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Musical comedy star Kelli O'Hara finding success in opera

Meet Kelli O'Hara, that rare singer who has managed to find a home performing in Broadway musicals, concerts, cabaret -- and now at the Metropolitan Opera.

O'Hara, known for her sweet soprano voice, interpretive gifts and open-hearted personality, is currently appearing in Franz Lehar's popular operetta "The Merry Widow." She plays Valencienne, the overly flirtatious wife of a dignitary from the mythical country of Pontevedro.

Though the title role and the most famous tunes go to diva Renee Fleming, O'Hara has lots of singing -- without the amplification commonly used on Broadway -- and also gets to act drunk, perform a can-can and be tossed in the air by male dancers.

"Half the time I'm pinching myself and saying, `You know, this doesn't seem quite real,"' O'Hara said in an interview at the Met this week. "I think 10 years ago I might have gone berserk, just too nervous, too scared."

The critics embraced her performance when the production opened on New Year's Eve. "Her tender voice carries nicely in the house," wrote Anthony Tomassini in The New York Times, while Martin Bernheimer in the Financial Times called her "elegantly sexy."

Audiences can judge for themselves Saturday when "The Merry Widow," directed by Susan Stroman, is broadcast live in HD to movie theaters around the world.

Though this is the first time that O'Hara, 38, has appeared in opera professionally, she is no stranger to the genre, having majored in it at Oklahoma City University.

"I was a coloratura," O'Hara recalled. "I did the Queen of the Night (in Mozart's "The Magic Flute"), high F and everything."

After college she moved to New York, studied acting and got into musical theater. While she was starring in a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" at Lincoln Center several years ago, director Bartlett Sher suggested that she audition for Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager.They found that her voice projected nicely from the vast Met stage and discussed projects that might fit her talents.

One idea, the role of Jenny in a revival of Kurt Weill's "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," fell through, but when "The Merry Widow" was proposed, she eagerly accepted. Eagerly, but not without trepidation.

As she approached rehearsals, she worried that some of the opera professionals would regard her as an interloper.

"There were a lot of voices in my head constantly saying, `They're going to think that you can't do this. And maybe you can't,"' O'Hara said. "And then I just had to quiet that, because it was get in there and either do it -- or don't."

She said it helped that she had already worked with baritone Nathan Gunn, who plays the male lead, Danilo, and with Fleming. "She immediately ripped open the doors for me and said welcome," O'Hara said. "And as long as Renee welcomed me I think it goes from the top down. I knew I had to come in here and fit in with them. This is their world and I wanted them to welcome me."

O'Hara isn't ruling out a return to the Met, should the opportunity arise, but not right away: After her final performance in "The Merry Widow" at the end of the month she will be returning to more familiar territory in a revival of another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "The King and I."

Gelb, for his part, seems determined to have her back. "I know she's interested," Gelb said, adding that they've already talked about possibilities -- "a couple of Mozart operas" and some of the lighter Italian repertory.

"Opera needs more stars," he said, "and she certainly is one."

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