An Opera Diva and a Broadway Star Trade Places, and Advice
Posted March 8, 2018 7:11 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — It is the “Freaky Friday” or “Trading Places” of divadom.
Renée Fleming, one of opera’s biggest stars, is on Broadway, appearing in previews of an eagerly anticipated revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” that will open in April. And Kelli O’Hara, who is Tony-winning Broadway royalty, is at the Metropolitan Opera, starring in its carnivalesque new production of Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” opening Thursday.
Before embarking on their current metamorphoses, the two of them met halfway — in operetta, when they appeared together in “The Merry Widow” at the Met in 2014. Soon after they landed their current gigs, Fleming and O’Hara began trading emails and phone calls about topics like singing Mozart at the Met and how much to tip a Broadway dresser.
Their learning curves go well beyond style. Opera is not amplified, so O’Hara must fill the cavernous Met, which holds nearly 4,000 people, without a microphone. Fleming gets a mic at the much smaller Imperial Theater on West 45th Street but must adjust to the grueling rhythms of a musical. While operas have short runs, and stars rarely have to sing two nights in a row, Broadway typically asks eight shows a week of its stars, for months.
The new roles are departures, and tests, for both of them. Fleming, 59, has stepped away from her signature opera roles to concentrate on a concert career, new challenges such as “Carousel” and singing a jazzy tune in “The Shape of Water,” which won an Oscar this month for best score. But she has expressed interest in performing new operas in the future. O’Hara, 41, who described her operatic foray as the culmination of a dream she has had since studying opera at Oklahoma City University, plans to return to Broadway next year in a revival of “Kiss Me, Kate.”
The two stars recently took a break from their intense final weeks of rehearsals to sit down at the Met and talk about what they had learned about each other’s turfs, share some of their insecurities and, at times, swap a little advice. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: Renée, obviously no one’s expecting you to become Ethel Merman. Nettie Fowler, your character in “Carousel,” has often been sung by people with experience on the opera stage.
RENÉE FLEMING: Well, I’m the first soprano I’ve been able to find to do this. One of the interesting things to talk about is what’s been surprising to us. I knew that eight shows a week would be a challenge — and I’ve had two performances so far, so I can’t really say what that’s like yet. But there are so many things that have shocked me about the process. The first preview is like a draft of the show, and we have six weeks to make it into a real show. So that really surprised me — the degree to which there will be changes.
KELLI O’HARA: I’m so used to the comfort of that. It’s like a film actor is fine, because they have many, many takes of something. Preview period for me was: I’m still working on it, I’m still trying to figure out what this is, even though we had an audience. Here, it’s just hit the road and go!
FLEMING: I keep saying that to my colleagues! The first preview, I said, “Well, [in opera] we would have opened by now, all the critics would be here tonight.” Another thing that shocked me is the rehearsal process. There’s a huge number of people in rehearsal, and evidently when we start running the show, there’ll be hardly anybody backstage. Whereas at the Met it’s the opposite.
O’HARA: Right! That was one of the biggest things here [at the Met] during “Merry Widow,” arriving in a dressing room that wasn’t my home. On Broadway, you make it your home, because you’re there so much: You decorate, you bring your things from home, you put your pictures out. No one comes to that door. You walk yourself to the stage and you stand alone. You don’t want to be touched. And you wait, and you prepare, and you focus.
Here, I remember getting my makeup. Knock-knock-knock. “I want to introduce you to ...” or “We have this person here. ...” Finally the show’s going to start. I’m a little frazzled. Then it’s “Kelli O’Hara to the stage.” They walk me to the stage. Then it’s a person standing behind me saying, “Go!” It’s so huge. There are about a gazillion stagehands and about 17 stage managers.
Q: What’s it like, coming from here to a Broadway-size theater and trying to adjust to Rodgers and Hammerstein?
FLEMING: For opera, we are the amplification. So the body amplifies the voice, with this kind of projection, and also breath pressure and support. And in music theater, it’s the opposite. You really want the microphone to do that work of amplification, so you save yourself. You just couldn’t do it eight shows a week.
