Kelli O’Hara: Authenticity and Tools of the Heart

Renowned crossover singer Kelli O’Hara has maintained her authenticity as an artist in multiple  genres throughout her illustrious career. Here O’Hara shares how she learned to pour her heart into her work and what singers can achieve in their university years. Read about her collaboration with classical and musical theatre composers, recording projects, and creating a musical home.

Voice teachers and singers look to Kelli O’Hara and her extraordinary career and achievements as an example of what can happen when a singing artist successfully and consistently combines superior vocal technique with supreme stylistic versatility. Star of stage and screen, classically trained in opera, and at home on stages the world over, Kelli O’Hara’s contributions to, and influence on, Golden Age and contemporary musical theater are undeniable. 

She is a muse to living composers, a highly decorated interpreter of iconic Broadway musicals (with all of the awards to back it up—a Best Leading Actress Tony Award and seven total Tony nominations), and has starred in two operas at the Metropolitan Opera. And this is to say nothing of her Emmy-nominated work in television and film. At the time of this interview, O’Hara was busy filming her recurring role on The Gilded Age, an HBO period drama from the creator of Downton Abbey

Our conversation centered on topics and experiences frequently discussed and grappled with in voice studios and rehearsal rooms—topics including preparing and performing an opera role versus one in musical theater, the relationship between a singer and a conductor, teachers and mentorship and, of course, singing and interpretation. O’Hara returned frequently to the vital importance of authenticity—authenticity in performing, interpreting text, and creating a career. 

Home and the Lack of Pull

To get started, I asked her to share a bit about her home, assuming that it has a lot of music in it. “It does. I married a singer and musician. We just moved, actually, and there’s a room as you walk into the house, which we call the hearth room—it’s the heart of our home. It has these beams; it’s an old farmhouse. We put our piano in there—its’s a baby grand that was gifted to me by a voice teacher, Kurt Peterson.” O’Hara smiles as she recalls that Peterson was actually gifting her the piano when he “lent” it to her years ago, citing at the time that he didn’t have room for it in the studio. O’Hara and her husband Greg Naughton have two children who practice on it now. 

“I feel like we are building a musical home, and every time they don’t want to practice, my husband actually [says] this beautiful thing—from the beginning, he said, “We learn languages, and music is one of the languages we speak in this family. You don’t have to always speak it, but you have to learn how to, because this is our family. We have a musical home—we have a crazy, messy home, you know. It’s not perfect. It’s an old home that’s a fixer-upper. But it feels good, and music is the most important part.” 

When asked what she might miss about this time of industry-wide shutdown and what it’s meant to have this time at home with her family, she responds, “I think that I was racing for so long with work, and I really have been, and I was trying so hard to make a balance of being home and working. This past year has been so beautiful that way in that so many of my friends—I’ll be really honest—people are like, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta get back to work…that catharsis heals me!’ But I was so delighted to know that being home—and the work pull wasn’t there—was so great for me. It was so healing for me to be able to be home with them—to have meals together, to play games. You know, and not have the pull.

“It’s hard to choose to not do all the work that comes because I’m so grateful to have the work. But the pandemic alleviated any of that pull. I relaxed into the beauty of being with my family, being with my children. And I will miss the lack of pull. 

“I think I didn’t realize what it felt like to sing unfatigued for 20 years until this pandemic. And I went to sing something and I was fully rested for the first time in 20 years—and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! I don’t even recognize the sound!’ You know?”

 

Teachers, Text, and the Tool of the Heart

Our conversation turned frequently to voice teachers and mentorship, and I asked O’Hara to reflect on her late voice teacher, Florence Birdwell, with whom she studied at Oklahoma City University, along with fellow Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth.

“You know, for as much ego and grandness as there was in my teacher, the ego all went into me and to Kristin and all her students, you know, and to her opera students as well. We were both opera students of hers. She was so powerful—but the better we did, the better she did. And so there was never a push and pull of a sort of power. We could be vulnerable—which we always were—but so could she. And in doing that, she gave us the gift of also being strong and powerful for her.

“Ms. Birdwell was hard on me, really hard on me—and if I had been one of the people that couldn’t handle that or thought that I shouldn’t have that, I don’t know where I’d be. And so I encourage young students to allow themselves to be critiqued and taught. And to grow and to feel uncomfortable—to get vulnerable with teachers. We have to get rid of the abuse of power, but I’m talking about the kind that is only well meaning for you. 

“I think the problem now is that if we don’t want to hear anything said badly about ourselves, then that person is cancelled or something. And, listen, I’m talking about the positive, but difficult mentorship, where we have that person we can trust to help us be better.

