Theatre people often make friends, and some even find spouses and partners, while working on shows together. For actors forging original roles, the bonding can be especially intense. That was certainly the case for Tony Award winners Victoria Clark and Kelli O’Hara. In 2005, they starred as mother and daughter in Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’ seminal, quasi-operatic musical The Light in the Piazza, resulting in a mutual admiration society that has mostly stayed offstage.
Until now. Just weeks after a Piazza reunion concert at Lincoln Center, O’Hara and Clark are joining MasterVoices (formerly The Collegiate Chorale) for a rendition of Purcell’s early Baroque opera Dido and Aeneas at City Center from April 28–29. Ted Sperling conducts the piece, in which O’Hara plays the doomed mythical heroine with the famous lament (“When I am laid in earth”), while Clark plays a scheming sorceress intent on Dido’s doom. The two performers recently got together at City Center—where both are Board members—to talk about Dido and Aeneas, their craft, and their unique friendship.
So what is it about the bond between you two?
Kelli O’Hara: Well, we built The Light in the Piazza together. I was originally playing a different part, not her daughter, and we were more like peers in the situation. When I did go to play her daughter, we had to rethink our relationship in such a massive way. She became a huge mentor for me; she mothered me in the most generous and trustworthy way. She calls me Mother, and I call her Mother.
KO: We never address each other in any other way, but I don’t think it’s a joke or a nickname. We’re constantly reappearing in each other’s lives, sometimes by choice and sometimes by fate.
Victoria, why do you call Kelli “Mother”?
Victoria Clark: A lot of people have asked me about this. One of the things I like about working with Kelli is that she really lets me be silly, which scares a lot of people—they don’t understand that part of my creative process is letting steam off. She got from day one that I need to play really hard when I rehearse, and she took on this role, subliminally, of being there to support me in a very motherly, comforting way. So I just started calling her Mother, because I felt like I could be who I was without covering up. Why she called me Mother back is pretty obvious, but she was, for me, always the rock. I felt like, Okay, she loves me, warts and all. Hopefully.
What did you two have in common going into that process?
VC: The Southern thing. I’m from Texas, she’s from Oklahoma.
KO: Opera training. She was a mother, and I very much wanted to be one.
VC: I just loved Kelli’s training and her voice. There’s nobody who sounds like Kelli sounds, so I was so respectful of her—of the relationship she has with her instrument. It’s a palpable relationship that certain people have with their instrument.
KO: And the body. She taught me about upkeep. When were doing Piazza in Seattle, we both had Labradors, and we would both find each other by the water taking jogs, and I’d come knock on her dressing room door, and she’d be on the floor doing exercises. The body has to be maintained like the voice, spiritually, physically.
Looking at your bios, it looks like MasterVoices’ Artistic Director, Ted Sperling, has been a common element too.
KO: He and Vicki went to Yale together, so they’ve been friends since, you know, forever. It was my wonderful luck in meeting Ted—I guess he had seen Sweet Smell of Success or something—because when they first did Light in the Piazza out at Sundance, I just happened to be out there doing another project, and he said, “Yeah, throw her in the show too.” Then Vicki, when they were trying to figure out after that first initial workshop who the Margaret would be, he said, “It’s got to be Victoria Clark.”
VC: The tricky thing about casting is that you can think you know who you are and what your skill set is—what you think you’re on earth here to do. With Margaret in Piazza, I just felt in my bones, in my blood, that I had to do this part, even if it was just in my apartment for my dog. (laughs) I felt this woman. I knew who she was. That’s often not the case. Like when you’re cast in something and you’re like, “Really?” And then you’re just sort of like, “All right, take me on.” [We’re] in the hands of these people who see it in us, and we don’t necessarily see it at all.
How did each of you initially catch the performing bug?
VC: Showing off and being the clown was the first impulse, and being the storyteller and the spokesperson for my family. After that came the singing and the music. The training came much later. It was always about being the clown.
KO: I was probably an annoying show-off—but as opposed to being the clown, I was always singing at a funeral, or for soldiers who came back from war, or when a high school kid died. I don’t want to use the word “schmaltz,” because I love sincerity. I’m all about it. But that’s all I did as a kid. The first song I ever sang in public was “That’s What Friends Are For.”
VC: I have a picture of me in a scoop neck leotard with some blue chiffon skirt that we all had to wear, singing “All the Things You Are.” With a bad haircut.
Since we’re talking singing and acting, can you tell me about making the adjustment to opera with Dido and Aeneas?
KO: It’ll depend on the vision of the director, but this is Baroque; it’s repetitive and very held out. I think in this particular kind of music there is more stillness than, say, the last one I did, which was The Merry Widow at the Met; I was flitting about all over the stage, which I think hid a lot. This one is not going to be about that. The acting has to come from the genuine thought, because this isn’t going to be melodrama.
You’ve both done Encores! shows at City Center—Follies, Juno, Bells Are Ringing. Can you talk about that experience?
KO: Sometimes in the shortest time, you make fast, deep connections just because you’re going through something that intensely. On Bells Are Ringing one night I said, “Get your computer!” when I should have said “typewriter.” (laughs) There were no computers in the period of the show. Will Chase always gives me a hard time about that.
VC: I find those short rehearsal periods really fascinating, because there’s no time to go beyond the first instinct. In a normal rehearsal period for Broadway or LORT, there’s just enough time to try first instincts, then to shoot those down—or have the director shoot them way down—and then go on a streetcar trip over here somewhere and think of nine million other things that don’t really pertain to the part, and eventually come back, 99 percent of the time, pretty close to where your first instincts were in the beginning, but deepened. With Encores! it’s just shooting from the hip.
KO: It’s just trusting.
VC: Yeah, you’ve really got to learn to trust. It’s really a blast to work here. It’s a well-oiled machine. It has taken seasons and seasons to work out, and it works beautifully. And it’s great to have a live orchestra right behind you. It’s a kick, and the audiences are very enthusiastic. You sort of gear up for it, and then you just fly.
KO: Sometimes I think short runs are a gift, because you leave with that memory, just the way it happened. You didn’t try to stretch it out or make it a bigger thing on Broadway, and then it lost that tight, really cool, spur-of-the-moment, trust-your-gut kind of thing that made it so much fun. So I look at them as little gifts where I don’t want to do it any other way. Little memories.
I read that you both sang the entire score of Piazza to Betty Comden on her deathbed, essentially, and that the experience reminded you why you do this in the first place—that it’s all really about communication, person to person.
VC: [It goes back to] the voice. It’s not something that you just pick up and go, “There it is.” It takes careful tending and a lot of love and forgiveness and understanding, because it is our means by which we hopefully express not only our souls but touch other people about what they can’t quite get their fingers on. That’s my relationship with music: I’m trying to channel something bigger than myself that can hopefully heal.
KO: That’s how I feel about it. Every day my husband says, “Go spread the joy.” I think I spent a lot of time trying to convince people that it wasn’t just about my voice, that I could act. And I’ve finally come to the place that it’s my voice; I’m grateful for it. It’s why I’m here. It wasn’t about the acting. If I can put some acting in there, so be it, but I become an actor when I sing more than when I speak. I’m through being paranoid about that.
VC: That’s beautiful. You know, I looked back on those photographs from Piazza, and our faces are so—you can just tell there’s genuine joy. We knew we were doing something that was the beginning of a special friendship. I think on this Dido thing we’ll have instant chemistry. It’s going to be fun.
KO: Except that your character wants to kill me. But other than that!
Dido and Aeneas will run two performances only at City Center, from April 28-29.
Rob Weinert-Kendt is the Editor-in-Chief of American Theatre magazine.