It's been christened "the Domingo era."

Well into its first season with the world-renowned tenor as artistic director, the Washington Opera has been abuzz with talk of its ambitious vision for the future. That includes next season's expansion to eight productions and the selection of a world-famous architectural firm to convert the historic downtown Woodward & Lothrop building into the opera's new Valhalla.

Yet in the midst of these stirrings of excitement, one figure who has been integral to the Washington Opera's artistic identity in recent years remains curiously overlooked.

Heinz Fricke, the opera's music director, has just arrived from his Berlin home. A short, unpretentious man with slicked-back silver hair, he winds his way through the labyrinth of corridors linking the Kennedy Center's rehearsal rooms, trailing a sharp after-shave that probably predates the toppling of the Wall. Fricke's eyes sparkle as he peeks at the machinery looming backstage in the Opera House. Here he will conduct the first Washington Opera production of Richard Strauss's "Elektra," which opens March 1.

Like so many in his profession, the conductor from the former East Germany seems blessed with some magical immunity to jet lag. He responds to the warm greetings from Opera House staff members with unflagging energy. Although he is one day away from his 70th birthday, partying is not on the maestro's agenda. "No time for that; there's work to be done," he says, as concentrated on the task at hand as he is oblivious to the lipstick traces planted on his neck by a well-wisher.

Since he was chosen as music director of the Washington Opera in 1992, Fricke has conducted some of its best-received productions in recent memory -- most notably last season's ripe, wistful "Der Rosenkavalier." He has brought the opera a particular expertise in the works of Wagner and Strauss. Indeed, when Fricke concluded Oslo's first full "Ring" last spring, Wagner scholar Barry Millington described it in the London Times as Wagner conducted "on a par with anything that can be heard in the world today."

In the current hierarchy at the Washington Opera, Placido Domingo has ultimate responsibility as artistic director for the direction the company is taking, while the music director is concerned principally with leading the orchestra. Regarding Fricke's contribution in that role, Domingo says that "the orchestra has flourished under his guidance."

Within just a few years, Fricke has steadily refined the spirit of ensemble and the quality of playing from the orchestra to an extent that has hardly gone unnoticed. This is all the more remarkable in a world that tends to dote on singers while taking the musicians in the pit for granted. Of the orchestra's 61 members, Fricke has been responsible for appointing 20 players from national auditions -- mostly to fill vacancies left by retiring musicians. In addition, his institution of an annual series of performances on the Concert Hall stage has enhanced the ensemble's image by giving it its own moment in the spotlight. Says Fricke, "The orchestra needs to be given challenges not only in the opera house but also on the concert stage."

In short, there's a good case to be made for a "Fricke era" as well. Or there would be were it not for Fricke's genuine reluctance to focus attention on himself.

"I'm always the servant of the composer's work," he says. "The important thing is not myself but what I'm responsible for bringing to expression during a performance."

Adria Sternstein, principal flutist with the Opera House orchestra, confirms this attitude: "He's very down-to-earth, not one of those egotistical conductors who walk around in fur coats with an entourage." That Is Past'

Indeed, Fricke's life story is hardly a tale of charmed privilege. "My first love was always to study music," he says with characteristic directness. Born in the small German town of Halberstadt in 1927, where his father ran a barbershop and played piano on the side, Fricke experienced World War II as a teenager. "I never became politically involved or joined a party for the simple reason that my father had faced serious problems during the Nazi period. . . . Then, after the war, one dictatorship was replaced with another."

Despite the tense postwar climate in East Germany, Fricke single-mindedly pursued his career, first taking up musical studies in Weimar. In addition to piano and cello, he rapidly turned his attention to conducting assignments and was for a time a protege of the eminent conductor Erich Kleiber. Fricke's determination quickly won him posts in Leipzig and Schwerin. By 1961 he had risen to the helm of East Berlin's renowned Staatsoper, where he remained for 30 years until he reached the mandatory retirement age of 65 (when he was succeeded by Daniel Barenboim, the current music director). While he remained aloof from politics, Fricke channeled his energies into his work and artistic friendships. One colleague who became a good friend was Kurt Masur, current director of the New York Philharmonic. Masur fondly recalls his first impressions of Fricke when they were both young artists: "He was extremely confident and knew exactly what he wanted. His style was fresh, decisive, clear, and he made the ensemble and singers feel very safe. I remember one singer described it as feeling wie in Abrahams Schoss.' " ("Like being in the bosom of Abraham.")

Masur adds that, amid all the work, "we had a lot of fun also. Once when the singer of a small role got sick in a production of Wolf-Ferrari's "Sly" {based on "The Taming of the Shrew"} that I conducted, he agreed to sing the part himself onstage."

During this period, Fricke immersed himself in an enormous range of repertory. To date he has conducted 172 operas. Among these, beyond the Wagner and Strauss with which he is currently most identified, were many French, Italian, Czech and Russian operas. "I did lots of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. The latter's Der Nase' is something I'd very much like to conduct again. I've given 1,100 performances of Carmen.' "

In fact, there were certain advantages, artistically speaking, to working in East Berlin over other East German cities. "We had many international singers who would come from the West. The Staatsoper was especially privileged, because Berlin was a site of both political and artistic competition between East and West."

