Audra McDonald, Stepping Up to Opera

Tony-winner Audra McDonald, a classically trained singer, is taking on two solo operas. She sings Francis Poulenc's La Voix Humaine in Houston, along with a debut work. Both have a common theme.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

One of Broadway's most celebrated voices is now being heard in Houston; and for the first time, Audra McDonald is performing in an opera.

She's starring in the Houston Grand Opera's production of Francis Poulenc's La Voix Humaine, and she's singing a new work commissioned for her by composer Michael John LaChiusa, called Send. Who are You? I Love You.

Bill Zeeble, of member station KERA, has more.

Mr. BILL ZEEBLE reporting:

Audra McDonald has become a Broadway star over the last twelve years, winning Tony awards for her roles in A Raisin in the Son, Master Class, Carousel, and Ragtime.

(Soundbite of Audra McDonald singing)

ZEEBLE: But Audra McDonald is also a classically trained singer and actress. She says one of her favorite pieces is Francis Poulenc's La Voix Humaine. When the Houston Grand Opera called to ask if she'd like to sing it, McDonald could not say no.

Ms. AUDRA MCDONALD (Singer): Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. I'm very stupid about certain things like that. I was so into the piece that I thought, oh, I just want to do the piece, and so I say yes. And it's a piece that I've loved since school, so I say yes. Sign on the dotted line, and then worry about the consequences.

ZEEBLE: Attracted to it, afraid of running from it. That's the kind of emotional dichotomy explored in both La Voix Humaine and Michael John LaChiusa's new work.

La Voix Humaine was Francis Poulenc's last opera. It's based on Jean Cocteau's story about a desperate story on the phone with her lover, who's decided to leave her.

(Soundbite of Ms. McDonald singing)

Ms. MCDONALD: (Singing) No. No. I'm right here.

ZEEBLE: Alone on stage, with only a telephone and some furniture, the character does everything she can to hide her hysteria. McDonald sings the English version.

(Soundbite of Ms. McDonald singing)

Ms. MCDONALD: (Singing) Yes, you can send for it, when you like. (Unintelligible) I understand. Oh my sweet souls apologize. (Unintelligible) I am the stupid one.

ZEEBLE: Because Poulenc's work is only 40 minutes long, the Houston Grand Opera needed something to fill out the program. It approached Michael John LaChiusa to write a new one-woman opera.

LaChiusa teamed up with director Lonny Price to come up with a companion piece to Poulenc's telephone drama.

Mr. LONNY PRICE (Director, La Voix Humaine): What is the way that we communicate now? How do we communicate now? How do we date people now? And a lot of times, the Internet has played a very important role for a lot of peoples' lives now, in communicating with people as well as setting a romance.

(Soundbite of Ms. McDonald singing)

Ms. MCDONALD: (Singing) Hello (unintelligible). Hello. And Goodbye (unintelligible). Who I was, what I was, is no more. The man I called my own, is no more (unintelligible).

ZEEBLE: The character is a young, single professional awaiting the first phone call from a man with whom she's only corresponded by email. Director Lonny Price says there had to be some fun in the relationship.

Mr. PRICE: And this piece is loaded with humor, which we talked about a lot. The second piece is rather dour, and this piece, we wanted to show the lighter side.

(Soundbite of Ms. McDonald singing)

Ms. MCDONALD: (Singing) Single professional female, 31. Intelligent college graduate, active and fun. Adventurous, attractive and toned. Semi-vegetarian, on the cusp Aquarian. Seeks single professional male who is straight and sure. Intelligent and self-reliant, besides mature.

ZEEBLE: Composer Michael John LaChiusa had already written a musical theater piece for McDonald. Marie Christine earned them both Tony nominations, and he's won two Obies.

But like McDonald, LaChiusa is classically trained, and he spent two years in residence with Chicago's Lyric Opera. He says putting the story and music together for Send wasn't much different than writing for Broadway; but the Opera gave him more creative freedom.

Mr. MICHAEL JOHN LACHIUSA (Composer): I don't have to provide a cut and dried Broadway-esque score, something that meets the expectations of the audience, and nothing more. That's to me why I go back and forth between opera and musicals.

(Soundbite of Ms. McDonald singing)

Ms. MCDONALD: (Singing) You are only one. (unintelligible). And when you chose me. I am only one (unintelligible) you want me to be. No matter who I really am, no matter who you really are, what we want to see is what we want to see.

ZEEBLE: LaChiusa's creation successfully straddles both worlds, says critic William Littler(ph) with the Toronto Star, who was in Houston for the premiere. But he wishes the piece had been more challenging.

Mr. WILLIAM LITTLER (Critic, Toronto Star): It doesn't sound like conventional show music, but it doesn't sound like conventional classical music of a generation or two ago either. It's generically very easy on everybody involved. And perhaps that isn't the most complimentary thing one might say because one always likes, at least critics always like, challenge. We always like to go where we haven't been before. The audience likes to go exactly where it has been before. But I think we've come closer in recent years because composers themselves have realized that there aren't the support structures there once were for their work. They have to live and die in the marketplace.

ZEEBLE: That means selling more tickets. Audra McDonald thinks opera should be more accessible and believes the lines between music theater and opera are already blurring.

Ms. MCDONALD: I guess it just depends on at this point where they are performed. But in the next couple of years, I think that's going to change a lot too. Every once in a while you get city opera. They've done The Most Happy Fella. They've done you know some Steven Sondheim things. And I think that's wonderful because opera can tend to get a little, I think, high minded and sometimes it's stuck in a bit of an ivory tower. And I don't think it's as much the people's music as it use to be.

ZEEBLE: Audra McDonald and composer Michael John LaChiusa seem to be doing their part to change that. LaChiusa Sand, Who Are You, I Love You; and Poulenc's La Voix Humaine continue at the Houston Grand Opera through this coming weekend.

For NPR News, I'm Bill Zeeble.

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