If you ask Kelli O’Hara about The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific and The King and I – the three shows she’s done at Lincoln Center Theater – she replies, succinctly, “I’ve grown up here.” When I spoke with her the other day in her dressing room, both of us had reason to be reflective about her career on the stage of the Vivian Beaumont. She: because her final performance as Mrs. Anna comes on April 17th and a benefit reunion concert of Piazza comes this Monday. I: because I’m a fan who has been observing her, with affection, for almost a decade.
“When I played Clara,” O’Hara said, speaking of her Piazza role as a young woman on a trip with her mother in postwar Italy, “I was so green. I was desperate to be taken seriously. When I play Clara now I think I’ll have a better idea how to do it.”
“I remember Nellie,” O’Hara continued, speaking of her assignment in South Pacific, “as a positive time. I was starting my family” – she and her husband, Greg Naughton, have a son and a daughter – “and I felt free. And now that I have those children, my confidence level while doing The King and I has been at a totally different place.”
Children have been at the heart of O’Hara’s experience with The King and I. She mentions the final performance involving several royal children who had grown too big for their roles. “There were tears that day,” O’Hara said. Asked to name other emotional moments during the run, she replies that there are just too many: she finds herself genuinely moved on a personal level during at least 4 of the 8 shows she does per week.
For further proof of her connection to children and to the cast in general, consider this: when the production’s stage management team held a baby-picture contest – you had to match actors to their infant images – the winner, with a perfect score, was Kelli O’Hara. It’s as if knowing her colleagues so well was part of the job description. “I have enough experience by now,” O’Hara said, “to know that if other people are looking up to you then you should feel privileged to take on a leadership role.”
As for how O’Hara decides to take on her roles onstage, she said, “I’ve never planned very much in terms of what to do next. I’ve never known what was going to happen until it happened. I’ve been lucky.” As for the vocal demands of her LCT repertoire, O’Hara said, “Piazza sits high in my range. And The King and I is low for me. But during this run my bottom notes have grown, in a good way. There’s a little more power to them.”
O’Hara has several concert dates coming up, including her Carnegie Hall solo debut on October 29th. And on April 28-29, at New York’s City Center, she will be doing a semi-staged version of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, with her Piazza colleagues the performer Victoria Clark and the conductor Ted Sperling. She added, “If I do another opera” – she was in The Merry Widow, at the Metropolitan Opera, during the 2014-15 season – “I will focus on learning more of a foreign language.”
The fan side of me had to let O’Hara know what I and so many friends, family, and audience members have told me after seeing her in The King and I: how touched we all were by her performance and by her glorious voice. Such ability to connect emotionally is a gift; it is also the result of hard work.
Asked about what has motivated her work ethic during the run of The King and I, O’Hara responds: “Part of it is the joy and depth of the music and of the character. Part of it is a response to what’s going on in the world. She added: “I hear awful things every day on the news – how much hatred there is,” O’Hara said. “So often, the problem stems from a lack of knowledge about how other people live. And fear comes from that.” She added: “Anna must have experienced a huge amount of fear. But she counsels us to be brave. It’s good advice.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.