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DeLuise on a Frosch Path to O.C.

November 13, 1996

Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Die Fledermaus" is a musical confection of flirtations, mistaken identities and a happy ending. Opera Pacific reprises its 1988 English-language production Saturday through Nov. 24 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. Louie Otey and Brenda Harris play the liberated lovers von Eisenstein and Rosalinda; Orange County's Lynette Tapia makes her company debut as Adele.

There's also a Hollywood contingent on the set: Charles Nelson Reilly directs, and comedian Dom DeLuise does a star turn in a minor speaking role, the inebriated jailer Frosch.

DeLuise was featured in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" and "Silent Movie," provided voices for animated characters in Don Bluth's "An American Tail" and both "All Dogs Go to Heaven" movies, had his own television series and has written several children's books.

DeLuise, 62, gave the frothy operetta a Frosch perspective in a phone interview with Benjamin Epstein.

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Question: You're hardly new to the role of Frosch--you performed it at Metropolitan Opera in New York, isn't that right?

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Answer: Four different years.

At the Met, I came down and talked to the audience; I did a mock opera. There's a tenor; I gave him a long white handkerchief. In 1993, Pavarotti came on stage accompanied by two policemen, saying I was mocking him. I did not know this was going to happen. For me, it was all ad lib, amazingly funny.

Pavarotti and I took a bow together. He had a very large handkerchief. I had a large handkerchief. When he held up my hand, [my handkerchief] was laced with a wire hanger, so when I held it by the tip it went straight up in the air. . . . To bow with Pavarotti was the most memorable moment of my life.

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Q. Did you learn anything at the Met you can use at Opera Pacific?

A. Hello! Of course.

First of all you have to make friends with the area you're in. It has to feel safe to be on the stage. The first rehearsals at the Met were in a little dark basement, all enclosed, four walls. . . . Then I was on the Metropolitan stage, and they raised this asbestos stage curtain on this huge empty stage, and I heard myself say, 'Holy . . . !'

I realized I was frightened. I knew that I belonged there because I got the job, but I also realized I had to have fun. Same as the first time I got into drag and put on high heels--at first I didn't have fun.

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Q. Eventually you did have fun?

A. There was this prompter. Her head is visible to us, but not to [the audience]. The tenor took a doze--which tenors do all the time, you know? Sometimes they go to sleep. His concentration was that of a rabbit. She cued him. Nothing. I said to her under my breath, but so that the whole audience could hear, "You cued him, we heard the line, but who says it? You have got to come out of your shell!"

I can talk to the audience in this role. I can say political things like, "Dole can always go back to selling pineapples" or "No Newt is good Newt"--in New York, they applauded when I said that. Or "Leona? That woman is impossible to satisfy. There aren't enough towels in the world to make her happy!"

I make all sorts of opera references. Aida, I just met a slave named Aida--to the tune of "Maria," Hermann Prey I call Ham on Rye. It's all very strange stuff, but if you're an opera lover . . .

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Q. There's a history of comedians doing this role.

A. Sid Caesar, King Donovan, Jack Gilford. . . . The role of Frosch is not in stone at all. . . . You hear jokes about the whiskey bottle, "Beethoven's Fifth? This is Beethoven's Fifth!"

Jack Gilford fished a bottle of whiskey out of a tuba, drank it and put it back into the tuba. [Other performers] fall down the stairs, Gilford went down a slide with cheese in his right hand.

[During the McCarthy era] Jack was blacklisted. For 15 years he didn't work. . . . One day he went into a studio and was told, "Jack, I can't keep you. I didn't know about the list. I was told not to hire you." The man who broke that, who rejuvenated his career, was [Met general manager Rudolf] Bing, he hired him [as Frosch]. Jack told me this with tears in his eyes.

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Q. What's it like working with Charles Nelson Reilly on an opera?

A. I don't question his taste at all. He's very inventive. Usually you come on stage, you make the sign of the cross and you enter stumbling with the keys. Here I come on arguing with my dog. "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore."

I love this role. I'll do it anywhere in the world--only in Europe they won't understand my references. In New York, when I look out the window, I say, "What do you see? 65th Street and Amsterdam." Amsterdam is a local street outside the Met. In Orange County I suppose I'll say South Gate Plaza.

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Q. South Coast Plaza.

A. I'm all over the place. I go to Las Vegas, I work in Atlantic City, I do a nightclub act, I perform on Broadway, I do opera, "Orpheus in the Underworld" [at Los Angeles Opera in 1989]. I wrote a cookbook, I wrote my own versions of "Goldilocks," "Hansel and Gretel" and now "King Bob's New Clothes," my version of "The Emperor's New Clothes." I do the voice for Itchy [dachshund Itchy Itchiford in "All Dogs Go to Heaven"] . . . .

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Q. Where are you speaking from, is this your home?

A. No, it's where I keep my nail polish. It's Pacific Palisades. We got a lot of furniture here, and food, so I guess it's a home.

* Opera Pacific's production of Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Die Fledermaus" opens Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. $22-$89. Continues Nov. 20, 22 and 23 at 8 p.m., with matinees Sunday and Nov. 24 at 2 p.m. (800) 346-7372 or (714) 740-7878 (Ticketmaster).

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