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Arts & Culture

The Opera Lover's Opera: 'Der Rosenkavalier'

"Der Rosenkavalier" opens at the San Diego Opera on April 3rd.
"Der Rosenkavalier" opens at the San Diego Opera on April 3rd.
The Opera Lover's Opera: 'Der Rosenkavalier'
Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" is often called an opera lover's opera. We'll talk with SD Opera's artistic director Ian Campbell and Geisel Director of Education, Dr. Nic Reveles, about the history and staging of "Des Rosenkavalier" at San Diego Opera.

"Der Rosenkavalier" opens on April 3rd and runs through April 12th.

Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" is often called an opera lover's opera. We'll talk with SD Opera's artistic director Ian Campbell and Geisel Director of Education, Dr. Nic Reveles, about the history and staging of "Der Rosenkavalier" at San Diego Opera.



Ian Campbell is the general and artistic director of San Diego Opera.

Dr. Nic Reveles is the Geisel Director of Education for the San Diego Opera.

"Der Rosenkavalier" opens on April 3rd. There will be performances on April 6th, 9th and 12th.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Opera comes in many sizes. There is the sweeping opulence of Verdi's Aida, the whimsical beauty of Mozart's the Magic Flute. Even the innovative soundscapes of contemporary opera, but when it comes to an opera that everybody can love, you can't come up with a better fit than Der Rosenkavalier. The production of Richard Strauss's comic bittersweet opera about love and letting go opens this weekend at the San Diego Opera. Here's a little from the opera, this is the prelude to Der Rosenkavalier.

(Audio Recording Played.)


CAVANAUGH: An excerpt from the prelude to Der Rosenkavalier. That was an EMI recording of Bernard Heiting leading the Dresden state orchestra. Here to tell us about the San Diego production are my guests, Ian Campbell, general and artists director of the San Diego Opera. Ian, good morning.

CAMPBELL: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And doctor Nic Reveles is the Geisel Director of Education for the San Diego opera. Nic, hello.

REVELES: Good morning to you Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now, since we just heard the prelude, there is a story behind the prelude music in Der Rosenkavalier of it's one of the most familiar preludes in opera. But it's really rather racy.

REVELES: It's beyond racy. It really is, it's quite an apt and specific description of what's going on behind the curtain. And of course with -- one of the main three strains of story in Der Rosenkavalier is the love of a 32, 33-year-old woman for a much younger man of and they're enjoying an evening of love making just before the curtain goes up, and the prelude essentially describes what's going on.

CAVANAUGH: It references it.

REVELES: There you go.

CAVANAUGH: Now, back on the opening night, this is -- this opera has just celebrated its 100th anniversary. It opened in Dresden in 1911, and ever since opening night, it's been a smashing success. I'm wondering, Ian, what are the elements that make this opera so popular?

CAMPBELL: I think basically it's just incredible music of it's just gorgeous throughout. And you heard that very small sample. And it is an emotional opera. Because we can identify with some of the characters very well, and women in particular are really drawn in by this incredible experience of loving somebody younger, feeling older, whether in fact you are old or not, we look in the mirror as Marschallin does, and we don't see the woman or the man that we knew ten years earlier. That's a part of the emotion, but then in act two, we see young love just blooming, and it's one of the most gorgeous scenes where Octavian meets Sophie for the first time. And then a lot of comedy. But it ends in A bittersweet way as the Marschallin realizes that she has to give up the young man and move on. So I see in this opera everything that most of us have been through in one way or another.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Nic, could you encapsulize this plot for us just a little bit?

REVELES: Well, in a way, there are three plots. There is the Marschallin's love for Octavian, and then the main comic plot is her distant cousin, Baron Ox, and Ox by the way means the same thing in German as in English, who is a complete boor. He's very rusticated, as we might say. And he comes to the Marschallin asking for advice on a go between, because he wants to marry a young noble woman, she's maybe 16 years old, and he's much, much older. And he needs money. He needs property. And he's hoping that this marriage will bring him that. And then there is the love between the young Sophie who is engaged to Baron Ox and Octavian.

CAVANAUGH: If you would tell us a lot bit more about the Marschallin, I know that she is involved in this love affair with this, really teenager.

REVELES: A boy, yeah, 17 years old.

CAVANAUGH: However, she is realistic about this situation in a sense. And she doesn't want to cling to this very younger man.

CAMPBELL: That's absolutely correct. And she says at the end of act 1, to Octavian, I knew this day would comment sooner or later, the day would come when we'd have to part. And she sends him away knowing that it's over. Butch then she realizes she didn't kiss him goodbye. And there's this gap that it's unfinished. And she sends servants off to find him. But it's too late. And then she just resigns herself to the fact that it's over. But this is a woman who is married to a husband that she never sees of he's a military man, he's off doing his own thing, and probably seeing a lot of other women as well. So she's alone a great deal of the time. But she needs love. She needs to feel valued. And that's where the 17-year-old boy comes in.

REVELES: What's interesting is how Strauss and his librettist, Von Hoffmanstahl, capture real human beings of the Marschallin, I've had women or particularly sopranos who have sung in the opera, that Strauss and Von Hoffmanstahl really got the subtle feelings of being a woman in love at this point in her life, with a kid at that point in his life, they just get it right. And Octavian, I was thinking while Ian was describing the end of act one, Octavian is protesting constantly, no, no no, I will always love you. I am passionately in love. Just like a real 17-year-old boy would having been in love for the first time.

