulein Schneider, the pragmatic landlady in the Fred Ebb-John Kander musical of life in the decadent Berlin of 1930, Resnik couldn't be more pleased. Not even competing with the memory of Lotte Lenya, who originated the part in 1966, can dampen her enthusiasm.
"It's just a big adventure," she declared recently in her quiet flat as the national "Cabaret" tour stopped here on its way to Los Angeles, then to Broadway. "I couldn't hope for anything more than Schneider. She's gay. She's charming. And she's my age.
"This isn't a film, so I didn't have to figure out a way to lose 30 pounds. And I didn't have to have my face lifted. I don't have to think about anything but the part.
"Schneider is wonderful. She's romantic. She's sentimental, and, at the end, she makes the important statement of the play. I like to make statements, so what more could I ask?"
Resnik wasn't exactly sitting around idly before "Cabaret" came along. One of the fine native talents given a boost by the wartime shortage of imported voices, she had burst upon the operatic world at age 18, and sang soprano parts until the mid-1950s when she descended to the mezzo category, where many observers believed she had belonged all the time. Altogether, she sang 80 different roles. "I had done them all."
Resnik retired from the stage without fanfare or remorse after the Met centennial gala in 1983, turning to opera direction, usually with her husband, Arbit Blatas, as designer. She staged the Warsaw premiere of Verdi's "Falstaff" in 1973, taught master classes and made films (her 1983 documentary on the historic ghetto of Venice has been aired over PBS).
"Strange little threads" brought her to "Cabaret." Lenya's will had left funds to create the Kurt Weill Foundation. After Blatas had mounted an exhibition of his paintings and sculpture of Lenya in "Threepenny Opera," the foundation's director Lis Symonette remembered Resnik when director Harold Prince's office called in a desperate search for casting suggestions.
"I asked for the script and the cassette of the score, and I read for Prince for five minutes," Resnik recalls. "I had qualms about the music--it was too low for me--but Kander transposed it so I wouldn't be tempted to go into the opera voice. Hal is very perceptive. In his flexibility, he falls in line with all the great directors I've met. When he saw something coming out of me, he said, 'Do it.' "
Schneider, the Gentile who abandons her lover, the Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schultz, because of pressure from the Nazis, has touched a deep well of personal experience in Resnik:
"I'll tell you a story which illustrates Schneider's situation. I visited Soviet Russia not long ago and found some of my mother's family, a first cousin of mine, his wife and a beautiful boy.
"My cousin said to me, 'I'm a hair dresser at the Bolshoi. My wife has a wonderful job. My son is getting an education that your father didn't have. My mother is old and sick, but she's being taken care of. At my age, where am I going to look for a new life? So, I know I have to make a sacrifice. So I won't be so Jewish in the Soviet Union.' "
Resnik anticipates charges that "Cabaret" may be dated. She is even vehement on the subject:
"Dated? We've going through the Klaus Barbie trial now, one of the last of those criminals, and we're watching him on television. And what about Skokie? A few weeks ago, a Holocaust monument was defaced with the word 'liar' on it.
"We have to look at everything through political eyes. During the contra hearings, that secretary says she knew nothing, she was just working for the greatest boss in the world. Where have we heard that before? You think about these things because you don't go into your dressing room eight times a week by rote."
Resnik, who signed up for a year with "Cabaret," insists on seeing the continuity between opera and musical theater:
"If I look back at my career, I never considered myself an opera singer per se. When I found I was gifted for the stage I always thought I was acting the part with my singing voice. Therefore, nothing has really changed."