But it was the issue of guest conducting abroad that created political problems for Fricke. He recalls that the communist government "didn't approve of my working in the West. But they wanted the money, taking a 40 to 50 percent cut of what came in from these engagements. Going from East to West wasn't hard, but coming back, where everything was quite dreary -- that was psychologically difficult."

As he took on assignments throughout Europe -- work in West Germany was particularly restricted -- and Latin America, the authorities would play such capricious mind games as refusing to issue a visa until the last minute. Not until the '80s were his wife and son allowed to join him on these tours.

"Thank God the political pressure is over. That is now in the past," Fricke states emphatically, but without bitterness. "Past, but not forgotten." Orchestrating Unity

Among the visas never granted during the communist period was one to the United States. So it was not until 1990, when the communist regime was near the end of its collapse, that Fricke made his debut here at a concert in San Diego, followed two years later by his first opera (in the same city), "Der Rosenkavalier." In 1992 Fricke also made his Washington debut with Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman." The production proved so successful that Fricke was offered the position of music director within a few months, during the administration of Martin Feinstein, former general director of the Washington Opera.

Feinstein recalls being won over by Fricke's "mastery of the score and his ability to communicate. He instantly established a feeling of rapport and warmth with the players. There's been a much higher level from the orchestra since he's taken over."

Cherishing his relationship with what he affectionately calls "mein Orchester," Fricke has great respect for the players. "I have conducted many orchestras in the world. When I compare them, I can say this is a very good opera orchestra. You have to realize that an opera orchestra is different from a symphony orchestra. It needs more flexibility. The players must learn to hear with one ear onstage, the other in the pit. I want to help them find their way into the style of each composer. We still have much to learn, but that takes time and patience. And money."

Among conductors he admires, Fricke mentions Furtwaengler, Kleiber, de Sabata ("better than Toscanini") and Bernstein ("his ability as an all-around musician who could find his way into each style was truly enviable") but singles out Bruno Walter for his gentle behavior with musicians. "What he showed was that you can pose difficult challenges but must never forget that there's a human being sitting there in front of you. As a conductor, I'm a musician like a violinist or a clarinetist. It's simply my function that's different."

Indeed, it's as if Fricke's experience with two dictatorships has enhanced his sense of the orchestra as a kind of microcosm of democracy. "I'm not a podium dictator."

Clearly these feelings are reciprocated by many of the players. Principal violist Shelley Coss, a 15-year veteran with the orchestra, describes the effect of Fricke's tenure: "Nothing better could have ever happened. He's a brilliant musician and very diplomatic. He knows how to get what he wants without lots of ranting and raving. He uses very small, quiet motions."

According to flutist Sternstein, "When we play under Fricke, we get reviewed well. He's totally calm and makes it look easy. You walk out of a rehearsal feeling, This is why I went into music.' "

There remain several important unresolved issues about the status of the orchestra, including its size and how it will weather the move to Woodies. The ensemble is employed by both the Washington Opera and the Kennedy Center, for which it performs in ballets and musicals. The orchestra's principal horn player and committee chairman of the Opera House Orchestra, Gregory Drone, says that throughout its history, Fricke "was the only one who stood up for the orchestra and said we have a place here. He helped establish the idea that the Washington Opera and its orchestra have a shared destiny to become an internationally recognized company." Elektra-fying the Audience

The orchestra's mettle is certain to be tested when Fricke leads it in the upcoming production of "Elektra." In the orchestral virtuosity that it demands, Strauss's opera is as unrelenting as the monomania of its heroine. The score's frenzied expressionism befits a version of Sophocles that is clearly steeped in the thought of Nietzsche and Freud. H.L. Mencken once described its music as "sounds that tug at the very roots of the hair . . . that suggest a caroling of dragons and bierfisch."

When asked how he approaches such a work, Fricke becomes animated, shifting between English and German.

"Before I meet with the orchestra, I already know the score. When I was starting out, we had to study the score without the aid of recordings. The crucial thing to remember about Elektra' is that, from the first chord, the entire opera is a crescendo. It's so intense, dramatic, and it requires a corresponding concentration. The air itself seems to become constricted, because this tension runs from beginning to end without relief -- not even in the recognition scene with Orestes, when Elektra is at her most human. Strauss here expresses a kind of intensity and aggressiveness that he never achieved again. He constantly challenges the audience."

From his mentor Erich Kleiber, Fricke learned how to strive for a flexible balance of sound that brings out the character of the music without confining it to strict, exact rhythms. "Tempos are relative. After all, this is a technological age, which tends to speed up our daily rhythms. Sometimes it makes us too fast with symphonies and operas. For effective musical expression, I try to give each singer and the players a kind of ordered freedom so they do not lose their personality."

For all the decades of experience in interpretation that Fricke has acquired, he seems to approach the work of the moment with untarnished enthusiasm. While remaining true to the composer's vision is his main criterion, Fricke reflects a progressive attitude in making a connection between an opera and its present-day audience.

"I don't believe there is one correct interpretation that can be forced on listeners. It's important to find a way of connecting the story with the music so that the audience can identify with it." CAPTION: Washington Opera Music Director Heinz Fricke in the orchestra pit during a recent rehearsal.