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‘Fledermaus’ Tenor Began as Vegas Showman

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Opera singers get their stage experience wherever they can,but tenor Ronald Stevens’ initiation can be counted among the more offbeat beginnings. “I started my career as a nightclub singer at the Nugget in Reno, where I was a production singer,” Stevens said. “That’s the guy who opens the first 10 to 15 minutes of the show singing nice ballady songs.”

Vocalizing amid the gaudy splendor of Las Vegas’ “Viva Les Girls” topless revue was Stevens’ next big gig after his Reno debut. When “Viva Les Girls” was booked for a six-month Australian tour, Stevens tagged along for a steady meal ticket and a change of scenery.

The move Down Under proved to be his exit from show biz and his return to opera, for which the Los Angeles native had trained at USC. When the tour returned stateside, Stevens remained in Australia. He answered Australian Opera’s newspaper ad for singers and was invited to join the company the next season.

The two worlds are not as far apart as some might think.

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“As an actor, I use pretty much the same idea of communication. The experience I had singing in nightclubs--singing close to people--made me realize how important it was to physically get your point across. This has carried over into most of the operas that I do, because I specialize in opera where acting is crucial. Peter Grimes, Danilo and Eisenstein: These characters you have to act.”

Tonight at the Civic Theatre, Stevens will make his local debut singing Eisenstein in the San Diego Opera production of Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” in five performances of the operetta, the last on March 13.

Stevens is eager to establish himself in the United States after a comfortable 17-year opera career in Australia, where he was a principal tenor for 10 years with Australian Opera, the country’s main opera company.

“I’ve always kept a residence in Los Angeles. L.A. has always been my home, and now I’m thinking seriously about returning.”

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In 1989, Stevens returned to Southern California to sing in the L.A. Music Center Opera’s production of Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld.” Though operetta appeals to Stevens’ extroverted personality, it is not his sole calling card.

“I seem to be at home with the operetta roles, but the heavy characters appeal to me also. Peter Grimes is one of my favorites, and you cannot get much darker than Britten’s Grimes. I think of myself equally at home in both comedy and serious operas.”

Stevens mildly complained that he has had to learn a different English translation for each of the five “Die Fledermaus” productions he has sung.

San Diego Opera is using a recent British translation by David Pountney and Leonard Hancock of Welsh National Opera. And, for the first time in recent productions, the company is eschewing its OperaText supertitles, trusting to the direct communication of the familiar Viennese operetta’s easygoing comedy.

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“Singing Eisenstein is enjoyable because he is so bourgeois,” Stevens said. “He’s enjoying a mid-life crisis at 45--which is my age exactly--so the part couldn’t fit me better. He is going out on the town, and, although he’s not exactly cheating on his wife, there’s a lot of deception going on. The big mistake for the singer, of course, is to play him for vaudevillian-type laughs. I never try to get a laugh from the audience--I only play him to the other characters in the piece.”

If Stevens is undergoing mid-life crises, they were undecipherable under his placid demeanor. He has been married 20 years to Jennifer, the second woman he met after he landed in Sydney with the Las Vegas review. They have two children, ages 13 and 10.

“She interviewed me for an article in the Sydney Morning Herald. The show lasted six months, and I had to come back to the U.S. because my visa ran out. Jennifer and I were married here in America.”

Pursuing his career in Australia, where opera is heavily subsidized by the government, worked well for Stevens. He was able to sing with Joan Sutherland, Australia’s most celebrated diva, in nine productions. Stevens appears with Sutherland in a recent video recording of “The Merry Widow” with Sutherland, directed by San Francisco Opera’s Lotfi Mansouri.

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