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Love as a Schell game

Special to The Times

The phone is ringing loudly, insistently. It’s actually sitting at his feet, so he has to lean forward to be heard. But somehow, Maximilian Schell behaves as if all is silence.

Doesn’t he want to answer it?

“No,” he says. “I can’t just be available at the moment of someone’s whim.

“You’re living your life -- which isn’t an affair you jump off and then jump back onto.”

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That fairly sums up the unremitting attention the Austrian-born, Swiss-bred, Oscar-winning actor-director-documentarian is giving to the job before him: staging Los Angeles Opera’s new big-budget “Der Rosenkavalier.” The production -- his second for the company, after a much-admired 2001 “Lohengrin” -- will open a seven-performance run at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion next Sunday.

“Directing is like meeting a woman,” he muses, leaning back in a pillowy club chair in his West Los Angeles townhouse. “You don’t know her, but something strikes you and then you just have to go into it. Michelangelo said that in every rock there’s a figure hidden. All you have to do is carve it out. With care, not haste.”

One can imagine just how much care went into Schell’s memorable movie performances: the frighteningly enigmatic defense counsel in “Judgment at Nuremberg” (which won him the Academy Award as best actor of 1961); the suave master thief in “Topkapi”; the grim, hard-bitten resistance agent under direst Nazi threat in “Julia.” Similarly, his remarkable 1984 documentary about Marlene Dietrich employed a format so original that others have copied it.

Schell has taken on the look of a maestro in the decades since then -- indeed, he’s been cast as the late conductor Herbert von Karajan in an upcoming film. Now 74, he sports a slight, shaggy beard and a black scarf wrapped at his throat. His deeply burnished baritone rolls out like a cultured continental’s, with a mere trace of a German accent, though not the stiff variety. He’s definitely from the schmoozy school.

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Hence, he says, with this “Rosenkavalier” -- as with any of his other projects -- he has at first taken a relatively hands-off approach, not wanting to interfere with the performers’ instincts.

“When you have the cast, the sets, the lights,” he says, “an opera takes on its own life.

“I’m not one of those directors who marches in with a set of plans,” he adds, parodying the type by hunching his shoulders and grunting as though at the wheel of a heavy vehicle. “ ‘Go wherever you want,’ I tell them, ‘and when you’re done, I’ll look at it and make suggestions, adjustments.’ ”

He likes to start with the foundation.

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“First you put a roof on the house, paint the walls, etc. When I was a young actor, in my first apartment, the first thing I bought was a Steinway piano,” he says, pointing to a nearby baby grand, which he can play with considerable mastery. “There was no bed at first. I slept on the floor.

“As an actor, I was a fantastic rebel. Then I became a directorial rebel and understood rebels from both sides. So now I am a friend who gives advice -- not one who knows more, necessarily, but who shares ideas.”

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Chronological cross-references

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Often those are small ideas, such as one he recalls watching director Charlie Chaplin work out in 1966 while filming “A Countess From Hong Kong” with Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren.

For a particular scene, Chaplin looked again and again through the camera: “It was all about two heads and the distance between them. Too close and their eyes cross. Too far and there’s no contact.”

As it happens, though, such decisions can be crucial to the success of “Der Rosenkavalier,” Richard Strauss’ fifth opera, composed to a libretto by Austrian playwright and poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal and first performed in 1911. It’s a blend of humor and pathos, a comedy of manners and mores that also chronicles more serious undercurrents, including the social upheaval that resulted when the 18th century Viennese bourgeoisie crept into the realm of the aristocracy. And its themes are personified in one character -- the Marschallin, or field marshal’s wife -- a woman who laments the loss of her youth but wisely reckons that her young lover will move on.

“I admit to finding my main focus here rather than with the music,” says Schell. “But of course the two are intertwined. Strauss could not have written it without Hofmannsthal. After Da Ponte” -- the author of Mozart’s best-loved operas -- “no one ever wrote such beautiful librettos.”

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Much consternation surrounded “Rosenkavalier’s” premiere in Dresden, Germany; many revised versions followed. At one point, the great theater artist Max Reinhardt was called in for directorial doctoring. Hofmannsthal even made a silent film of the opera in 1925, “just to preserve its authenticity from bad productions,” says Schell. “It contained his exact work and his corrections.”

Schell’s collaborators are conductor Kent Nagano and artist Gottfried Helnwein, whose decors mingle contemporary elements -- there’s an office chair on rollers that the oafish Baron Ochs uses to skitter around in -- with the Baroque and Rococo earmarks of the era in which the opera is set, the reign of Maria Theresa.

