Kelli O’Hara is a Broadway singer and actress, one of the biggest in the business. She gave a recital in Carnegie Hall on Saturday night. Better put, it was a Broadway evening.
She came out pretty as a picture. Honestly, she looked like an angel, or princess. I thought of a story about Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (that glamorous, and excellent, soprano from the middle of the last century). She emerged from the wings and an audience member gasped, “And she sings, too?”
O’Hara projected that preternatural calm and poise that some singers have. Then she began her program with “Ain’t it a pretty night?” the famous aria from Carlisle Floyd’s opera Susannah. It was odd to hear someone sing it with a microphone. It was also odd to hear it sung as a kind of pop song. O’Hara then went into “I Have Dreamed,” from The King and I (Rodgers and Hammerstein, of course). She gave it an unusual, and effective, conversational quality.
Speaking of conversation: this was one of those autobiographical evenings. I attended another one, two years ago, given by Kristin Chenoweth, also in Carnegie Hall. (For my review, go here.) The singer tells about her childhood and her family and her studies and the beginning of her career and the blossoming of her career . . . She dedicates songs. She has special guests. That kind of thing. It is a sentimental journey.
Kelli O’Hara grew up in Oklahoma. Earlier in the day, funnily enough, I had been writing about Leona Mitchell, a soprano from Oklahoma (now retired).
O’Hara’s evening had a title, or a message: “Never Go Solo.” She explained from the stage that this was not truly a solo performance. She had her band behind her (led from the piano by Dan Lipton). And she had her many helpers and influences, in her head and heart.
She also conveyed a political message. She said (something like), “I won’t tell you about my politics. All I’ll say is that I ought to be wearing a pantsuit.” This was her expression of support for Hillary Clinton. The audience responded with a very loud and very long ovation.
It occurred to me that I had been attending concerts in Carnegie Hall for twenty years. In that time, I have heard many expressions of support, from the stage, for Democratic candidates. I have never heard a peep for a Republican. Expressing support for a Democratic candidate at Carnegie Hall is just about the easiest, safest thing a person can do in life. Carnegie Hall is one big safe space for the Democratic Party (unless there are complaints from the left).
Anyway, O’Hara said, “Let’s get away from all that for one night.” And yet she was the one who had brought it up.
She sang a variety of songs, older and newer. One was “I Wish It So,” from Marc Blitzstein’s musical of 1959, Juno. In 1993, the soprano Dawn Upshaw recorded an entire album called I Wish It So. It comprised music of Blitzstein, Bernstein, Sondheim, and Weill. (Sounds like a law firm.)
O’Hara sang well, needless to say. She sings in tune, and she sings with exemplary diction. Take her consonants—which are neither overemphasized nor underemphasized. They are natural. Which is less common than you might think.
I will now issue a complaint, not so much about O’Hara as about pop singers in general. They do two things, almost without fail: they approach a note from below, i.e., scoop; and they flatline a sustained note, before applying vibrato.
When my niece Meghan was little, she loved to sing, and she sang like a pop singer. She scooped up to notes—almost all of them—and she did the flatline/vibrato thing. A couple of times, I tried to get her to stop scooping. To travel directly to a note instead. I also tried to get her to apply vibrato, or at least some color, from the start of a long note. She would have none of it.
What is one lousy uncle against hundreds of singers on the radio?
One of O’Hara’s songs was introduced by an extended cello solo—very nicely played by Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf. But, unless I’m nuts (no comment, please), the instrument was miked. And that sounded very odd in Carnegie Hall. Everything else about the evening was miked, as in the now-established Broadway tradition. Carnegie Hall is renowned for its acoustics. If you have to mike there—you have to mike everywhere, I suppose.
But is it really necessary? Especially in Carnegie Hall?
One of O’Hara’s special guests was Barbara Cook, who came out in a wheelchair, and sang a little song, unaccompanied, by Vernon Duke. This was charming.
About the evening at large: I have never liked the expression “If it is your kind of thing, it was your kind of thing.” Sounds snotty. But honestly, if this kind of evening is your kind of evening, it was a wonderful evening, an enchanted evening. It was not exactly for me. But (a) so what? and (b) I admire Kelli O’Hara, who is a big, big talent, and seems like a lovely person. No wonder her fans love her so. They are right to.