by Brad Gemeinhardt, horn
This week, Kelli O'Hara finishes her run as Valencienne in The Merry Widow, fulfilling a lifelong dream of performing at the Met. MET Orchestra hornist Brad Gemeinhardt took a moment to ask her a few questions about the nature of singing operetta, preparation, and the variety of experience this run has afforded.
How is singing at the Met, which is such a large hall, different from other places you have sung? Technically, do you do anything differently to adjust for the space?
The singing is incredibly different in some ways and not at all in others. I guess I would call it a much more presentational way of singing or expressing, rather than an intimate or naturalistic way. I've always tried to sing "on my voice" or with technique and correct support and air, no matter the venue, but the sheer muscle of it feels more intense in this space. And the amount of necessary articulation also effects the resonances. And speaking of resonation, there is definitely an adjustment in order to brighten the tone. Boy, I could talk about this all day! It's been a great and fun challenge that I will continue to work on throughout the run.
How would you describe these things to someone who loves music but isn’t familiar with the physical process of singing?
My teacher used to say that, “sing on the voice,” when I was holding back or unconfident, or maybe even shying away from the tone. There is a also a big trend in pop music today to have a very breathy sound, which can be very sexy, intimate, and emotional for that genre. But when singing in a stage production, whether one is mic'd or not, the voice just can't be unsupported like that. We have to "voice" the singing. This is what keeps it healthy. We have to say what we want to be heard. There is plenty of breath that is supporting the sound but once it flows through the larynx, it becomes clear sound - a sound that is supported. The air shouldn't seep through. "Sing out, Louise!"
How about adjusting the amount of articulation?
Chewing consonants or making them extremely clear, so that audiences can understand them from far away, seems very necessary in a space like the Met - especially when singing in English. This can make the melodies choppy and less pleasing to the ear, but the text must be important. So it's about finding a good balance between the beauty of a melodic line and the clarity of the diction. It's tricky. But the way we articulate using our teeth, our lips, etc., will help to find that balance. It's different from speaking, but the intention should be the same. It has mostly to do with making space, so tone is never cut off.
When you studied singing, did you learn in a technical way, or was it more conceptual, because so much of what you’re doing happens inside the body?
My teacher never taught with concepts, really. She taught by studying the real mechanics. We would look at pictures of the larynx. We would see how the breath moved up from the lungs to the larynx. She would never say, “Now, imagine a lightbulb," or “Imagine a stack of bricks,” or anything like that. She might actually stack bricks on me while I was laying on the floor, but she certainly wouldn't ask me to imagine it! But the truth is, we can't really see what is happening in our bodies while we are singing on a stage. But what we can do is feel. She said, “Never listen to yourself. Just feel what you are doing.” By doing that, you can start to recognize certain feelings that equal certain results. That's what you can depend on. But before, during, and after all this study, research, and development, my teacher talked about heart. "Speak on pitch," she said. "Communicate." And when you truly do, the technical aspects that you have painstakingly learned will fall in place and be there to support you.
When playing a role for a relatively limited run like Merry Widow, how is the experience different from singing something like South Pacific that can last for such a long time? Is the preparation any different, knowing that there’s less time for your character to evolve over the course of a run?
Well, there is no question that the themes in an operetta such as Merry Widow can be lighter than those of a play or book musical. In these, the characters are often given more of an arc and deeper obstacles. Therefore, longer runs can be filled with continual digging and searching inside the character and the circumstances. For Merry Widow and operettas such as these, we can focus more on the singing and staging, which helps when mounting a production so quickly. It helps keep the focus on the music for the entirety of the short run without the pressure of further character development. However, it doesn't mean that I stop trying!
In a more general sense, is preparing for and performing in an operetta very different from a musical?
Because this production was directed by Susan Stroman, the process didn't feel all that different from putting up a musical, except that we were given more and longer breaks - I didn't mind that! But the focus is definitely shifted away from scene study, table work, dramaturgy, and toward the music and staging of a show. The maestro plays a much bigger part, as well as the rehearsal pianists, diction coaches, etc. Overall, though, I was relieved to find the process comfortably similar.
In terms of personnel, how much cross-over is there between the operatic world and the Broadway world in NYC? Are there people behind-the-scenes who work much in both - did you know many people coming into this experience?
There is much less cross-over than I would have ever expected. It's a very different world. Occasionally there is a stagehand or, because, the dialogue is mic'd, some of the sound people are from theatre. Suzi Gomez, my dresser, was my first dresser on Broadway, 15 years ago. And, of course, I am sure there are musicians who play in theatre often. Other than that, however, I feel the worlds are very separate.
Are there any advantages or disadvantages to having only two performances per week, as opposed to eight per week on Broadway?
Are you kidding?! Advantage, advantage, advantage! Well, in the beginning, I definitely wished we’d had more chances to run the show before opening night. I felt the gaps between performances created a game of catch up every time we came back. I have gotten used to that, but the combination of the good nerves and uncertainty mixed with a bit of rest keeps things exciting. I will have a hard time going back to working every single day. My kids have enjoyed this almost as much as I have!
Has performing at the Met always been a goal of yours? And do you hope to be doing more in the opera world in the future?
Absolutely. When I was in college, I competed in the state Met auditions in Oklahoma and went on to the regional level in St. Louis. I'll never forget it. I was finishing my vocal performance/opera degree and wondered what my next step would be. I ultimately decided I wanted to go into theatre, so I finished college, packed my bags, and moved here to New York. I went to acting school rather than a graduate voice program, and the rest is history. It’s surreal to me, the fact that I have made it back to that dream through such an unusual route. I am so grateful that it happened. I do hope there are more opportunities!
Interested in seeing Kelli O'Hara in The Merry Widow? Get your tickets here!