New York City’s opera event of the fall — an adaptation of “The Hours” having its staged premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in November — started with a pitch from Renée Fleming.
Fleming, the superstar soprano, was mulling over new projects when Paul Batsel, her right-hand man, suggested “The Hours,” Michael Cunningham’s novel inspired by Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” which weaves together one day in the lives of three women across time: Woolf, writing her book; a midcentury homemaker named Laura Brown, who is reading it; and a 1990s editor named Clarissa Vaughan, who, like Clarissa Dalloway, is organizing a party, here for a friend diminished by AIDS.
“The Hours” won Cunningham a Pulitzer Prize in 1999, and was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 2002, starring a power trio of Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman. Crucially, that movie was scored by Philip Glass, whose soundtrack unified the three stories as lucidly as the motif of “Mrs. Dalloway” did.
“I loved, loved, loved the film when it came out,” Fleming, who is singing the role of Clarissa, said in an interview. “It haunted me and stayed with me. The performances were so brilliant, and when I went back to it — all of these ideas, suicide, their lives as L.G.B.T.Q. people in New York City at that time, the period, all that was powerful for me. So when Paul suggested it, I thought: That’s perfect. Three divas, what could be better?”
Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, agreed. A composer was already in hand — Kevin Puts, who won the Pulitzer Prize for “Silent Night” in 2012, working here with the librettist Greg Pierce — but the company needed two more stars. Enter Kelli O’Hara, a Tony Award-decorated musical theater actress with opera bona fides (even at the Met, where she was a standout as Despina in Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte”), in the role of Laura; and, as Virginia Woolf, the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, a house regular and audience favorite.
The Philadelphia Orchestra premiered “The Hours” in concert form earlier this year, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Reviewing that performance, Zachary Woolfe wrote in The New York Times that, “the new work is, like ‘Silent Night,’ direct, effective theater, with a cinematic quality in its plush, propulsive underscoring, its instinctive sense for using music to move things along.”
Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s music director, will be in the pit when the opera arrives at the Met in November, directed by Phelim McDermott (most recently of “Akhnaten” fame) and choreographed by Annie-B Parson. Spread around the world but speaking together on a shared video call, the production’s three stars discussed how they are preparing for rehearsals and for bringing their characters to the opera stage. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
These three roles were written with your voices in mind. Can you explain how that plays out in practice?
KELLI O’HARA Can I just give a shout-out to Kevin Puts? To have a composer who’s living now and writing now and writing so beautifully now — Renée’s choice of him was so special. He came to a couple of sing-through sessions just to hear me and write a little bit more specifically. I do not take that for granted. To listen and make changes appropriately, he’s quite a mensch that way.
RENÉE FLEMING He’s written a lot for me, and he knows my voice really well. The thing that works for me is that the phrases have separation between them, so you’re not really stuck in a high register or a challenging tessitura consistently. And that’s what makes it possible. I’m loving [singing] it in my living room, so let’s hope that translates to the big house.
JOYCE DiDONATO I’m looking at the page, I’m looking at the score, and I’m like: Oh Kevin, that’s the money note that audiences will be waiting for. One of the cool things, as I’m working on it, is that I’m finding the groove very easily. It is being crafted for us, but the sign of a really good composer is that it’s clear this can have a life beyond this production. He’s writing it in such a lyrical way that a lot of different voices will be able to take this on. That’s what we want; we want these projects to have a legacy.
What do you think makes this version of “The Hours” effective opera?
FLEMING Libretti are hard because you have to reduce the number of words to a minimum in order to have room for the music, and that’s especially true here. Greg Pierce’s libretto is concise, and it’s colorful and just beautifully wrought.
O’HARA It feels like there’s a constant movement of the drama. That makes it feel, in a way, cinematic. Some of the score as well. It really is evocative. The more I listen to it, the more I have it circling in me; it’s one of those things that you become obsessed with.
FLEMING Kevin is not afraid to write something that’s moving and beautiful for the general public. And that is something that, in my lifetime, composers in opera have struggled with.
