The Conversation: Broadway Baby

Classic Arts Features   The Conversation: Broadway Baby
On New Year's Eve, Kelli O'Hara made her Met debut in Susan Stroman's new production of The Merry Widow. During rehearsals last November, O'Hara told the Met's Philipp Brieler about bridging the worlds of musical theater and opera.

A few years ago you recorded a song about a country singer who accidentally becomes an opera star. True story?

[Laughs.] A friend wrote that for me, and it's sort of based on my story. I'm from the South, my background is in opera, and I had just had my first child, so that all became part of the song. But at the time I never thought I'd be singing at the Met!

So how did this debut come about?

I made a really hard decision in my senior year of college to not go to grad school for opera, and instead pack my bags and move to New York. I think it had to do with being impatient and also with my feeling that theater fits me better as a person than opera. And I don't regret anything. But I always missed it and dreamed of using my voice in the way that I learned to use it. So when Peter Gelb asked me to audition, things just came together in a very lucky way.

Some of your roles in musical theater have been quite operatic in style...

I've been trying to push that, because that's what I do. It's a hard world in musical theater, there's a lot of pop singing, a lot of belting. But I found my niche with Ricky Ian Gordon and Adam Guettel and people like that. I sought them out and said, "I want to do theater, but I want to sing the way I sing." I just did [Jason Robert Brown's] lhe Bridges of Madison County on Broadway, which was, in a way, more of a classical musical theater sound. So it's been a nice marriage of the two.

Operetta seems like the natural next step. How does it fit you vocally?

I think it's what I am these days. I haven't been studying throughout, so I'm out of practice with the heavier operas and languages and things. But an English operetta really is the way I would want to do it right now. Of course I'd love to be challenged more later, but I'm not there yet.

What excites you most about making your operatic debut at the Met?

Oh, my gosh. I'm most excited to sing the way I really sing, to let the voice go and do the things that are natural: as opposed to trying to guide your voice into a certain sound, a certain style or character, which is what I've learned to do in musical theater. But in opera, you don't. You use your voice, the one you have, not the one that's manipulated. I love that it feels very natural. I don't want to get caught up in it, but I do feel I'll have to be careful not to worry I won't be heard because my voice maybe is smaller or isn't as practiced in this kind of music. Thank goodness Valencienne is not a coloratura, it's not that high. When you can sing in what is your tessitura, there's a power to that because there's a confidence in it. So I'm hoping it will carry more, because it's in that spot for me.

Tell us about collaborating with Susan Stroman.

It's wonderful! Stro and I had never worked together. I've worked with every- body she's worked with, so we know all the same people, but she and I never did. So this is really fun. And to be honest, her being in the room gives me a lot of peace because we're from the same world. I know I can work with her in a similar way that I've worked in theater.

How about your co-stars, Ren_e Fleming and Nathan Gunn?

Nathan and I toured the country with a duets evening, so I know him very well. And Ren_e and I just recorded a song for her Christmas album together. It's very strange: in the theater, you walk in and you see all friends. Here, I hardly knew anybody, so it's really nice to feel familiar with these two, watch them and learn from them and be carried by them.

The Merry Widow has been a hit for more than a century. What do you think makes it so enduringly popular?

You know, it's interesting because we're doing a whole new translation [by Jeremy Sams]. So I can't speak to the story or the book because this is a brand new thing, and it's very humorous for a 2015 audience. But Lehšr's melodies are so beautiful and catchy. There are waltzes and things that people can identify with. And the characters are great, I think Jeremy has made them extra funny. And they're all sort of ballsy, which I like a lot.

You seem to enjoy a challenge and doing something new.

I think it's a wonderful gift to artists to feel like you're welcomed in different arenas, whether it be film and TV or theater, and going back and forth. My whole career has been about that. I just need change all the time and a new adventure. So maybe I do King Lear once and then I do a musical comedy, and now I'll do this and then go back to musical theater. We're all artists and we can actually all enhance each other. So I'm grateful, and I really think it's a wonderful way to keep opera alive in this country.

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