O’HARA: I don’t think that I’ve ever adjusted my singing much [for microphones]. But I still try to sing with all of my body, and they adjust the mic down if they need to for me.
FLEMING: One good thing about the Met is the house absolutely favors high voices. It’s something about the overtones, I think, that really carry in the house. So I always tell people don’t be afraid, because if you allow the overtones to do their work, you’re safe.
You can never sing to the wings, you can never turn away and sing on the stage of the Met. You always have to cheat out. And so that’s something I love — not having to do that now. I can talk to someone on stage, and it will be heard!
O’HARA: Even though I feel like I’ve been singing in a healthy way on Broadway for the last 20 years, it doesn’t compare. I have to trust that you don’t have to scream to be heard.
FLEMING: Is there anything I need to worry about? People keep talking about this Tony Award voting period.
O’HARA: Well, that will get in your head. So you could actually ask your company, you could say: “OK, this is new for me — in that week before we open, I don’t want to hear about the press. I don’t want to hear about who’s here.”
FLEMING: I went to a sports psychologist years ago, who just said you must protect yourself: You don’t go on the internet.
O’HARA: The one thing I do know is that when I step on the stage — and you step on the stage — we know how to be on the stage. It doesn’t matter what the stage is. The audience is an audience, the stage is a stage, the story is the story, and the singing is your singing.
FLEMING: People tend to think of opera as a very separate sort of genre. In fact the lineage between Rodgers and Hammerstein, for instance, and what I’ve grown up in is very powerful. When operetta first came to New York, that had a huge influence on music theater. One thing that I love is this notion that an opera house now, particularly around the country, can also perform these artistically aspirational music theater pieces. Those should be folded into what we present in an opera house because otherwise, frankly, we’ve been presenting the same titles, the same small body of work, for literally a century. So we need to kind of get audiences interested more in new work. And this is a good way to do it. O’HARA: This is the other thing, and I’ll just say it: In opera, I’m still playing the young girl. In musical theater, I’m too old to play some of these roles. Which is heartbreaking for me.
FLEMING: But I think of Broadway as really loving its divas, and really celebrating women. You think of Patti LuPone, and some of the great artists who just continually go on — Bernadette Peters is taking over “Hello Dolly.” And the audiences just crave these great leading women. It’s a little harder in opera. It’s a little bit to do with the voice and how it changes. But sometimes the repertoire that’s left is sort of the roles that aren’t the most sympathetic — you have the sorceress and the witch, and many comic roles.
O’HARA: I think we’re seeing it in movies, television, and we’ll see it more in the writing on Broadway: that women of a certain age are going to start to have real stories, just like they’re having in real life. As opposed to these kind of clichéd ones.
Q: Renée, how did you find it going from that heightened opera talk, projecting and enunciating, to trying to be more natural and funny on Broadway?
FLEMING: I always said that I never could manage spoken accents — but I could sing in any language. I don’t know what the disconnect was. But in fact I have really enjoyed working with this Maine accent [in “Carousel"] and trying to kind of fine-tune it and really find the colors in her voice.
Q: Kelli, how is it to sing in Italian, instead of Oscar Hammerstein in English?
O’HARA: I think that’s the most difficult part for me. I haven’t been perfecting these languages over the years. I think the accent is OK. I’m getting it, but it’s just the agility with it.
FLEMING: You have the barrier of understanding, and being able to know, not just what you’re saying but everyone else. You have to memorize everyone’s texts, unless you speak the language.
I remember so well my first really major professional operatic experience, at Houston Grand Opera, and it was “The Marriage of Figaro.” I had sung it in English, and this was the first time I had sung it in Italian. The problem was that my colleagues were so fabulous and so schooled and so experienced. I really just thought I was going to faint on stage.
O’HARA: That’s what’s happening right now! They know the show like I would know “Music Man.” It’s humbling, after all this time of trying to build yourself a career and a bit of backbone. You think: Why have I done this to myself? And then you think, well, if I get through it and I can succeed in any form, well, those are the things you have to do in life.
FLEMING: Challenges, right?
O’HARA: I think we both love what we’re doing in a way that makes us want tastier versions all the time — you know, never just laying back.