In his signature baseball cap, Doug Wager looks out of place at opera rehearsals. He professes a love of music, but has never attended opera regularly. He doesn't speak or understand the language (Italian) in which the opera's written. But as director for the Washington Opera's production of Pietro Mascagni's "L'Amico Fritz," which opened last night at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, Wager is a major hidden force behind the performance.

As associate producing director at Arena Stage, he brings an added dimension to opera production, one that confronts the frequent and problematical operatic pairing of superficial stories and dramatic music that so draws the scorn of opera's detractors. Wager's challenge has been to strengthen the opera's drama, adding a depth to the story that can match the music's emotional power.

"For me as a theater director," says Wager, the task has been to better unite the libretto of "L'Amico Fritz," "that seems like a very gentle, comic, idyllic, simple story," and the score, "which is very emotionally complex, filled with romantic dynamics, and a sadness and darkness which doesn't seem to fit the story." But as someone who has jumped from the world of theater to the world of opera, Wager has had to confront as many obstacles as the protagonists in "L'Amico Fritz."

"The logistics of opera are the theater at its worst," he says. "In 'All the King's Men,' which I just did {at Arena Stage}, I had six weeks of rehearsals for eight hours a day, and then a week of technical rehearsals, and then a week of previews before we opened. You're talking about an eight-week process to get to the final product. In opera, you get three weeks from the first day, in which everybody shakes hands, to the opening night. You have to work fast, think fast and measure your expectations against these given circumstances."

Wager, 38, has responded to the new challenges with the same tenacity and verve that has made him one of Washington's most respected theater directors. From his start at Arena Stage in 1972 as an intern, Wager rose to become literary manager and resident director, and finally to associate producing director responsible for the management of the company's everyday artistic affairs. He has worked in nearly all phases of production, founded Arena's literary department and cofounded the company's Actors Lab and Play Lab. He has also directed some of Arena's most successful productions, including "Candide," the American premiere of Tom Stoppard's "On the Razzle" and a reconstruction of the Marx Brothers musical "Animal Crackers."

Although "L'Amico Fritz" is only his second opera production (after last season's "Don Pasquale"), his confidence in working in a new art form is evident. Sidestepping the conventional approach to this seldom-performed opera, commonly considered a comedic romance, he has undertaken an interpretation based on a largely esoteric tradition.

"It's quite amazing the progress he's made to our way of rehearsing," says Washington Opera conductor Cal Stewart Kellogg, Wager's creative collaborator on both "L'Amico Fritz" and "Don Pasquale." "He absorbs everything. He brings his own personality and his own concepts as any stage director will do but he fits right in."

Despite the obvious differences between opera and theater, the equally obvious similarities make opera accessible to a talented director like Wager. Both are intensively collaborative ventures, requiring coordination between actors and the support technical crew. Both the great playwright and the great operatic composer attempt to engage the audience by employing the elements of time, space, characters and conflict. As a man of the theater, Wager treats the opera story line much as he might approach the text of a play. "I take with me all the obligations and curiosities that I bring to my theater work," he says. "I'm not sure what someone who directs only opera does, but I bet if they're steeped in opera tradition, they bind themselves to conventions I don't subscribe to."

While the opera's conductor is responsible for interpreting the score and leading the actual performance, the director is responsible for taking the libretto, developing the narrative environment and through rehearsals finding the best way to stage the performance.

"My job is to get into Mascagni's point of view as deeply as I can," says Wager. "I ask, 'How did he find this music in this story? What was it about this story that caused this music to happen?' The score's beautiful but it's a response to this story. And then my job as a director is to translate those discoveries to the singers, to the designers, to the conductor and to get them all of one mind about the point of view, and to reconcile the paradox between the two. You are trying to achieve what any opera composer wants which is total theater."

In "L'Amico Fritz," his discoveries developed into an approach that has reshaped the performers' attitudes toward the opera and will probably overturn the expectations of opera aficionados, making the Washington Opera's performance seem more like the premiere of a long lost work.

Moving beyond the simplistic plot about a middle-aged Jewish bachelor and philanthropist who's vowed never to marry, Wager interpreted the story as it might have been written by Isaac Bashevis Singer. With this mystical approach -- based on the Hasadic and cabalistic tradition of love that Singer used to create his beautiful, dark romances -- Wager chose to view the story as that of two souls who loved one another in heaven and were fated to love again on earth but were separated by the circumstances of birth. As long as they remain apart, as they are in the opera, their souls are imperiled, giving the opera an unconventional dramatic urgency.

"He's brought a life to this piece that quite honestly I didn't think was there," says Kellogg. "I'm overwhelmed that he's made it so alive, the characters leap off the pages. The audience will be quite enthralled with this seemingly plotless drama. He's solved the opera's problems with great flair."

"If there's an element of risk involved in this interpretation," says Wager, "it's just giving Mascagni credit for not seeing just a simple, gentle boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-girl story, but that he wrote all this music from a spiritual and passionate point of view."

Short rehearsal time demands quick establishment of such a vision of the story. "You drop the physical realization on top of it," says Wager. "You try and fill it up and excavate it with the time you have left because you know, come hell or high water, 10 days from now, you've got to go through this on your feet, on stage, on the set. You've got no choice because that's the way the schedule is."

Unlike actors, however, who generally come to a new work fresh and with few preconceptions, opera scheduling requires singers to arrive at rehearsals with the score already memorized. Such preparation inevitably involves interpreting the story and so they necessarily begin with preconceptions. Consequently, Wager began by treating the cast to excerpts from the cabala, the book setting forth a mystical interpretation of the Scriptures ascribed to by certain Jewish rabbis.

"Let's read the plot as it relates to the cabala about two souls fated in heaven and that the danger is that if they don't get together they will never achieve paradise, and that the rabbi and the gypsy boy are the only characters in the play who instinctively know that that's the case," he told the cast.

The singers responded enthusiastically. "They're all very excited about it," says Wager. "It's a motivating force and a point of view that we're all together on."

Despite the intense creative collaboration between director and conductor throughout rehearsals, Wager's role is secondary. It is up to Kellogg take Wager's stage directions, translate them into musical instructions and finally lead the singers and orchestra through the rehearsals to the final performance.

"The director is the primary interpreter of the total universe of the opera, but the conductor really is preeminent director of the opera because he has to infuse the orchestra and the singers," says Wager. "You can have all the fancy effects you want, but if the singers eyes are not alive and their imaginations are not engaged, it's just going to be a recital with a lot of junk on stage. It's a very close collaboration, but in the end, I go away and he's there.

"But in rehearsals it's fascinating to watch the singers come alive. They have such abundant musical talent, are so gifted musically, can convey incredible subtleties with their voices musically, can just interpret the hell out of a score. Just to get them to start working on a simpler, more basic acting level adds a dimension to their work that makes me enjoy doing what I'm doing ...

"There's a rigor involved to doing opera that forces you to be clear, concise, simple, direct and you gamble on being deep with your work given the time that you have," says Wager. "Opera helps me reaffirm the size and presense and authority of the text. It's a real workout, and in coming back to the theater I find it enhances my respect for the performing artists: Singers and actors have a lot in common."