An interview with Broadway star Kelli O'Hara
We talk to the Tony Award-winning singer and current star of The King and I at the London Palladium about her careers on Broadway and in opera
After pursuing a career in Broadway, you made your opera debut in 2014 as Valencienne in Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. How did you find the transition?
I studied opera initially and my roots lie in opera, but I think that my time in musical theatre and in acting has enhanced my ability on stage. I’ve learned a lot about owning the stage and presenting myself in a confident way. When I came back into opera I didn’t feel a huge adjustment – the type of singing I do in musical theatre is more classical in style anyway.
Was it a nerve-wracking experience?
Yes, definitely. But as soon as I went onstage at the Met I realised it was just like any other stage. You have to trick your mind sometimes. I get more nervous watching something at the Met than being onstage.
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Are the vocal techniques used in musical theatre and opera very different?
I’m not a big contemporary or pop musical theatre singer, so I wouldn’t say my personal technique varies hugely. There are definitely certain adjustments I make just for resonance and for sound to carry in a house like the Met, but I don’t technically vary it much.
Intimacy in musical theatre are different from opera though. The intimate moments in opera are still sung forward and out to the audience, with the characters not looking at each other. That's because getting the voice to the back of the hall is most important, whereas with a microphone in musical theatre you can be more nuanced.
Is it more difficult to focus on your acting in opera?
Acting is becoming more of a requirement in opera but the genre is difficult because if you’re not using a head microphone you must present to the audience. It’s not the inability of opera singers to act, it’s the logistics of it. You don’t have a face-to-face connection in a scene with someone. The music is so challenging that concentrating on the technical aspect of singing out is the bigger part of the job.
Do you think the opera world needs to adapt and place equal focus on acting and singing?
Yes, I don’t know why it should be put to the side – in musical theatre an actor who sings will be hired long before a singer who acts. I think we’re making a mistake by not trying to get the acting as strong. Now we have our operas broadcast online and on DVD there’s nowhere to hide. We can listen to recordings where the technical singing is unbelievable but I promise you, if the acting quality is there you’ll hear it in the voice.
You returned to opera this year in a production of Mozart's Così fan tutte, again at the Met. Was it a different experience to The Merry Widow?
The Merry Widow is more of an operetta, so it was a style I was more familiar with – I just felt like I was doing a big, grand musical. Così fan tutte is even bigger, and I loved the grand comedy of it all and digging into the fun storylines. It was also my first foreign language opera, which was exciting because it validated for me that I could do it. For years I studied all these languages and I loved singing art song and arias in those languages and I proved to myself that I could do it.
What would your dream operatic role be?
If you had asked me 20 years ago the answer would have been so different in many ways. But as we get older things change. I hope my voice has got richer after age and children and I’m in a place right now where it’s stronger than it has been in the past. And so then all of a sudden my options or my views on things are changing. And so to say which role I would want to play is actually kind of impossible for me because I guess for me it’s too many options.
Are there many other singers performing in both opera and musicals like you?
I would love to say there’s more of a crossover, but I’m one of very few, which I think is unfortunate. I think it does have a lot to do with acting – there are so many incredible young opera singers with the most glorious voices, but they have put none of their time or passion into acting, movement or stage presence. This is one of the hurdles, and it’s a shame that vocal classes don’t allow for that and consider the body in its entirety enough.
When I was in college I took extra classes in acting and dance, because I think I knew that I was either going to find myself in musical theatre some day or that I wanted to be a different kind of opera singer.
Do you think you’ll ever transition into opera fully or do you like keeping yourself embedded in both genres?
I don’t have any plans to move into the opera world really. My love is theatre and acting and singing, which is the perfect combination for musicals. Singing comes first in an opera, which I respect so much, but I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that my heart lies in the raw, cathartic, heart-felt acting. That said, if I have the honour again to sing in this highly technical way in opera I’ll take every chance I can get, because it’s such a fulfilling thing to do.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.