“She was such a beautiful technical teacher, but she moved from something very nontechnical—always—which was the power of the words. And when I say the words, ‘Ah’ was a very important word to her. We talked about this all the time—a melisma, an obligato—everything had to have purpose and meaning. And so you have this huge run, say in like the Queen of the Night, Die Zauberflöte [O’Hara sings an extended Ah from the familiar melody] and it’s, whatever that means, it’s the Ah of that is not notes. You’re not trying to place notes in that run. You’re trying to feel a meaning. You’re trying to take a journey, with meaning.

“The tool of heart, which is what I fall back on when I say, ‘Oh gosh, can I hit this note?’ Well, if I mean the word, I can. And if I crack because I’m emotional—and that’s the other thing in musical theater—cracking is horrible, but we get over it, as opposed to it ending our careers. We don’t think about it. The industry doesn’t. The industry says, ‘Oh, that person’s on their eighth show of the week, and they’re tired.’ You know? The industry doesn’t say, ‘Oh, that person’s losing it.’ No. It’s more forgiving.

“It’s sort of the mind over matter of singing—where you can either sabotage yourself or you can fly. You take the sabotage out and you move with the heart, and so [Ms. Birdwell] made me less afraid of singing. And what I do find in classical music is there’s a lot of fear. And the thing that she gave me the most was to take the fear away. And to give me tools. I mean that is the most priceless gift.”

Kelli singing the anthem at the World Series at the Yankees game

Singing and Interpretation

Kelli O’Hara loves to talk about singing, and I took this opportunity to ask for her pointed advice on singing repertoire composed by Adam Guettel. His songs “The Beauty Is” and the title song from The Light in the Piazza are now staples in soprano audition repertoire in musical theater and classical programs alike. 

“I think about what it is to sing his music and I think about how intentional every single note is for him. That’s why I identify so well with his music—it’s because of the Birdwell aspect—the speaking on pitch thing—meaning, if you let the sentiment of the lyric of the song move the technical aspect of your singing, you’ll win every time.  

“If you give yourself over to what you’re singing and what you’re singing about, it matches and therefore succeeds, because he wrote it that way. He’s not giving you a melody that is complicated to be complicated. He’s giving you a melody that makes you feel vulnerable.

“For instance… [she sings part of Clara’s line, ‘Something we don’t see a lot in Winston Salem’]. She’s incredibly uncomfortable. She’s not in Winston Salem. She’s in the Uffizi. She is so far from home and so afraid of the naked statue—and also intrigued, and her body is quivering with hormones. You’re supposed to say winSTON Salem. And first of all, the emphasis is on the STON, right?—that’s on purpose! That is because she is completely out of her gourd at that moment. But then at the end when she starts to talk about Fabrizio—when things sort of land for her—she doesn’t understand it, but then again, she does because she’s a human being—a human being with feelings and sexuality that nobody believes in because her mind doesn’t seem the same as others. But love? She gets that. She gets this,” O’Hara says as she gestures to her heart and chest. “She gets that. Right?” 

“So if you look at his music like that, and all the thorns that you hear? That’s because it’s thorny. That’s because the emotion is thorny.” ‘Love to me’—the most simple—why? Why is that simple? Because the way Fabrizio feels has no complication. So, I’m not even going to talk about vocal technique because that’s something we come—hopefully we come in, or we go to our teacher to learn that, right? But when you’re ready to sing something like Adam Guettel, it’s because [the technique’s] in place, and you’re only then ready to put your emotion in it. That’s how you sing Adam Guettel. Only when you’re ready to add to the meaning.”

 

Preparing for the Metropolitan Opera

O’Hara made her Met debut in 2014 opposite Renée Fleming in The Merry Widow and returned as Despina in Così fan tutte in 2018. “In preparation for Merry Widow, I started to study with Renée’s teacher, Gerald Moore, who honestly has changed me. My mentor in Florence Birdwell is so deep and runs so long and it’s so personal that it can never be replaced. But technically, I walked into Gerald’s apartment and he said a few things about being able to stand on the Met stage with no microphone—it changed my perspective, and it changed my confidence and my capability, because of resonance—because of where that happens.

“They wanted me to do my best, especially being as nervous as I was every time I stepped out on that stage. But you know we all—I think we can live in sort of a fantasy land of perfection and say, ‘Oh that went so well.’ And I learned more humility on the Metropolitan Opera stage than I have in all of my professional career. I went up on a recit one night, down center. The entire orchestra turned around to look at me because they weren’t playing; the harpsichord was the only one playing. It was one of the most frightening moments of my professional life, and I’ve been around long enough to get through it. But we’re just human beings. We’re just trying to be artistic, you know?”

