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.