Rebecca Borowik, OnStage Columnist As a new writer for Onstage, the first thing you should know about me is that I am a huge Kelli O’Hara fan. I don’t know how it happened or where it came from, but I’m certainly not complaining since she’s definitely ranked highly among the sopranos of my generation’s Broadway. Recently, I had the opportunity to see Ms. O’Hara in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow, where renowned opera greats, Renée Fleming, and Nathan Gunn accompanied her.
Now, I’m not exactly familiar with opera. I know a few arias, such as Puccini’s “Quando M’en Vo” and “Donde Lieta” from hearing them in one of Sierra Boggess’ concerts and I’ve sung one or two in voice lessons just to have a few in my songbook. I wish I knew more about opera, honestly. Especially after the fantastic introduction that was The Merry Widow.
The Merry Widow is an operetta written in 1905. Many of who saw the production felt as though the show got lost on a stage as big as the Met’s. With lush music sung by incredible voices, the aesthetic factor was at an all time high.
I could sit here and review the production, which wouldn’t be half bad. There’s a lot to talk about between the opulent sets constructed by Julian Crouch and the gorgeous costumes made by William Ivey Long. However, my focus is on combining the world of musical theatre with that of the opera. Along with O’Hara, Susan Stroman made her Met debut directing The Merry Widow. Stroman’s credits include The Producers, The Music Man, Contact, and Oklahoma.
O’Hara made her opera debut as Valencienne, the wife of a baron who is quite flirtatious, but upholds herself as a respectable wife.
With roles under her belt like Francesca Johnson and Nellie Forbush, it is easy to forget that O’Hara studied opera in college under the same vocal instructor as Kristin Chenoweth, Florence Birdwell. Some opera fans were reluctant to accept members of the Broadway community onto their hallowed stage, but I think that the result was more than satisfactory. O’Hara’s soprano soared, as it usually does, however, there was something different to it. Her opera training certainly rang through.
The sound of O’Hara’s voice isn’t the only difference. As she said in an interview, a character’s journey and experience in a musical is personal. In an opera, both are open experiences that are shared with every company member onstage. As an avid fan, I can attest that her performance as Francesca differed greatly from Valencienne.
As Francesca Johnson, O’Hara portrays a private character. She lets Robert Kincaid in (which ultimately changes her life) as well as the audience, but her journey is internal. The audience watches her change, but it’s something completely personal to the character. It is her experiences with Robert that change her, not a person physically guiding her towards it.
As Valencienne, every character in the operetta is in on her journey. While Francesca discovers herself by meeting Robert and taking it upon herself to change, you can see character’s taking active moves to help Valencienne’s journey. Ms. Fleming’s character is the one who prevents Valencienne’s affair from being discovered.
Nonetheless, Ms. O’Hara’s performance didn’t disappoint. I loved being able to see a different side of her. As a classically trained singer and musical theatre student, it allowed me to feel that anything is possible when it comes to performing in both mediums.