After more than 40 years spent dominating film and theater—in movies such as Serial Mom and The War of the Roses as well as the Tony-nominated stage revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—Kathleen Turner is taking on a new challenge: opera. Starting February 7, the voice behind Jessica Rabbit tackles a nonsinging role in the Metropolitan Opera’s retooling of the French comedy La Fille du Régiment. We talked to the longtime New Yorker about moving to Tribeca from the Upper West Side and making her mark as the show’s Duchess of Krakenthorp.
Portrait by James Emmerman
I’m fascinated that you’re at the Met.
This week has been the most revealing to me. I came into it thinking: New adventure. And I come into almost all my jobs that way. This is a new adventure, I haven’t done this before. Because I’m not attracted to anything I have done before. It’s kind of, been there done that.
But this is a whole different system.
Entirely. The director has done this production many times before. Evidently, in opera, once you have created a production, nothing changes. You take the same show over the years to every house. The director is saying: 'She comes in and says 'Uh!' To the butler. And then they kiss and you scream and run out!' And I’m thinking: This is cute, it’s kind of fun. But no! That’s what he wants me to do. I’m thinking, they don’t need me; go to Big Apple and get a clown. But I went home on Monday and I thought: I need a serious attitude adjustment here. Look at the operas, the tragedies and the dramas. A woman dies horribly being stabbed or smothered. There’s endless arias of unrequited love, there are ridiculous plots all over the place, so why would I expect a comic opera to be any different? It’s got to be as exaggerated and as broad as anything else. I came back on Wednesday and said: OK. I'm going to have fun. And I'm working primarily with Stephanie Blythe, who is a mezzo and amazing.
It always seemed to me like you’re heavily involved when you see a script. This is so different.
I did get to put my imprimatur on it and say: It’s me. But they want the same gestures, the same blocking, of course, and almost the same sounds, which is all new to me. Not to mention the fact that as an actor for 41 years, this is unnatural, you know? But I came into it as an adventure and this is what I’m learning. It's great.
Portrait by James Emmerman
The scale of the Met is way bigger than what you're used to on stage.
On this show, there’s only maybe 40 in the chorus. But this is nothing. There are shows with 115 and 120. Then you go to the costume shops. Here there are 90 people, and there’s another one in the Bronx or Queens, I’m not sure. And I see this one woman who is working with a plaid fabric, and she’s working down the seams, making the lines of the plaid match to be seamless. And I’m going: God have mercy! Nevermind the beading and lace work, and then there's the wig department. We call my second wig the soft ice cream. It just goes up to a point. The other one is called a cannoli.
You’ve lived in NYC since 1977. How has it changed for you?
I started up at 99th and West End. And 42 years ago, that was really kind of scary. I worked at this restaurant on Amsterdam and 95th, I think. One day someone was shot dead in the doorway—there was a whole loan shark thing happening there. And back at my building on the corner, somebody was stabbed to death. You think: Eh, OK! I was an Upper West Sider maybe 25 years. And now I live in Tribeca. The kid’s gone, the marriage is gone (thank you very much) and so I don’t have to please anyone but myself. When I was coming to New York out of college, I dreamed of having this studio with high cielings and columns and big open space, as if I ever could have afforded that. Forget it! And that’s what I have now. When I signed the contract, I started laughing and my real estate woman said: 'What’s so funny?' 'It took 40 years! But I’ve done it now!'
And you like Tribeca?
First of all, I love stepping out of the building and being in the city. When I lived on Riverside, it was nice, because I love the park and I love the river. But ain’t nothing happening over there.
Where do you like to eat in Tribeca?
The restaurants in Tribeca are great. That’s something the Upper West Side sorely lacks, is good restaurants. It’s protected, a lot of Tribeca. The buildings aren’t individually landmarked, necessarily. But areas are. So other than the one Jenga building they snuck in under Bloomburg or something, it’s pretty open sky. It reminds me a lot of London, where I grew up. I go to one place to buy bread, one place to buy cheese, one place to buy wine. It’s very European.
I love Union Square Cafe, the Odeon. If you want oysters, honey, go to Aqua grill! These are also places that make me feeel comfortable and kind of protect me a little. If someone comes over to interrupt my meal or take a selfie, I’ll say: 'Thank you very much, but I’m off duty right now.' If they ask again, someone will keep an eye on me, and come over and say: 'Ms. Turner is eating.' I feel protected.
Have you seen any theater recently that you've enjoyed?
I love Cherry Jones’ stuff on stage. She’s a fan of mine, I’m a fan of hers, so I enjoyed [Lifespan of a Fact]. Daniel Radcliffe is indeed a good actor! The best I say of anyone is good, and the worst I say is bad. So he’s proven!
I love going to St. Anne’s Warehouse. The work they bring in is always thrilling. Phillida Lloyd’s Women of Shakespeare series: Brilliant. Harriet Walker: Amazing!
Portrait by James Emmerman
How do you feel about the changes in the theater industry in NYC?
The greatest danger now is simply that we’re pricing ourselves out of existence. You can’t spend $170 on a ticket very often. What do the Hamilton tickets go for, with the scalpers? I heard $400. There are places where they’re taking steps for that not to happen, like in London. But the theaters are in great shape, actually. Financially, they’re doing well, even the upkeep and reonvations they’ve accomplished have been lovely. And the material on the whole has been pretty swell. A few years ago it was just Disney that was doing well. We’re past that. We’re doing better now in terms of plays. And look at the musicals in the last years, Come From Away, Evan Hanson, Hamilton. We’re branching out, man. But there is something new starting. Rotten Tomatoes has such an influence on film that people complain, the score can make or break a film almost now, right? Well, they’re testing the same type of thing for theater. It will be Broadway, off Broadway, off off Broadway and eventually regional theater as well. And that’s important because our regional theater is where we get some of our best I think it’s most promising. Because I want more people in theater.
You’ve always made it clear that there are better roles in theater anyway.
For women, yes. Altogether. Women my age? Totally. With the scripts I get for film now, unless it’s for a nice independent or something, I’m somebody’s grandmother or a vengeful spinster.
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