CAVANAUGH: Let's hear an excerpt from the Marschallin's monologue. This again from Der Rosenkavalier.

(Audio Recording Played)

CAVANAUGH: That again an excerpt from Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss, and that was performed again by the Dresden state opera orchestra. And Ian, you can tell us what the Marschallin was actually saying.

CAMPBELL: In that monologue and not only that little section, she says that she's getting old, and she says it's easy to remember the little Reecy, which was her name, but now people say the old woman, they're going to say the field marshal's life. Look, there she goes. And then she says, how can it happen? Why does the dear lord do it? Why I always remain the same? And if he does have to do it, why does he let me watch when such things happen?

REVELES: Why is he so cruel?

CAVANAUGH: That's a common complaint I would imagine.

REVELES: This is of course a very reflective moment in the act, but what you hear, even in that short excerpt is that the orchestra is commenting on every line that she sings, and this is typical of the opera. It's typical of German opera too, but Strauss does it better, I knowledge, than anybody. Even more than Wagner, that he is able to use the orchestra to comment and to let the audience in on what these characters are feeling inside.

CAVANAUGH: I wanted to make the point however though that I read that Richard Strauss told his librettist, Von Hoffmanstahl, that he didn't want this opera to simply be amusing.

REVELES: Huh-uh.

CAVANAUGH: He wanted it to be funny.

REVELES: He did.

CAVANAUGH: Baron von Ox.

REVELES: Absolutely. He's sort of a center of the comedy. First of all, he's from the country, he doesn't really quite know how to deal with polite noble society in Vienna because he's from Lerchenau, which is way way out in the sticks. And he has this entourage with him, some of whom are his illegitimate children, and they're all just sort of bumptious bumpkins. They're wild characters.

CAVANAUGH: It's not often that you hear people sort of laughing out loud in an opera, is it?

CAMPBELL: Oh, yes, they laugh at all the comedies of but the good thing about this is, the balance is so good between these very, very deep emotions, and the obvious comedy. When Ox brings in his entourage with his illegitimate children involved as well, the music is very bump bump bump bump, and we know that these are people who plod their way through life. But when we get to Octavian, this elegant young man, the music is totally different. And as Nick said, it punctuates everything throughout this opera. The words are so good, it could stand as a play without a note of music. But as in opera, every opera, the music enhances the words so brilliantly that we get all of the emotion. Upon we can read the super title so we know what they're saying. But the music is telling us at the same time.

CAVANAUGH: Here's a hint for the audience. And that is that Strauss, that Sir Georg Solti, the great conductor of Strauss, and who knew Strauss and worked with him said in an essay, every time you hear a waltz in this opera, and there are numerous waltzes, some character on stage is lying to another character or pretending or they're are in disguise. And it's absolutely true. I have tracked it. Because I'm such an opera geek, that you know, all the way through the opera, even from the moment in the first act where the two lovers eat breakfast together, Octavian treats it as if they're man and wife. But they're playing. They're playing at being husband and wife. It's like two children sitting at a little table pretending to pure coffee and eat rolls. And you hear this delightful it is waltz. It's the first waltz you hear in the opera, and Strauss is saying, this is never gonna last. And they're kidding themselves.

THE COURT: We saw a waltz that we're going to be playing at the end of our talk here. But I don't want to leave this discussion about Der Rosenkavalier without talking about Octavian. One of the most famous trouser parts in all of opera. 17-year-old Octavian, played by a woman, a mezzo soprano. Why is that convention used?

CAMPBELL: Well, it goes back a long way. And it relates to vocal color, back in Mozart's time and earlier. Cross dressing in an opera like this, because Octavian is a boy played by a girl who later dresses up as a girl and in fact our mezzo soprano, Anke Vondung, who is just brilliant said occasionally it gets confusing because I don't know whether or not I'm to walk as a boy or a girl, because I don't know which one I am at the time. But it adds a different vocal color, and youth comes through far better with the mezzo voice than even a young tenor. But the historical reasons go back far deeper, and even go back as far as the castrati.


REVELES: Well, I don't think we can ignore the fact, and this certainly might be stronger, and there certainly was the tradition that Strauss and Von Hoffmanstahl could easily use and manipulate in the story. But you cannot get away from the fact that this was very attractive to men in German speaking countries because this sort of gender swapping idea appears in operas by German composers again and again. And there was something titillating about that. They loved to watch a woman dressed as a man making love it a woman on strange.

CAMPBELL: Cross dressing remains popular in certain areas.

CAVANAUGH: I want to end by talking about the look of this particular production because it has a certain lavish turn of the last century opulence to it.

CAMPBELL: The sets are huge. And they are in fact a reproduction of the original sets from a hundred years ago. And they're gorgeous. They're beautifully detailed, the costumes are beautifully detailed, it really takes you back to the era of the 1700s. And it's romantic to look at as much as to hear the music. So you really get the whole package of the way this opera premiered, the way it looked, and frankly, I think it even sounds better today than it probably did a hundred years ago. Because the singers are even more equipped, they're better actors and actresses, and I think this is the way to hear Rosenkavalier today, in this hundredth anniversary, the way it looked before, but with contemporary artists who make the stage work even better.

CAVANAUGH: I think you've represented it beautifully here. Thank you both for coming in, I really appreciate it. And doctor Ian Campbell, doctor Nick Reveles, thank you so much.

REVELES: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know, Der Rosenkavalier opens April 3rd, and it runs through April 12th at the San Diego opera. If you would like to comment please go on-line Days. Stay with us as These Days continues here on KPBS.