When most of us think of opera, we think big. Big voices. Barrel chests. Horses and elephants. Squadrons of Rhine maidens, revelers and courtiers, yards of brocade and velvet. Triumphal arches and glittering chandeliers. Goblets and spears and bloody severed heads and ...

"I believe in bare essences," declares director Deirdre Kelly Lavrakas. All afternoon, this funny, unaffected woman has been creeping about the intimate space that is Mount Vernon College's Hand Chapel, offering precise, unconventional tips to the small cast of singers assembled. They're here for a rehearsal of "Games of Love," a triple bill of short, obscure works -- Hector Berlioz's swoony song cycle "Summer Nights," local composer Larry Moss's Chekhov-based farce "The Brute" and Gustav Holst's "Savitri," his 1907 setting of a legend out of the Mahabharata -- to be presented tonight, Saturday and Sunday as part of the "Opera in the Chapel" series.

"You should see dirt that no one else can possibly see," Lavrakas instructs tenor Joseph Song, who plays Luka, the devoted manservant of "The Brute." Clearly, she has this guy pegged as a 19th-century Russian Felix Unger; she even shows Song how to wield his feather duster.

"During my reading last night, I discovered that Holst not only wanted 'Savitri' to be performed without a curtain and out of doors, but that he felt the character of Death should be bald," Lavrakas informs bass-baritone Dan Britt, a strapping young fellow with dark shoulder-length tresses. He looks up at the director; is she kidding? A bare head would surely fit in with her pure, unadorned concept of the piece, but ...

Lavrakas laughs. Britt has been spared.

Then it's on to a "speak-through" for three of the performers, allowing them to say the words rather than sing them, master each tiny gesture, step and gaze without worrying about breath control, intonation or other things opera singers obsess over. The trio's faces and bodies visibly relax -- they're actually communicating!

"{Director} Peter Brook has written a brilliant essay in which he says that opera suffers from a 'disease of the artificial,' " explains Lavrakas. "He believes that opera originally sprang from a cave, with each note representing fear or anger or love. But somewhere along the line, emotion got buried in a morass of conventions. Somehow that passion, that reason for being, has to be restored."

For the past three years, Lavrakas, her longtime co-director Kim Peter Kovac (who doubles as set designer) and series director Carla Hubner (who triples as music director and pianist) have worked hard on their "small is beautiful" approach. Theirs is not only an aesthetic stance, but a practical philosophy as well: Severe budget and space limitations have forced the team to pare down props and costumes, make do with reduced scores (Hubner as the orchestra, for example) and come up with productions that rely to a large extent on the audience's imaginative powers. Hence, their much-lauded version of Carl Maria von Weber's "Oberon" -- a notoriously complex opera to stage -- began in a modern-day lecture hall, with a boom box blaring out a scratchy rendition of the overture. Their "Mahagonny Songspiel" -- the cabaret-style sketch Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill penned before their full-length opera "Mahagonny" -- featured colorful processionals by audience members whom Lavrakas had picked and rehearsed three minutes before show time.

The current program boasts its share of cost-cutting yet thought-provoking theatrical touches as well. Usually performed as a recital piece, "Summer Nights," set to the achingly romantic poems of Theophile Gautier, has been turned into a fantasy-laden me'nage a` trois between the two female and one male singers. "Savitri," transcribed for two synthesizer keyboards and piano by Ron Warren, unfolds on a bare stage covered with a white dropcloth. A four-woman chorus croons unseen from the balcony. And the title character, a serene and savvy woman played by soprano Debra Lawrence, wards off white-garbed Death by means of a magic circle of polished silver stones (purchased for a pittance at the Nature Co.).

"The situation requires us to go into the deepest recesses of our creativity and come up with solutions," says Lavrakas. "I have no training in music, so I leave that to the music directors. My responsibility, I feel, is to take care of the entire visual picture."

That is not to say she knows nothing about opera. She grew up listening to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio, even thrilled to the weekly opera quiz ("I never got one answer right"). It was something of a shock, though, when, as an adult, Lavrakas attended her first live performance. "I was bored," she admits. "There were all these conventions and such a static quality that just didn't match up with the pictures I had created in my mind."

It was years before she had the chance or the know-how to make the form look right herself. A foreign service brat, she attended Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and until 1975 worked as a government economist. By age 24, she realized that theater was her destiny. After three years in George Washington University's master of fine arts program, countless workshops (with avant-garde gurus such as choreographer Lucinda Childs, composer Elizabeth Swados and the members of the Mabou Mines troupe) and on-the-job schooling as technical director and lighting designer for the old Dance Project in Adams-Morgan, she began to forge her own performing technique and her own company, the Paradise Island Express. For the past five years, she has headed the theater training program at the Kennedy Center and has directed a slew of children's shows there.

Watching the Mount Vernon rehearsal, it's easy to picture Lavrakas putting kids through their paces. The pressure cooker approach to performance is clearly not her thing; by relaxing into the work, focusing on detail and design, she manages to prod the singers out of their isolated, self-centered realms.

"In our productions here, it's hard for the performers to hide behind their technique," she says. "The space is so small that they just can't muck things up with big gestures or movements. It's almost as if we were filming for television. Keep it simple, I tell them. The challenge is just to sing, to tell a story. ... It's not brain surgery, you know. It's just opera."