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A Star, Yes, but No Hero in Arabella

September 25, 2018

Most male characters in opera are either heroes or villains. Among the rest, there is Arabella’s good-bad-good Mandryka. Baritone Brian Mulligan, memorable here in 2012 in the title role of John Adams’s Nixon in China, sings the male lead role in the upcoming San Francisco production of Richard Strauss’s Arabella, and in his opinion:

“Like any real person, Mandryka is not all good or all bad. He’s a man with many obvious imperfections, but that just makes him all the more relatable and easy to love. He’s a big teddy bear... but he’s still got his claws!”

The character that seems real to the singer who will portray him is the creation of Strauss librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, a major literary figure in Vienna a century ago

Into the story about romantic complications in the lives of the sisters Arabella (Ellie Dehn) and Zdenka (Heidi Stober) enters the Croatian landowner with the rough exterior and apparently noble heart, often portrayed — and certainly regarded by Arabella — as a lovable sort of bear.

Hofmannsthal describes his appearance as “a very strong, elegant man of at most 35, somewhat indefinable; rural in appearance, very well dressed, without any provincial elegance.”

That is also Mulligan’s view, although the music is more in his focus:

“Mandryka is a big, nerdy romantic with a wicked temper. This role is probably the greatest sing I’ve ever experienced. There are huge, heartfelt passages, and then these incredibly intimate, earnestly whispered exchanges with Arabella. And it’s all so beautiful.”

Indeed, it is, from beginning to end, some of Strauss’s most enchanting and romantic music, an opera that has become a favorite right next to Der Rosenkavalier.

Although most of the Irish-American baritone’s activity is on the East Coast and in Europe, Mulligan has been singing regularly in the War Memorial for the past decade, appearing as Marcello, Renato, Chorèbe, Sweeney Todd, Valentin, Gunther, and more.

“I’m so happy to be making my 10-year anniversary with San Francisco Opera,” Mulligan says. “There are so many memories here, so many friendships made both at the house and in the community. When I think of all the role debuts I’ve had at SFO, I’m just astonished. It’s been a decade of such growth for me. I hope they’ll keep me around for the next 10 years!”

Other companies vying for Mulligan include the Wiener Staatsoper, where he sang — among others — Captain Balstrode in Peter Grimes; Opernhaus Zürich for his signature role of Valentin in Faust; and Oper Frankfurt, where his role debuts included Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande.

His appearances here included Mahler’s Das klagende Lied (Song of Lamentation) with MTT and the San Francisco Symphony. Mulligan sang with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in performances of John Adams’s The Wound Dresser, and Naxos has released his recording of Dominick Argento’s Andrée Expedition and From the Diary of Virginia Woolf.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].