Conductors, Giving Your Best performance, and Recordings

O’Hara has partnered on numerous productions with celebrated Broadway music director and conductor Ted Sperling. “The thing about Ted—especially because I’ve done so many of these sweeping, bigger, orchestral things with him—is that Ted and I move together like water—like we’re in the same pool of water. Ted’s not going to let me run away, and nor would I. Nor would I ever try to do something that manipulated or changed the intent of the composer. But if I have an emotional breath, or if I need a moment—or if it needs to be rubato—if it needs to go quicker because I am a flibbertigibbet that day—whatever it is—Ted is breathing with me.” She draws in a slow, commiserative breath, “And sometimes I am moved to tears with the relationship between a conductor and a singer when it’s like Ted.”

She speaks further about the benefits of a give-and-take relationship between a singer and conductor, before describing the opposite: “Because if you move first” [she imitates a surprised glottal stop] the singer is cut off emotionally, and it’s so anger inducing. If you’re in the middle of a feeling, whether it be joy or sorrow, and you’re told, ‘Stop—I didn’t feel what you were doing and I reject it,’ you come out of the scene, you come out of the song, and you’re done. And you sing it to the end—heartlessly, flat, and you finish it. But if you feel like you’re going like a wave and you’re riding it—you’re surfing it together, ebb and flowing—it’s because of that conductor that you’re in tears, and that you’ve given the best performance of your life. It’s because of them.”

I ask O’Hara if she has a recording wish list or priority projects she’d like to add to her already impressive discography, which includes two solo albums. She shares enthusiastically about a project in process: “I’ve been working for a long time on a new show, Days of Wine and Roses, which is something that I had asked Adam [Guettel] and Craig [Lucas] to write back when we were doing The Light in the Piazza, so almost 20 years ago. And they wrote it for Brian Darcy James and me to do. It was based on an old film in the 60s.”

O’Hara notes that Days of Wine and Roses (music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, book by Craig Lucas), starring Brian Darcy James and Kelli O’Hara, hopefully gets a recording soon.   

“Adam made it into this really jazzy operetta. It is the most eclectic and amazing score, and we’ve been building a show for about three or four years now, and we did workshops all through the pandemic, including an in-person one. But this score, I just think he’s really outdone himself. It’s got a little of the flourish of Piazza, but then some of the thorniness of Myths and Hymns. And then it’s got some colors I’ve never heard from him—a lot of jazz, because it’s the 60s. And so we want it to be this sort of New York City jazz drinking scene, right? Because these two people sort of completely take each other down with alcohol. That’s the story. It’s incredibly sad.

“I think it’s a very important story to keep telling. And addiction in general—it encompasses a lot. It encompasses career, it encompasses parenthood. You know, there’s something beautiful in this sort of simplistic story. It covers a lot of bases. You do see the devastation of it, but then you do see part of the recovery of it.” 

For her next solo album, O’Hara remarks, “I’ve done a lot of cast albums—what I want to do is make another solo album, and I want to make it simple. I don’t have any grand designs. What I want to do is make something that I can be really proud of.” 

 

Authentically Kelli O’Hara

I asked her to share her best advice for readers of Classical Singer and other singing actors making their way: “Well, the biggest advice I ever give is this authenticity thing, which is to be who you are and to not make yourself into something you’re not, vocally or otherwise, ever. Because, again, so cliché…but no one’s you but you. When I started to do it, that’s when I found Ricky Ian Gordon and Adam Guettel, and then Jason [Robert Brown] wrote for me. And I started to find my career and who I am, because I started demanding to myself that I would sing the way I sing, and not try to fit into these boxes and, you know, things like Pajama Game, where I was screaming a chest belt. You know, it was fun at the time, but I think to myself, ‘That’s not who you are.’ And so I had to learn the hard way. In other words, maybe I’m not doing it as much now but I certainly did for a long time. And of course I was trying to work. I came to New York and I wanted to be on Broadway, and so I do Jekyll and Hyde and I do Dracula, but then I find Piazza and My Life with Albertine, and I find my way.

“But I certainly had those moments when I was trying to fill a square hole with a round peg. It will never work because you know what it did? It not only took anything special about me away, but also gave the impression that I didn’t have much to give because I was really not comfortable, so I seemed that way. And there’s nothing like the catharsis in being totally and authentically you when you’re performing.”

Peter Thoresen

Peter Thoresen is an award-winning voice teacher, countertenor, and music director. His students appear regularly on Broadway (Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, Mean Girls, and more), in national tours, and on TV and film. He works internationally as a voice teacher, conductor, and music director in the Middle East and Southeast Asia with the Association of American Voices. He is a voice professor at Pace University in New York City where he also maintains a thriving private studio. Thoresen holds a DM in voice from the IU Jacobs School of Music where he served as a visiting faculty member. He performs throughout the U.S. and abroad. To learn more, visit peterthoresen.com or @pthoresen1 on Instagram.