Q&A: Kelli O'Hara talks ‘Merry Widow,’ ‘Peter Pan Live’ and ‘King and I’


It’s a rewarding but undeniably hectic time to be Kelli O'Hara.

The five-time Tony Award-nominated Broadway actress has in the last month gone from starring in NBC’s live telecast of “Peter Pan,” as Mrs. Darling, to making her Metropolitan Opera debut in “The Merry Widow.” In two weeks, she will plunge into rehearsals for Lincoln Center Theater’s much-awaited revival of “The King and I.”

“The Merry Widow,” in which she co-stars with soprano Renee Fleming, will be broadcast to cinemas starting Saturday as part of the Met’s Live in HD program. The effervescent operetta, staged by Broadway veteran Susan Stroman, features O'Hara in the role of Valencienne, the wife of a diplomat.


“The King and I,” which opens on Broadway in April, will see O'Hara collaborating once again with director Bartlett Sher, with whom she worked on the recent musical “The Bridges of Madison County” and Lincoln Center Theater’s acclaimed 2008 revival of “South Pacific.”

She will co-star with Ken Watanabe, who will be making his Broadway debut as the King of Siam.

Speaking recently by phone from New York, O'Hara discussed “Widow,” “Peter Pan” and the fact that she has never seen “The King and I,” on stage or film.

How as it been making your Met debut?

I chose to go into musical theater after having gotten an opera degree. I left it to chance when to get back to it. I was obviously very nervous about how I would be received -- less by the theater crowd than the opera crowd. It was a great vehicle to get in that way. It’s been great -- it’s a little different, the way they’re used to doing things. On Broadway, you have a long process. Opera singers are usually used to having a role they sing often and stepping in without much rehearsal.

How did you get a part in “Peter Pan Live”?

When they did “The Sound of Music,” I was having a baby at that time and didn’t hear about it. When I learned they were doing “Peter Pan,” I checked it off, saying there’s nothing there for me. But I forgot about Mrs. Darling. So I was very surprised when they called -- that’s all that really happened.

And rehearsing the telecast?

It was quite long for theater. We had to do the staging and then camera blocking, so it was a double whammy. We started Oct. 6 in a New York studio, then we moved to a big airplane hangar on Long Island. Then we had to reblock. When we did it for the live broadcast, it was no different from doing it for rehearsal.

The role of Anna in “The King and I” must be daunting to take on.

I’ve never seen the movie or productions of it. I think I say it with a little bit of shock value. It’s good not get wrapped up with what’s been done before. I get to read the material on the page and imagine her for myself -- what about her moves me? -- and then learn about the things that make her her. So I love that she’s so strong and that she took a huge leap. It was a big deal back then for a mother to just pick up and move to another country.

How have you been preparing for the role?

We did a reading with Ken in August. We wanted to read through it -- because Rodgers & Hammerstein can be involving. “The King and I” is pretty complete. There are no new hidden songs. It will be the piece that people love and respect. But then, whenever you do a revival, you ask, why are you doing it again? It will be -- not more serious -- but more investigated. So I hope there are new things.

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT