Soprano Audra McDonald is clearing out junk — in more ways than one. When reached by phone at her home outside New York City, the five-time Tony-winning actress and two-time Grammy-wining singer was awaiting a call from "the 1-800 junk guy," who would soon be hauling away the fruits of her fall cleaning.
McDonald's newest album, the 12-song disc "Go Back Home," is also a clearing of sorts. It's the Broadway star's first solo album in seven years, and it addresses major life shifts that unfolded during that time, including the death of her father in a plane crash in 2007.
"I got divorced, losing my father, going out to L.A. to do a television show, being away from home and getting remarried [to actor Will Swenson]," says McDonald, who now has two stepchildren in addition to her 12-year-old daughter Zoe. She will be appearing in a Los Angeles Opera-presented concert on Saturday as part of a 22-city, North American concert tour with an instrumental trio.
"If someone were to make a musical about my life, this would be the soundtrack," she says.
Why did you wait so long to put out another album — and given the long gestation period, what are its themes?
For a while, I didn't really have anything to say; which is why I didn't do one for a while. And at the same time, life was sort of happening. I think I needed to back up again, so I'd have something to say. When I was finally ready to put the album together, it came out very fast and furiously and was coming from a very personal place.
If there is a theme to the album, it's longing and yearning for home, whether that's seeing my father again or just being back home with my daughter, being back home in terms of recording again, being on stage, all of that.
You've performed in so many vastly different genres — from the Broadway stage to the L.A. Opera's production of Kurt Weill's "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" in 2007 to ABC's "Private Practice," which ran for four years — where are you most comfortable?
I'd like to think that I'm fluent in a lot of different performance languages. But the stage is my first language. Broadway. Musical theater. That's what I did first, that's where it all began for me.
On "Private Practice," I loved building a television show; and I miss the people, it was such a great group. But I think if I were to do it again, I'd have to either wait for my daughter to graduate from high school or do something that's shot in New York.
You'll be playing Mother Abbess in NBC's live production of "The Sound of Music" on Dec. 5 opposite Carrie Underwood as Maria. Is that a role you've always wanted to play?
I grew up with it; but it's certainly never a role I thought I'd be in! For obvious reasons. I have to credit Neil [Meron] for thinking outside of the box and inviting me to be part of it. Most people only know the movie version, so they think of Mother Abbess as this 70-year-old woman; but in the staged version, the first woman to ever play her was 43 years old. And that's right where I am.
I also have ideas about where she's come from and what her life has been, what in her past life led her to put on the habit and take on this lifestyle. I feel like when she guides Maria and pushes her toward living a life outside the convent, I think she does it with some sort of knowledge about what lies beyond the convent walls. She did it, she knows it and she chose the convent walls — that makes her more interesting to me.
Does the live-broadcasting element make you nervous?
No. I've done so many "Live From Lincoln Centers"; I've also done fully staged, costumed productions that were broadcast live. It'll be performed on a soundstage, then broadcast live while we're doing it. But we're approaching it as if it were a staged night in the theater. I think it's going to be a big challenge, it's a huge task, but I'm excited about it. It's a very diverse cast and it's going to be fun. It doesn't scare me.
What does scare you?
Oh, roles scare me — the fear of abject failure. Judy Garland always said: "Every time I get on stage, they're going to find out I don't actually want to do it." And I kind of feel the same way — the next role, the next adventure, will I be able to do it? Will I be able to pull it off, will I be able to be convincing, will I learn something and transform and transcend in the role? All of that frightens me, every single time. But I feel like there isn't a better way to learn than through that.
What can we expect in the upcoming L.A. performance — and given it's just one-night-only, what other live performances are on the horizon?
It's a mix of music; a lot of the material is from my new album. There's some musical theater and songs from 1929-2011. I picked every single tune — songs I started singing way back when, others I adore singing and have been singing for years. We like to say, "We're giving you a full meal."
I am looking at heading to Broadway again sometime soon. I can't say right now what it is, but … there is a project. And it will probably pop up next on Broadway.
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, downtown Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $8 to $114
Info: (213) 972.8001) or http://www.laopera.com