Superstar opera divas power 'The Hours' - coming to movie theaters everywhere Kelli O'Hara, Renée Fleming, and Joyce DiDonato star in a new opera based on Michael Cunningham's book.

Three superstar divas power opera 'The Hours' - coming to movie theaters everywhere.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The novel "The Hours" continues its long-running life. Michael Cunningham's book received a Pulitzer Prize back in the 1990s. It was later adapted into a film. And now it's an opera. The Metropolitan Opera production stars three divas, Renee Fleming, Joyce DiDonato and Kelli O'Hara. It'll be broadcast in movie theaters on Saturday. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Michael Cunningham's novel is a literary tour de force. Evoking Virginia Woolf's writing techniques, he entwines three stories - the British novelist struggling to create "Mrs. Dalloway" in 1923, an unhappy 1940s housewife in Los Angeles reading the book and a New York editor in the late 1990s preparing a party for her friend and former lover who's dying of AIDS. And most of the narrative is interior.

KEVIN PUTS: I knew the book. I knew the film.

LUNDEN: Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts says he was excited by the challenge.

PUTS: I knew that what you can do on an opera stage and through music and through harmony is that simultaneity is something that works.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE HOURS")

JOYCE DIDONATO AND KELLI O'HARA: (As Virginia and Laura, singing) Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

PUTS: I could imagine duets and trios eventually that would involve the three ladies who live in these different time periods in the 20th century in different places. And that was compelling just from a musical standpoint.

LUNDEN: While the novel is sequential, going from character to character, from hour to hour, in the opera, the boundaries blur. As Virginia Woolf is writing the first lines of "Mrs. Dalloway" on one part of the stage, Laura Brown, the depressed housewife, is on another part of the stage reading the same lines.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE HOURS")

DIDONATO AND O'HARA: (As Virginia and Laura, singing) What a morning.

LUNDEN: Author Michael Cunningham says he left Puts and librettist Greg Pierce alone and only saw the opera for the first time on opening night.

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: I genuinely don't have this thing about the sacred text. If anything, I feel like it is a life sign in a novel that it can be adapted, that it has enough space to be able to take on other forms.

LUNDEN: Opera superstar Renee Fleming, who returns to the Met stage after five years, says the music, which sometimes features church chimes tolling the hours, propels the three stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RENEE FLEMING: It's all crafted with this underlying remembrance of time. The pulse continues the notion that we only have so many hours.

LUNDEN: The past is never far from the present for these characters. Fleming plays Clarissa, the book editor who shares a first name with Mrs. Dalloway. She's gay and so is her good friend, Richard. But the two had a teenage affair and long ago broke up.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE HOURS")

FLEMING: (As Clarissa, singing) Here on this corner, no spectacular fight - no blood, no punches - a simple, eloquent stab, over the summer.

LUNDEN: Kevin Puts tailored the score for these three extraordinary singers.

JOYCE DIDONATO: I tell you, it has truly been one of the great experiences of my artistic life.

LUNDEN: Multi-Grammy Award winner Joyce DiDonato, whose career runs from baroque to contemporary opera, plays Virginia Woolf. She's fighting suicidal despair even as she's in the throes of creation. DiDonato says the composer asked for her input on the vocal lines.

DIDONATO: I said, if I do this, I can achieve something a little bit more magical or whatever. And he said, the only constraint is I can't change the orchestra. But everything else was open for discussion. And I think we found some really wonderful things.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE HOURS")

DIDONATO: (As Virginia) Oh, London. The clang of voices. A thousand specters stalking the weak (ph). What a large rush...

LUNDEN: It was a process more like creating a Broadway musical, says Tony Award winner Kelli O'Hara. Her character, Laura, based in part on Michael Cunningham's mother, tries to connect to her husband, Dan, and her son, Richie, but feels stifled by expectations, as well as a forbidden desire for her neighbor, Kitty. O'Hara says she's played similar pre-feminist roles in musicals.

KELLI O'HARA: I know that woman. I love to play other things, but I also feel very at home trying to get to the bottom of what some of those women were feeling personally. And I do think that her uncertainty and sort of her desire to escape is an interesting thing for me to sing on the Metropolitan Opera stage.

LUNDEN: In the second act, Laura checks into a hotel with a copy of "Mrs. Dalloway" and considers suicide.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE HOURS")

O'HARA: (As Laura, singing) Why have I brought us here, Clarissa, to read? To wait? For what? For me to find myself?

LUNDEN: There is a suicide before the end of the opera. But the three women, at least on this day, survive. And librettist Greg Pierce says...

GREG PIERCE: We knew that we needed these three incredible singers to sing together, you know, that in some sense, when you're telling these three stories and you're in an opera, people are going to be waiting for that. And I was waiting for that. And it was really scary writing that because we wanted to do it right.

LUNDEN: They created a trio that's kind of after hours. The narrative is wrapped up. The relationship between all three characters is made clear. And the three women sing to one another out of time and space.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE HOURS")

JOYCE DIDONATO, KELLI O'HARA AND RENEE FLEMING: (As Virginia, Laura and Clarissa, singing) Here is the world. And you live in it. And you are not alone, not alone, not alone, not alone.

LUNDEN: Joyce DiDonato.

DIDONATO: There's this moment, these three titanic divas sitting down and saying, you're not alone. And that is deeply comforting, especially in 2022.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE HOURS")

DIDONATO, O'HARA AND FLEMING: (As Virginia, Laura and Clarissa, singing) Here is the world.

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