Kelli O'Hara studied classical voice and opera, but the musical theatre stage called to her. Though she sang arias by such composers as Mozart, Britten, and Strauss, Broadway audiences have heard her bring her soprano to the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Adam Guettel, and Jason Robert Brown. Now, with a 20-year career on Broadway, she’s giving Wolfgang another shot.
The Tony Award winner sings the role of the spirited and conniving maid Despina in the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, running through April 19. The staging from director Phelim McDermott transports the comedy from 18th-century Naples to 1950s Coney Island—with the help of a troupe of carnival performers.
This marks O’Hara’s return to the house after making her Met debut in 2014 with The Merry Widow. Perhaps the operetta, performed in English and featuring spoken dialogue, was a bridge between the musical theatre and opera realms. With a full Italian libretto, no dialogue, and no microphones, Così fan tutte sits irmly on the other side of the bridge.
In the interview below, O’Hara discusses her journey from opera to musical theatre and back—as well as the contemporary resonance of Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte’s 18th-century story.
You’re making your return to the Met a few years following your debut in The Merry Widow. Is there anything you learned the first time around that you’re bringing with you to this experience?
Kelli O’Hara: One of the hardest things is just the unknown. You imagine things with monsters; you imagine it being way too big or cavernous—that you won't know what you're doing or that somehow, you'll fall apart. The main thing I learned going in the first time was that I've been on a stage; I've been singing my whole career. It didn't feel that much different once all was said and done. I always tell people it's much scarier to sit in the audience and imagine being up there singing than it is to actually be up there singing. You jump on that train of what you love doing and go with it.
Did you feel that in rehearsals, or more once you got onstage?
Not at all for rehearsals. I was apprehensive coming in no matter what I had taken from the last experience. It's just a different sort of opera. This has been challenging and incredibly humbling. There were many days that I wondered if things were going to be okay. What helped me the most was when we started to get on the stage, out of an unfamiliar room. A stage, no matter what stage it is—and this is something I've maybe learned this time—I really do feel my most alive that way. We stepped onto the stage to start teching, and that's when I said, “Oh, okay. I think I can get through this.”
With this production in particular, I imagine having all those circus and carnival elements coming together helps put you in the proper mindset, too.
These people are just amazing artists—incredibly warm and explorative. Being in a room with them as well broke the ice for all of us. You had five very experienced, professional opera singers, but then I felt somewhere in the middle, which felt really nice. I didn't feel completely on the outside. I was feeling like we were all coming together as one in an unfamiliar and scary way. The unfamiliar part of it is actually what bonded us in a way.
Speaking of unfamiliar, this marks a shift for you at the Met, from an English operetta to this opera buffa in Italian.
That was the most challenging and scary part for me: “Will I do this? Can I learn this?” I wonder if the world was such that a person who loved singing opera but chose to go into more acting and musical theatre—could she step into the world of opera once in a while? If maybe I did one in my 20s and maybe I did a couple in my 30s, would I have benefited? Absolutely. Maybe I did one in Italian; maybe I did one in German. But that didn't happen. I took a hiatus of 20 years from my education of it. At the time I left college, I was doing arias in all the different languages, and I had regret. I regret I didn't keep it up. But I couldn't; I just didn't have time. I was immersed in my own career.
How do you approach mastering the Italian libretto?
I basically had to come to it with a textual sense, like I would an English piece. I learned what everything meant, translated it, and tried to know exactly what that was. I had a lot of help with coaches talking to me about emphasis with the language and the accent. Great coaches, Gerald Moore and John Fisher particularly at the Met, who were supportive and positive, but definitely hard on me and saying, “No, let's go back, let's do this.” It took a lot of hands and a lot of my willingness to dig in and keep at it. It's taken a better part of six months to a year for me to do something that would maybe take somebody else six weeks.
A lot of singers become proficient or fluent in these languages through singing these operas in houses around the world—that’s not the background you’re bringing.
I don't mean to separate myself so much. We were all just trying to hold each other up. But the other singers have been doing the languages, and it was an inspirational thing to watch them know the language better. Serena [Malfi, who sings Dorabella] is from Napoli, so she certainly did. Every time I mess up a vowel or something, I just look at her, because I know she's probably laughing. She's very fun; she's been giving me winks. At least I can share my mishaps with somebody who gets it right then. It's almost like you want to apologize, but you can't apologize to the audience, so I just look at Serena and say, “I know, I know I messed up!”
What other adjustments are there to consider when it comes to performing at the Met versus a Broadway house?
Well, there are no microphones. That's one of the big discussions. Once I'm out there, I have to depend on the acoustics of the room. I'm not going to give myself a bigger voice overnight; I'm not going to give myself more resonant power overnight. My head's the size it is. Without a mic, there is a fear that you're not completely amplified, especially when you're more upstage or you're turning a little to the wings, which I try not to do. I'm so used to having eye contact with everybody.
Is that a liberating feeling?
There’s something about a mic that does show everything—all the inconsistencies, all the vulnerabilities of the voice are heard with a microphone. Without it, you're not. You can clear your throat; you can do things that aren't actually heard out in the house. You're pushing through some of the more sensitive or more vulnerable things that might be heard on a microphone. I love not having the microphone on my body, carrying it and thinking about wires. It actually is quite freeing. I'm still getting my costume on wondering where the mic's going to go. It's this freeing feeling to not be tied up to anything.
