Former Pac Heights resident Ellie Dehn discusses her title role in SF Opera’s 'Arabella'

This week, the San Francisco Opera opened a highly anticipated production of "Arabella," a rarely staged opera by Richard Strauss last seen at the War Memorial Opera House in 1998.

"Arabella" opened in 1933 in Dresden, Germany, as Strauss tried to evade the turmoil of the era by looking back to happier, lighter times. A desire many local viewers may relate to today.

As for the plot, it's a comedy: A woman disguised as a man tricks her sister's suitor into sleeping with her, to the soundtrack of a passionate orchestral prelude. While the story requires suspension of disbelief, the sublime score (led for this run by German conductor and Strauss specialist Marc Albrecht) is what ties it all together.

Arabella's character provides the moral compass for the opera by staying true to her love throughout. American soprano Ellie Dehn sings the title role. A native of Minnesota, she has sung many roles to great acclaim with SF Opera (Musetta in "La Boheme," the title role of "Manon," Fiordiligi in "Cosi," Donna Anna in "Don Giovanni") and she actually lived in the city for a couple of years. Dehn's also sung these roles on some of the other most prestigious stages, including Covent Garden, La Scala and the Met.

With a few more stagings on the docket, we connected with Dehn herself to hear more about her return to San Francisco, her experience preparing for this rarely staged production and her return to singing an operatic role after giving birth to a baby girl seven months ago.

Do you still live in San Francisco?

I moved back to the Midwest right before my daughter was born, just because it's so freaking expensive in San Francisco to have a newborn. I'm not sure if it's a temporary or permanent move. I have a lot of family there to help out. I was right on the border between Pac Heights and Lower Pac Heights, on Fillmore Street between California and Pine. I've been back to my old hood a few times, and of course I went to Delfina Pizzeria, B Patisserie, Sift bakery and all my favorite boutique shops. 

I used to live in a rent-controlled one bedroom apartment. Having to take corporate housing rate, even with Airbnb, is definitely a little bit of sticker shock. Right now I'm staying up from the Castro, on the hill. I love being back in SF; I missed the eucalyptus air, that's the first thing I smell when I get off the plane.

Why is "Arabella" so rarely performed?

It's a very difficult opera to produce. One, it's expensive, it has a very big orchestra. Two, it's hard to cast. Arabella is a tough character to cast, but for the role of Mandryka, the baritone needs a big dramatic voice that's also capable of lyric beauty. It's tough to put together and to find the right production, to try to see if it's going to sell at the box office, because it's a lesser known Strauss work. You won't see it pop up too often here in the US. They do it more in Germany and Austria.

Personally, I think it's one of most beautiful work from beginning to end. It has some of his most beautiful and melodic duet music. Arabella gets to come in, and after some spitfire German, she launches into "Aber der Richtige," her entrance piece, maybe the most sublime line Strauss has ever written. It's a duet with her sister, another soprano. Two sopranos don't often get to sing a duet (there's of course the letter duet in Marriage of Figaro). It's a soaring, elegant duet, that sets the line for the rest of the show. 

This is your role debut as Arabella. When do you start being comfortable with the character?

This one definitely took a lot more preparation. I took this on maybe three years ago. At that point, I was starting to test out the waters of what Strauss would feel like in my voice. I was learning the final scene in "Capriccio," the last aria from "Arabella," the last scene of "Daphne," just to see if Strauss would be a good fit for me. After seeing "Arabella" could be a possibility here in San Francisco, I really took the time to familiarize myself with the harmonic structure, how the opera as a whole went. In the past year or so, I really honed in on the language, the notes, the rhythm. I tried to get everything learned before the baby came. After that, it was polishing and refining. It's fiendishly difficult as a piece. As far as the intervals, the language, it's spitfire German, it's relentless rhythm. Tonally, it doesn't go where you expect it to go in many different places. I spent the last seven months really making it mine.

Opera singer Anna Netrebko said her voice had gone "three times bigger" after the birth of her child. Do you feel a difference? How has your voice changed?

I don't know if I would say three times, but I would definitely say that is one benefit in having a baby: there is more depth and richness than I had before. I don't know if it's hormonal, or dealing with a big belly and singing against that for nine months, I don't know what causes that, but I got that feedback that my voice is bigger and richer after the baby. 

At this point I would call myself a full lyric soprano with some movement. I can still sing coloratura passages, but I wouldn't sit up there in that coloratura high range. You can sing more dramatic and spinto repertoire as you get older. Your voice will have little bit more heft and steeliness. You lose some of that stratosphere high, but it gets more dramatic as time goes on. "Arabella" still has high moments, but the biggest part is the depth and richness and beauty of tone rather than vocal fireworks.

How did you get involved in participating in the 40th anniversary of the SF Gay Men chorus concert, also this month, in “When We No Longer Touch,” the first requiem dedicated to those lost to AIDS?

The chorus is absolutely fabulous. They do everything off-book, and I have heard them for years and years. I went to an earlier rehearsal, they were already prepared and off-book and ready to go. It's also important to me, it's a fundraiser to raise AIDS awareness. It's going to be really important concert; the music is beautiful. It's been a pleasure to work with Tim [Seelig, the director]. I'm the soprano soloist in the requiem. The music is esoteric, haunting, beautiful and floaty. 

"Arabella" is performed again on Friday 10/19, Wednesday 10/24, Sunday 10/28, Saturday 11/03 at the War Memorial Opera House. Tickets can be purchased online.

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Former pac heights resident ellie dehn discusses her title roll in sf opera s arabella