Renée Fleming is returning to Broadway. After her debut in the play “Living on Love,” which ran for a month in 2015, she will take on a proper musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” which will open on Broadway in 2018, in a production by Jack O’Brien. The announcement comes conveniently during her current run of “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Metropolitan Opera, which has been said to be her farewell to opera, or perhaps to the role, or perhaps to the Met; and given that both Broadway musicals and Fleming tend to be subjects of heated debate among opera-lovers, it might be expected to get some attention.
At a time when opera houses are more and more trying their hand at presenting musicals (the bone of contention among opera-lovers is whether this is a great thing or a betrayal of the art form), “Carousel” is one of the musicals most often cited as quasi-operatic. Indeed, the role of Nettie Fowler, which Fleming will play, was originally written for an opera singer, Christine Johnson, in 1945, and has often been sung by opera singers since — Denyce Graves, Shirley Verrett and Stephanie Blythe are among previous interpreters of the role. It’s a singer-friendly role, a smallish part with a couple of hit songs including the bring-down-the-house number “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The real question is how Ms. Fleming, a soprano, will deal with the vocal range of the piece, written for a lower voice — though that’s not much of a question, since transposition will almost certainly be involved.
As the recent revival of “South Pacific” demonstrated, appearing in a Broadway show is hardly career suicide for an opera singer: both Paulo Szot and David Pittsinger, who appeared in the production at the Vivian Beaumont Theater (in a role originally written for another opera singer, Ezio Pinza), have continued active operatic careers in the years since. And while Fleming is clearly looking toward her post-operatic life with an admirable portfolio of various administrative and programming efforts (including roles as a creative consultant for the Chicago Lyric Opera and Artistic Advisor at Large to the Kennedy Center), and an open-ended run on Broadway certainly signals that she won’t have a normal slate of classical performances for at least some months, it’s unlikely that this venture signals the start of a full-fledged Broadway career — any more than it did for Pinza.
The main interest of the production, though, as conceived by Jack O’Brien — who has also directed a number of operas — will likely be the two acclaimed leads, Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry, playing Julie and Billy Bigelow as a transracial couple. If the recent Arena Stage revival of the piece lacked a certain degree of operatic heft, this version promises to pack a bit more of a wallop.