On the Beat

O’Hara returns to her classical roots in the Met’s Merry Widow; twenty-five years on, Hong is still a Mimì to remember.

On the Beat O'Hara sm 1214
O’Hara shone in the short-lived Bridges of Madison County
© Joan Marcus 2014
On the Beat Hong sm 1214
Hong as Mimì at the Met, 2011
© Beth Bergman 2014

THE EARLY CLOSING of JASON ROBERT BROWN’s Bridges of Madison County last spring robbed a lot of people of the chance to experience Broadway’s KELLI O’HARA in her best role to date — Francesca, the Italian war bride who lives a life of serenity and inevitable compromise with her husband and children on an Iowa farm, only to be thrown into emotional turmoil when she falls for a handsome National Geographic photographer (STEVEN PASQUALE). O’Hara gave a riveting account of a woman who is suddenly forced to question all her choices and reimagine her future in ways she never thought she would. It was a study in quiet courage and confusion, and O’Hara, in glorious voice, was the show’s heartbeat. The Bridges of Madison County deserved far more than its truncated run of 100 performances, but it did please O’Hara’s fans and earn her a fifth Tony nomination. Now, she makes her Met debut as Valencienne in SUSAN STROMAN’s new staging of The Merry Widow

O’Hara earned her undergraduate degree in opera, planning on a career singing coloratura roles; in her junior year, she sang the Queen of the Night and immersed herself in art song. “I didn’t have a goal of something to play,” she said recently in a telephone interview. “I just wanted to challenge myself as a singer. Then in New York, I got hired to do things like South Pacific and The Pajama Game, which surprised me, because I never did that kind of lower singing. There’s a little indulgent part of me that wishes Valencienne was higher — more of a coloratura role than it is.”

O’Hara says The Merry Widow was the fourth attempt to lure her to the Met; one of the earlier possibilities was a revival of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny that fell through. In Widow, of course, she will be playing in repertory and not have to undergo the fretting over box-office success or failure that is the lot of most Broadway stars. On the demise of Bridges, she is remarkably clear-eyed: “I’m sensitive to the fact that being inside something is different from looking at it from the outside. I have a lot of friends who would believe wholeheartedly in a show, and as I would sit and watch, I understood why it couldn’t make it. I was aware of this the whole time with Bridges, and I tried not to get too much on my high horse about how great we were, and this business of failing. I have to think that there was a marketing problem. We didn’t explain to people well enough what it was that they would see when they came inside. I’m not even sure it was possible to do so. But to the very last day, I was extremely proud of it. It certainly wasn’t one of those things that fail and you think, ‘I have to get out of here!’” 

She mentions ADAM GUETTEL’s stunning Light in the Piazza from 2005, in which she broke through to critics and audiences as the beautiful but mentally afflicted Clara Johnson, as an example of a show in which “we got lucky. Right to the end of previews, we were changing things and wondering how to end it. When it played Seattle, prior to New York, Clara didn’t go off and get married. It wasn’t until we realized we needed to put a button on it — we needed to give the indication of hope — that we figured it out.” She didn’t get so lucky with SCOTT FRANKEL and MICHAEL KORIE’s Far from Heaven, at Playwrights Horizons in 2013, partly because “the creators and director didn’t want that kind of button. They were after something else. But they will keep writing more things, and I’ll keep acting, because the experience is so fulfilling. One thing about it not turning out well is that you get back on the horse again — and that’s the fun part.”

HEI-KYUNG HONG has always had a reputation for elegant, understated singing and truthful acting — for an honest but unshowy approach to her stage roles. People don’t generally talk about her putting a “definitive” stamp on her roles, in the sense that people speak of KARITA MATTILA as a definitive Leonora in Fidelio or NATALIE DESSAY as a definitive Zerbinetta. Yet, back in 1989, I heard Hong sing Mimì in a Met Bohème, opposite RICHARD LEECH, and I felt I had seldom heard a more genuine, unforced performance of the role in the theater. Almost exactly twenty-five years later, on September 29, I felt just the same way when Hong sang Mimì opposite BRYAN HYMEL. She was not originally scheduled to sing the performance; she was filling in for an indisposed EKATERINA SCHERBACHENKO. 

At fifty-five, Hong remains one of the most satisfying singers on the scene. In FRANCO ZEFFIRELLI’s famously engulf-and-devour take on Bohème, she never gets lost on the busy stage. She is still astonishingly adept at creating “close-up” moments, both vocally and dramatically. Her use of portamento, her unerring instinct for shaping and spinning out a phrase, for being indelibly present yet never milking her effects, for getting just the right accent on the words — all of these were gloriously in evidence on September 29. I won’t soon forget the moment at the end of Act IV when she has returned to Rodolfo’s garret. Most of us have probably been around gravely ill loved ones who suddenly, pathetically persuade themselves that they are feeling much better once they are in our presence. Hong illuminated that moment as beautifully as anyone I have ever seen in the theater. Watching her, I was reminded of something film critic DAVID SHIPMAN once wrote about golden-age actress CLAIRE TREVOR — that her work has the “satisfying polish of a piece of amber.” spacer 


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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6