Three Queens

For the premiere of Kevin Puts’s The Hours last season, the Met pulled out all the stops, uniting sopranos Renée Fleming and Kelli O’Hara and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in a casting coup that had New York Magazine gushing that “you couldn’t ask for a lusher trio.” A moving adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel and subsequent Oscar-winning film, the smash-hit opera returns on May 5, with all three superstars back to portray the women whose efforts to find meaning in their lives intertwine across eras. The divas recently reflected on the experience of bringing The Hours to the Met and looked ahead to its anticipated return.

The premiere of The Hours created a sensation throughout New York. Why do you think audiences responded so strongly?
KELLI O’HARA: We had all been through the pandemic, so we could connect with the themes of loneliness, mental health, family, regret over our past choices. This piece came at the perfect time to help people explore those emotions. I think it was cathartic.

DIDONATO: That was the experience not only for the audience but also for the performers. In one music rehearsal, the chorus was behind us, and all we heard was tears. Later, one of them came up to me and said, “After the rehearsal, I just went to everybody in the building that I was close to, and I told them I loved them. I was just compelled to tell them I loved them.” That’s what this piece evoked in all of us.

Renée, you were part of The Hours from the beginning. What attracted you to this story?
RENÉE FLEMING: When the film came out, I went crazy for it. The fact that these three women had such rich inner lives and that Michael Cunningham took Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway and created this story that spans three different periods was extraordinary. So, when Kevin asked to work on an opera with me and The Hours was on the short list of possible titles, I said, “That’s it!”


Kelli and Joyce, how familiar were you with The Hours before working on this opera
O’HARA: I remember reading the novel when it was new and being enthralled by the internal stories of the characters. When I heard that Renée and Kevin had the idea to adapt it into an opera, I immediately knew how powerful it could be to expand these internal lives through music.

DIDONATO: I actually had a hard time with the film when it first came out. I don’t think I was in a place to understand it, or maybe I just couldn’t go there. And when the offer came to be a part of this, that was actually my first instinct. I see now that, even though it deals with death head-on, it’s actually life-affirming.

Joyce, how do you approach portraying a person who actually lived, like Virginia Woolf?
DIDONATO: I really tried to avoid making her a caricature or imitating her literally. For example, her speaking voice couldn’t be farther away from my singing voice. It’s much more important to be authentic to the true essence of her as a person— her creativity, her despondency, her mania, and also her humor. And to do that, I really delve into what the score is asking of me, rather than try to present a biographical study.

Renée and Kelli—while not historical figures, your characters are no less compelling.
FLEMING: Rarely in opera do we get to play women who feel like real people, with real issues. Portraying Clarissa Vaughan felt like a breath of fresh air. She is a woman who’s in charge. She’s a leader. But at the same time, she is troubled by the sense that she may have made a choice that she regrets. And this is something everyone can relate to.

O’HARA: Laura Brown feels like the most real character I may have ever played. Maybe it was because we had just come out of lockdown, when I had stood behind my stove preparing three meals a day for my small-ish children. I could relate to her. I love being that person for my family and would never make the choices she makes. But I know many women who grew up in the ’50s, and there are little pieces of her in them. Her struggles are very human and very identifiable.


What have been some of the musical highlights of performing this work?
FLEMING: Kevin’s score is full of so much rich melodic material—things that I’ve never heard from any other composer. The top of Act II is so achingly beautiful that, if I were sitting in the audience, I would just be sobbing. And then, of course, there’s the final trio when he ties all of our characters together and which had everyone weeping. 

DIDONATO: So much of the score is like that. A few minutes into the first act, Renée has this absolutely stunning moment when the knife goes into your heart—in the best, most operatic way—and then it’s about two hours of a really slow twist. And it’s breathtaking how Kevin employs the chorus to give voice to the characters’ inner thoughts.

What are you looking forward to about bringing The Hours back this season?
O’HARA: It’s a gift to share the Met stage with Renée and Joyce in any form, but that final trio, with three eras, three stories, three women meshing together in a final musical moment, side by side, breathing together, and leaning into each other, that will live on as a true highlight of my career. I can’t wait to have that experience with them again.

DIDONATO: I always relish a second run, because while we give our all for the premiere, there is no substituting the power of time to work its magic. One of the reasons La Traviata and La Bohème move us so deeply is that we have lived these stories for so long that the characters feel like old friends. And I believe that will happen with this opera as well. With time, everything becomes richer and more nuanced.

—Edited by Christopher Browner