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Lyrical Longings

Strauss' 'Der Rosenkavalier' Ponders Love, Aging and the Class System in Musically Challenging Comedy


The first time conductor John DeMain heard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," he had the same reaction many of us did.

"It blew me away," he said in a recent interview at Opera Pacific's studios in Santa Ana. "I thought, 'This is some of the most glorious music ever written.' "

Artistic director for Opera Pacific for the past three years, DeMain will conduct Strauss' sumptuous opera--the company's first Strauss opus--today, and Thursday through Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

Alternating in principal roles will be Helen Donath and Elizabeth Holleque (as the Marschallin), Patricia Risley and Deanne Meek (Octavian), and Daniel Lewis Williams and Markus Hollop (Ochs). Nancy Allen Lundy will sing Sophie.

"One of the reasons that I love 'Rosenkavalier' is that like any great comedy--the same thing is true for [Mozart's] 'The Marriage of Figaro'--there's so much truth in it," DeMain continued.

"Both pieces speak of mixing classes and dealing with what that causes in human behavior. In Mozart, we're looking at real human behavior and dealing with the caste system and how to get around it because it robs people of their individual dignity and their freedom.

"In Strauss, we have the addition of Freud and we have much more awareness of the psychological behavior of human beings and even more self-awareness as far as behavior is concerned."

The title of the opera can be translated as "The Knight of the Rose," but opera buffs leave it in the original German. The word refers to a fairy-tale custom of an emissary presenting a silver rose to an aristocrat's betrothed as a symbol of his love.

In Strauss' opera--a lyric, penetrating meditation on love, aging and a rigid class system--the presentation of the rose leads to unexpected complications.

Staging a work of this magnitude and sophistication is a sign of Opera Pacific's maturity.

"Even though it's imperative that we do the 12 most popular operas that will guarantee us a constant box office," DeMain said, "at the same time we had to begin to say, 'We're a serious opera company.'

"I don't see 'Rosenkavalier' as a culmination, though, although maybe I should because it's so difficult. I see it as another step in what I see we should be as an opera company. We have to perform Wagner and Strauss. We have to do new works. We have to commission."

Doing "Rosenkavalier" is also an expensive undertaking, costing about $200,000 more than the company's average $850,000 price tag for a production.

Some operas have four or five leading characters and a huge chorus; "Rosenkavalier" has a relatively small chorus, DeMain said.

"When you've also got 72 musicians in the pit, that's quite an additional expense, especially when you start going into overtime, which you have to. You can't avoid it.

"But we have a commitment to try to raise the artistic standards of the company. We have a vision for the company. We've articulated a vision. There's a design and a commitment about the design."

The production, created for Seattle Opera in 1997, is "oversized," DeMain said. "It makes a statement about the grandiose behavior of the aristocracy, which is readily apparent when you see the scale of the set. They're not cheap sets. They look good."

Jay Lesenger is the stage director.

To ensure everyone's mastery of the score, DeMain has added three rehearsals to the usual five.

"Rosenkavalier" is one of those pieces that taxes the orchestra right to the end--through the sheer length of the work and its difficulty, DeMain said.

"Plus, every singer will tell you, the first time they encounter it, they thought they could never learn it. But once you've digested it and have learned it, then you don't think about that anymore."


It's taxing for the conductor too.

"I can walk out of a 'Carmen' rehearsal and let them work on the castanets or something, the dance. But I am glued to my seat for the 'Rosenkavalier' rehearsals because there has to be someone putting the stick down all the time.

"No matter how well you know the piece, you have to see where [the beat] is because it's so complicated."

Of course, the opera has its rewards.

"You love to be emotionally and sensuously manipulated. That's why we go to the theater, why we go to the opera. And Strauss does that so well. That's why we keep doing it, because we get so much back from putting so much out."

Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at


John DeMain conducts Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Today, and Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. $29 to $107 today and Thursday; $32 to $107 Friday through Sunday. (714) 556-2787.

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