Even before the opening, however, this collaboration has created something of a stir. Helnwein’s eye-catching poster features a close-up of two gorgeous bare-shouldered women just barely kissing -- which, technically, captures the opening love scene between the Marschallin and the young nobleman she’s involved with, Octavian, who in time-honored “trouser” fashion is played by a mezzo-soprano.

“I was trying to get to the work’s essence,” says Helnwein, now an Angeleno relocated from Vienna. “Two beautiful young people in a tender, magical love scene.”

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But the photo illustration also suggests “lipstick lesbians” -- not exactly what Strauss and Hofmannsthal had in mind.

“Well, for one thing,” says Schell, “these are our times. ‘The L Word,’ for instance, is shown all over Europe. For another, you cannot keep the present off the stage.” He points to a German “Hamlet” he directed and starred in just after Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination and says the production was a reflection of that tragedy.

As for the larger issue -- gender impersonation as an operatic conceit -- Schell maintains it all started with Shakespeare: “It was thrilling and titillating for his partially homosexual audience to see men playing all the great female roles: Juliet, Desdemona, etc. They became the big stars of the day.”

And, he says, the merging of sexual identities is just what Hofmannsthal had in mind, “the game-playing that goes on in love and lust.”

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Besides, “we all have a little of both, female and male.” Here he remembers the punch line that concludes Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot,” when Joe E. Brown discovers that his bride-to-be, Jack Lemmon, is a man: “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

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Creative back-and-forth

The time is just after noon. The rehearsal begins at the top, with the pianist playing the love music of Octavian (Alice Coote) and the Marschallin (Adrianne Pieczonka), who are lying in bed together in this famous boudoir scene. Throughout the scene and until the conclusion of the first act, Schell animatedly mouths the characters’ words while cuing their actions and asking for “bigger gestures, because it’s a big stage.”

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Afterward, the cast gathers to hear his notes: lots of illuminating details for each.

But then Coote challenges his idea of running clips from the Hofmannsthal film as background during the love scene. “We need to trust Strauss,” she says passionately. “The lovemaking is in the music. That’s where the focus needs to be.”

“But you haven’t seen it yet,” Schell answers patiently, holding his ground. “You can’t know its effect. We should at least try it. If it diminishes the performance, we won’t do it. But let’s see. Because Hofmannsthal wanted to repair and revise his work.

“You know, I lose my confidence too.”

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Two days earlier, Schell had returned from Austria and the funeral of his older sister, Maria. An actress who achieved global recognition in the ‘50s and about whom he also made a film, Maria Schell died April 26 at her home in Austria. “In life, we must know to be always ready to leave,” he says philosophically.

This is not the first project of his on which family tragedy has intruded. There was “A Far Off Place,” a film he was making in Zimbabwe in 1992 when word came that his younger sister had been killed in a car accident. And in ’71, he recounts, “when I was directing my father’s play in Salzburg, a comedy, he died three days before the opening. I gave a curtain speech, asking the audience to do something that could not have made him happier: laugh. Three days later, I buried him.”

The elder Schell, Hermann, a Swiss poet and playwright living in Vienna with his Austrian wife, an actress, and their four children, wrote inflammatory antifascist articles during the 1930s. “So when I was 8 [in 1938], we had to escape to Zurich with only 40 francs,” says Schell.

There the family landed at an empty villa that had belonged to the 19th century German poet and writer Mathilde Wesendonck. They wound up living there for 10 years in the servants’ house, “with no bathroom, just a toilet and a basin.”

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“But the moment you left there, it was the world, because you could look over all of Zurich from the vast, gorgeous park surrounding the estate and lake. We grew up like the children of a king, although my free spirit of a father had more fantasy than money.”

Still, Schell’s involvement with “Rosenkavalier” reflects a similar engagement with fantasy and poetry. He speaks of the famed Munich production of this specialty opera -- which he’s seen many times with the celebrated Carlos Kleiber conducting -- and of all the basses who have excelled as Baron Ochs. And, jokingly, of how he’ll “have to tame this production’s outrageous Kurt Rydl” in the role. And of the meaning of the morning levee, the lavish ritual at which the Marschallin convenes her subjects and deals with their petitions. And of the Hogarth prints that depict the scene. There seems to be no facet of the opera, in fact, that he hasn’t examined, read about and thought through.

So it’s not surprising that he relishes his precis of the Marschallin’s moving Act 1 monologue:

“Time is a very strange thing. First it goes slowly, then more and more fast, and suddenly it runs. And I would like to keep all the clocks firm and still.”

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‘Der Rosenkavalier’

Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 6 p.m. May 29; 7 p.m. June 1, 8, 11 and 16; 2 p.m. June 4 and 19

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Price: $25 to $190

Contact: (213) 972-8001 or www.losangelesopera.com


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