Most of us have to conjure up images of 19th-Century Vienna and the great Waltz King, Johann Strauss, via Hollywood movies, productions of Strauss' "Die Fledermaus" or, maybe, Balanchine's "Vienna Waltzes."
But for Franz Allers, conductor of Opera Pacific's "Die Fledermaus" that opens Friday, all that is a living tradition.
"When I was born, I was a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy," Allers, 82, said in a recent interview. "Czechoslovakia (often given as Allers' birthplace) didn't exist. It came into being in 1918.
"My father graduated in 1879 and had plenty of chances to hear Johann Strauss, who died in 1899. Father was an avid concert-goer and played excellent piano as an amateur. As a child, I heard him playing and soaked it up.
"For his generation, music was not a spectator sport as it is now. The audience would play instruments at home. . . . This was life before World War I."
So what is the authentic Viennese style?
"It is really not at all difficult to explain," Allers said. "Everything should be off the ground and as lightweight as possible. You hit the second beat and drop the third beat. Avoid at all costs stressing the downbeats. If you do, Viennese music becomes very Germanic, Teutonic."
Allers began singing the opening of Strauss' "Tales of the Vienna Woods" as an example, then smiled: "But you cannot illustrate that in an article."
Allers warned that the singers should not be "operatic, but casual and easy.
"If you let them, singers become very vocal, and 'Fledermaus' will sound like it's (Weber's) 'Die Freischutz,' and it shouldn't."
Although he did not choose the Opera Pacific cast, Allers has already worked with three of the principal singers, Cheryl Parrish (the opening night Adele) and Charles Roe and Andre Jorbin, who will alternate in the role of Eisenstein.
"Parrish started with me at the Chicago Lyric Opera," he said. "I taught her Adele's 'Laughing Song,' which is the center, more or less, of Act II. It's wrong to do it as a stiff, coloratura number. It should burst out and be sung laughter."
Allers' long and varied career includes playing under Richard Strauss in the Berlin Philharmonic ("A lifetime experience," he said), Wilhelm Furtwangler ("my resident conductor. . . . A man of great architecture. . . . He taught eternally") and Bruno Walter, who made the greatest impression.
"Not one conductor of my generation had the impact on me that (Walter) did," Allers said. "I detected a great spirit in him."
The rise of Hitler, however, forced Allers, who is Jewish, to cut short his budding career.
"After the Reichstag fire (Feb. 27, 1933), I knew what was going to happen. In 'Mein Kampf,' Hitler had announced a timetable, to which he adhered. The book was so revolting, I could not finish it. But everybody knew what it was.
"Being from Czechoslovakia, it was easier for me to leave. I took the train and went home."
For five years, Allers conducted opera in his native country.
"But when Hitler walked into Austria (in March, 1938), then I knew it was time to go. I left for London. God was on my side. I can't say that often enough."
In London, Allers worked with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and made his U.S. debut with that company in Chicago in 1938. He conducted the premiere of Agnes de Mille's ballet "Rodeo" with that company at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1942 and also led Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," among other works, at the Met.
But a Met career did not develop. Allers denies there was any conflict.
"I never had a problem at the Met," he said. "We are still friends. I never aimed at a Met career."
In fact, what Allers became known for in this country was his Broadway musical career, which began, he said, serendipitously.
"It was a total accident. I stepped in for another conductor in (Lerner and Loewe's) 'The Day Before Spring.' They were impressed and offered me 'Brigadoon' (in 1947)."
Allers does not feel that he has been unfairly stereotyped as a Broadway conductor, however.
"I am typecast in everything I do," he laughed. "Early in the 1960s, I did a Beethoven program at the Musikverein in Vienna and a reviewer called me a Beethoven specialist. Now I just did a "Carmen" in Cleveland and am considered a specialist in French opera!"
Allers defines the difference between an operetta and a musical.
"In a musical, it is the story that carries the music. In operetta, the music carries the story. . . . On the Broadway scene, it is possible for a musical to succeed if it has a strong book and not much music, whereas a weak book will fail."
Allers added that operettas are almost always based on social differences.
"Even in 'Fledermaus,' everyone pretends to be someone else. Rosalinda masquerades as a Hungarian countess. Eisenstein masquerades as a marquis. The chambermaid masquerades as an actress. And as in 'My Fair Lady,' no one says, 'I love you.' The social satire takes precedent over the love story, which is the same in 'My Fair Lady.' "
Allers is aware of his heritage and the fragility of the tradition.
"We live in a very materialistic age, which is not given to Romanticism," he said. "I grew up at the turn of century and am much nearer to all that.
"But I'm past 82," he said. "I don't know how long I can keep going. Right now, I feel right on top of it and will continue as long as my health lasts."
Over the years, he admitted, he has changed his approach to "Fledermaus."
"I don't pester people as much as I used to," he said. "When I was young, I didn't know any better. Now, I am not quite that adamant. One thing I do now in rehearsal is to make it playing, not working, which lets the singers and musicians blossom.
"If 'Fledermaus' is labored, it will not work. The Viennese have a saying: 'The situation is hopeless but not serious.' That is "Fledermaus." To kindle that of sentiment is more my aim than to get the dotted sixteenth notes right."
Performances Friday, Saturday and March 3-5 at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Matinees on March 5 and 6 at 2 p.m.
Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
$17 to $35.
Information: (714) 556-2787