DiDONATO This is an emotional story. Some of the recent pieces that I have seen are very graphic and angular and have sanitized, in a way, the emotion. And I don’t find it in any way maudlin and saccharine — which used to be good words in opera, but I understand why we hesitate to indulge in that. But that, in some ways, is what opera does best.
One of the things I look for, certainly with a new piece, is: Why does this need to be sung? What I think they have done really brilliantly is the overlay, the way you can have the same emotional experience by different people in different contexts. And that’s something that can happen easily in opera and not so much in the cinema or theater world. There’s a scene where Virginia Woolf is trying to write, and she’s struggling with just getting the day started, and then Laura comes in and she’s reading it. We have the same words, one is being created and one is being received, and they both are being felt in very different ways. That adds a huge layer of complexity that really works on the opera stage.
How are you coming at these characters, which have been famously occupied by Hollywood stars? Kelli, in your case, this is the second time you are taking on one of Julianne Moore’s roles, after the musical adaptation of “Far From Heaven.”
O’HARA I didn’t go back to the movie; that’s sort of a rule for me. If I’ve seen it, I won’t watch it again. Because the only way to make it human or different or new is to put your own vision through it and metabolize it in your own body, your heart and bring it forth. I think that’s what the three of us will do. Opera is very different from film. I haven’t even really considered it being up for comparison.
DiDONATO We’re always competing against ghosts of the past who created roles. To me, the key is always, I do the research, but my job is to put the score in front of me and not create past versions. I learned that quite a long time ago. Go to the source, go to the score, the text, and you have to leave the rest behind.
FLEMING Well, I’ve always wanted to play Meryl Streep [laughs]. But also, for me, this is one of the only times I’ve gotten to perform a period from my own lifetime. I still have clothing from the ’90s.
O’HARA That’s wild. I’m going back to the ’50s. Just put me there all the time.
DiDONATO You do get the cutest clothes from that period. I have a little bit of wardrobe envy.
You have praised how “The Hours” — whether the book, the film or this opera — captures women’s feelings and experiences. All were created by men. What do they get right?
FLEMING This is tricky, because obviously I was pressing for women in the creative team, so we have a choreographer. I think it’s important, moving forward, to appropriately give representation to the stories being told. Even the fact that Denyce Graves [in the role of Sally] and I are lovers in this. This may be something that people clock — that [the queer] community is not represented, at least in the principals. It’s very challenging, on so many different fronts.
That said, I do think they did a very good job, and Michael Cunningham did a great job. I have a long relationship with Strauss and Hofmannsthal; there are historical pairings of librettist and composer that have really shockingly presented a woman’s inner life extremely well.
O’HARA From the Laura Brown perspective, Michael Cunningham is writing his own mother. Look at Sondheim; there is this precedent of artists who work things out in their art. So I want to join them and bring out their story, and my own story with my mother, and my own experience of being a mother. You do have someone who’s writing from a very real place. I’ll come in, and I have to make this woman human and empathetic in the same way. But they are writing from deep knowledge and pain.
FLEMING AIDS is at the center of Michael Cunningham’s book as well. A friend of mind said, “I’m glad the Met is finally producing a gay story,” and I thought: Huh, I thought this was about three women. There are different perspectives in this piece. It’s wonderful in that way.
DiDONATO For me, I think they’ve captured the captivity sensation that Virginia felt, or that I imagine she felt at that time — the limitations put on her, what it was to be a creative genius as a woman. We do need representation at the table, as Renée is saying. But one of the magical things about the theater is that it’s always about getting in someone else’s head. And that can be me, a girl from Kansas City, trying to understand Virginia Woolf. It can be a man trying to understand a woman, a son about his mother. It’s dangerous if we start blocking those creative outlets.
What’s exciting is that we are demanding that those doors are open to everybody. But I don’t think that means we should shut doors completely. We’d be missing out on a lot of great art. I think it’s thrilling that these men want to tell this story. Let’s have a woman write it as well. We have lots of “Barber of Sevilles” and “Figaros.” Let a woman write “The Hours,” and we can compare.