How does the balance between character work and musicality differ in musical theatre and opera?
Phelmin does a lot of opera, but he's also done a lot of theatre. And the operetta was Susan Stroman. So as far as I'm concerned, I had pretty traditional rehearsal time: five weeks. With a lot of operas—especially if they're just remounts—people can come in two days before and do their performance. I could never do that, I don’t think. I definitely want to know who I'm working with; I want to feel the space; I want to immerse myself in the material with the new people. It changes everything. These two productions have been pretty true to form. This rehearsal process was coming from a theatrical place of improvisation and really digging into putting our full selves—in body and thought—into the staging while we're singing, as opposed to just staying there. None of these singers did that; they threw themselves fully into this and were adventures. That is a theatrical thing to do; that's what we do in theatre.
You studied classical voice—how did your initial crossover into theatre happen?
I came into school not really knowing what I wanted to do. I didn't grow up with a lot of arts in my life. When I went to college to study music, I wanted to go sing and study with Florence Birdwell, who was my teacher, but I didn't know what that would mean. So I went in as a musical theatre major, and she immediately changed me to opera because of the style of my voice. I'm ultimately glad she did that. For the next four years, I did everything opera. And I did as much musical theatre, acting classes, and dance classes on the side, because somewhere in the back of my head, that was part of me. When it got to be my senior year, I did the round of auditions for the Met, I got to the regionals, and I felt that somehow this wasn't the world that I belonged in. I kept racing back in my head to wanting to act and talk and dance. I remember my senior year, she knew it. I had applied for the American Vocal Academy in Philadelphia, and I came into my teacher's studio one day and she had the application in her hand, and she tore it up. And she said, “I want you to follow your heart.” And I cried and I was joyous, because I knew deep down inside that was what I wanted. I moved to New York and the rest is history.
What sort of repertory would you sing as a student?
I didn't have time to do that much. It was a four-year program, and I got my degree in vocal performance, opera. My first opera was Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring, which was a very strange thing to start with, but a very exciting thing for me. In the rest of college, I did the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute—it was pretty traditional after that Albert Herring. We did Die Fledermaus, and I sang things from The Marriage of Figaro. But I didn't do that many operas, and we didn't do the operas in the language. So most of my foreign language study was through my classes, recitals, and the Met Opera auditions. My experience is pretty small, to be honest. My experience singing on a stage comes from the last 20 years on Broadway. And that experience does transfer—a little bit.
Those 20 years on Broadway are giving you a very specific context as you head into this production.
I think you do things when you're ready. As I tried to make my way in musical theatre, I kept finding myself a little bit in between what was needed there. I kept trying to find people like Adam Guettel, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Jason Robert Brown to write me things that were in a way more operatic, because that's where my voice wanted to go. I wasn't a pop singer, never will be, so then I thought, “Does this mean I should try to do some opera?” When the opportunities start to arise, you don't say no to that. Even though I chose to do musical theatre, I was going to those Met auditions my senior year of college wishing I could win. All of that training and study and wonder never left me.
How would you characterize your Despina?
Despina is a woman—these women have been around since the beginning of time—who’s had a full life when it comes to men. That's how I see it, and I don't necessarily think that is, for her, a positive. Her relationships with men started when she was far too young. And there's pain and anger in that. She sings an aria about being 15 and having to know everything. So, in today's world, if a woman in 2018 started talking about when she was 15 and how much she had to know about men and she was negative about it, you'd think there was some pain there. I like to find her darkness in that, and her fun in that. A lot of times, humor is best brought out by pain. I think she's much more layered than might be first perceived.
It sounds like this is an opportunity to bring certain colors from roles you’re known for on Broadway to Despina. Is that fair to say?
Well, I think I've gotten a chance to play a lot of ingénues in my career. Maybe later in the game—Anna [of The King and I] is very strong; I don't deny that. And [The Bridges of Madison County’s] Francesca had a great strength about her. I do see a little more difference in [Despina] because I haven't played someone who's gone the hard road, to be honest. Francesca would be the closest. While I think some people have played her as more light-headed, ditzy, soubrette-ish, funny, I definitely have seen pieces of productions where they are more wise and schooled on life. That's the side I'm going with. I don't think until the later part of my career I got to play that. Nellie [in South Pacific] was very naïve—no experience. In ways like that, Despina is very different from what I've played.
Why is that side of Despina important to explore in this production?
I always think of why you do revivals over and over again. You have to see why you're supposed to do it in 2018, what's different. We know what we're going through right now. We're going through this huge movement for women and feminine power, and what I see in Despina is one of the problems in that: It's not always the men. Sometimes, it's other women that are getting in the way. And usually, it's born out of pain and born out of experience. When I really think about her, I see a lot of pain and why she chooses to throw her two ladies under the bus to join her in that pain—it's also a problem right now. I like to think about right now and what's relevant. And if you don't, you're losing an opportunity.
You’ll soon have the opportunity to revisit a role in a new light. What are you looking forward to most about making your West End debut in The King and I?
Anna is very strong, and it was very satisfying to play that and to be noble. And to dig in and find what her faults are, what makes her human, and what she stands for. I love what she stands for. I'm excited to play a character like that again, and to be reunited with Ken [Watanabe]—and I will continue to say Ruthie [Ann Miles] until I know otherwise. There will be a lot of emotion there no matter what happens, and we will put all of that into our show as a bit of honor.