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Donose goes from glamour queen to boy, with motherhood in between

The Oakland Tribune, Friday, June 28, 2002

Ruxandra Donose, the beautiful young Rumanian mezzo-soprano who set male hearts racing in her role as Poppea in Monteverdi's ``L'Incoronazione di Poppea" during San Francisco Opera's ``Femmes Fatales Festival" in 1998, has returned to the site of her conquest. But a lot has changed.

Instead of gliding about the War Memorial Opera House stage in Poppea's sinuous silvery 1930s style gown or her flaming scarlet coronation costume, Donose's slender form is disguised with the heavy baroque-style fabrics and adornments worn by Sesto, the angry adolescent boy who seethes to avenge the murder of his father in the opera's current production of Handel's ``Giulio Cesare."

There are a number of other changes in Ruxandra's life as well. Four years ago her traveling companion to San Francisco was her theater-director father. Now her entourage consists of her new German-born husband, Peter Pawlik, who is built much like an American football player, their exuberant 18-month-old son Max, and his German-Rumanian-English-speaking au pair.

When not traveling, the young family lives in Austria where they share an idyllic bit of domesticity with little Max and even indulge in some mini-gardening (herbs and flowers) on the deck of their Vienna home.

But they share even more: both are passionate about opera and theater. Peter currently heads the Stadetteater Hildesheim in Northern Germany and frequently directs productions throughout the rest of the world.

The two met when she was rehearsing the role of Olga in a Vienna State Opera production of ``Eugene Onegin." During a recent chat, the handsome, affable Peter recounted their meeting.

``I was the assistant director for the production. She had a dance sequence to rehearse with the tenor (Neil Schicoff), but he hadn't arrived yet. So I summoned my courage and volunteered to be her dancing partner. That changed our lives," he said with a triumphant hand flourish and a twinkle in his eyes.

They were married in a civil ceremony in Vienna, followed by a grand Rumanian church wedding in Bucharest that, according to Ruxandra, ``lasted from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m.!"

Subsequent challenges have including singing a number of roles during her pregnancy. She battled morning sickness while singing a critically acclaimed Cherubino touring Japan with Seiji Osawa. She also sang a Grammy-nominated ``Stabat Mater" by Dvorak, led by Giuseppe Sinopoli shortly before his death.

One of her more difficult tasks was to sing her first Melisande for the Cincinnati Opera's production of Debussy's ``Pelleas et Melisande" when she was five months pregnant.

Recounting the grueling tale, she said, ``After flying 16 hours from Japan back to Vienna and then another 12 from Vienna to Cincinnati, my luggage was lost. Then there were two weeks of rehearsals for what I think is one of the most difficult roles to learn in the whole opera repertoire."

``The funny thing," she continued, ``is that Melisande is supposed to be pregnant in the opera. But because I didn't show enough, they had to stuff a pillow in my costume to get a more visible tummy!"

She sang concerts until only 2 1/2 weeks before Maxi's birth in Lyon, France. Then after seven weeks of lullabies, she returned to opera to sing the role of in Sesto in Mozart's ``Clemenza di Tito" in Strasbourg.

Ruxandra is unique among the half dozen or so super-star mezzos in the current opera world. Along with her versatile voice, she has the figure and face of a fashion model wedded to an unusually acute musical talent and intelligence.

Were it not for a quirky turn of fate, she would have been a concert pianist instead of a singer.

``I was a very serious pianist from the age of 6 until 18," she explained, noting that she had won many piano competitions while growing up, including an important first place in an international event in Italy during her teens during which she triumphed with a program of muscular Chopin Etudes and Prokofiev's bone-bruising Sonata No. 2.

Then, at the beginning of her senior year at the music and art high school in Bucharest, something rather astonishing happened. As part of a required accompanying class, piano majors were required to do some singing. Up until this point, Ruxandra had sung very little.

``We all had to sing a piece before this great, very dramatic, teacher while she played the piano," Ruxandra remembered. ``After I had sung only a little, she made a loud clap on the piano, stood up, and shouted quite dramatically, `My God! I'm going to make a mezzo out of you that will burn this place down!"'

``I was shocked," Ruxandra continued. ``But, surprisingly, after a while, I found that I was not as shy or scared when I sang as I had always been when performing on the piano. It felt so natural and easy to sing on stage and I felt that I could really express myself with my voice."

Peter and Ruxandra look forward to working together once again in a production of Strauss' ``Ariadne auf Naxos" next spring in Philadelphia - she will sing the role of the composer and he will serve as stage director and perform the speaking role of the Major-domo. Meanwhile, he will stage Massenet's ``Werther in Hildesheim in the fall and ``Hansel and Gretel" in Vienna in the winter.

Meanwhile, catch Ruxandra's glorious voice while she's here singing Sesto in ``Giulio Cesare." Remaining performances are at 7:30 Saturday and Wednesday and at 2 p.m. July 7 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., in San Francisco. Tickets range from $23 to $165. Call (415) 864-3330. [QL] Classical music columnist Cheryl North may be reached by e-mail at or by fax at (650) 591-2923.

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