Backstage at San Francisco Opera > May 2014 > 6 Questions with Harriet Harris
6 Questions with Harriet Harris
You might know actress Harriet Harris from her recurring roles on hit TV shows like Frasier, Desperate Housewives, Ally McBeal, Nurse Betty, and more. Or from her many feature films, or her Tony Award-winning turn on Broadway in Thoroughly Modern Millie. But one place that Harris has yet to make her debut is on the San Francisco Opera stage, which she will do in this summer's grand production of Show Boat. In today's blog post, we ask Harris six questions about her experience here at San Francisco Opera.

Tell us a little bit about your character in Show Boat, Parthy Anne Hawks. What drew you to the role?
Parthy is a passionate woman at war with herself and others. If passion cannot be eradicated, as Parthy has been taught, it should at least be tamped down, and tamped down hard. Her concerns and caution for her impressionable daughter Magnolia prove in some degree to be correct. But Parthy fails to inspire, and her message, out of tune (as it is) goes unheeded. She is a staunch Massachusetts woman who has planted her flag in the murky Mississippi. The age old battle of rock and water is her struggle. The rock may temporarily interrupt the flow, but the river will eventually erode the rock.

Parthy Ann (Harriet Harris) and Cap'n Andy (Bill Irwin) attempt to
reenact the plot of The Parson's Bride aboard the Cotton Blossom.
It’s not very often that we have the privilege of having a Tony Award winner (Thoroughly Modern Millie, 2002) join our cast! What has it been like to be part of an opera production as compared to a Broadway production? 
It's similar to being away from home on a business trip. You awaken in a not too familiar hotel, but you remember that it's a good hotel. For instance, there is a light switch within reach. It's just a matter of how high to reach and does one try the right or left side first. The first rehearsal was probably the best example of this. The opera singers arrived knowing their parts music and book. The actors did not. Actors almost always learn their lines in rehearsal. Whoever is playing Hamlet will probably get a jump on rehearsing, but not Claudius or Gertrude. It became clear that rehearsal means something else in the opera world. A good deal of time is spent introducing more and more elements into the same scene. The singing has been beautiful from the first day and now that we have an orchestra, it is thrilling.  The sitzprobe, which is always the best day in a musical, was a revelation. Thirty two strings! That doesn't happen on Broadway. At certain moments from this symphony of lusciousness a banjo emerges as lone and wonky clarion -- it's divine. Another aspect of the opera is realizing the depth of experience the company has with each other. It is in some cases years of interaction and love. In a play, it maybe two out of eight actors may have worked together before. Here it seems upwards of 40 out of 60 people have a history!

Cap'n Andy (Bill Irwin), Joe (Morris Robinson), and Queenie (Angela Renee Simpson)
look on as Parthy Ann (Harriet Harris) considers visiting Chicago.
Audience members will also recognize you from your wealth of film and TV roles (including recurring characters on Desperate Housewives, Frasier, Ally McBeal, and more). Do you have a preference for the stage over TV and film? 
I have a preference for working. Like the players on the Show Boat, I travel where work takes me. Sometimes I have the luxury of choice. But unlike an opera singer, most actors don't have jobs lined up for the next two seasons. 
Overall, I've been lucky and interesting challenges have come my way. Part of the fun of being an actor is discovering how one’s skills can be applied in different situations. A 3,000 seat opera house is very different than a film set. What one might choose to do over a period of ten performances in one month isn't necessarily the same thing someone can do sustainably for eight shows a week on Broadway. I feel very fortunate that the San Francisco Opera invited me to join their maiden musical theatre journey. I never imagined I would be onstage at San Francisco Opera. It is a unique experience, and too rare an opportunity to turn down. 
What has been the most surprising thing to you about being a part of Show Boat
How very sweet opera singers are. Who knew?
The Bay Area is such a foodie paradise. What your favorite restaurants when you are in SF?
In rehearsal, I don't eat out much.  I have a slew of recommendations from foodie friends! That I plan to make use of once the show opens. In the meantime, I don't see how it is possible to beat the six-dollar pork sandwich at DragonEats, on Gough between Grove and Fulton.

The principal artists of Show Boat take a bow
Anything else you’d like to share with our audience?
Yes, I want to share my joy in this production. It is big and beautiful. The scope of the story is worthy of an opera house, and when your audience hears these singers, some of whom they know from other productions, I think they will be transported.

Photos by Cory Weaver.
Posted: 6/3/2014 10:30:31 AM by Harriet Harris (Parthy Anne Hawks, Show Boat)
Filed under: 2013-14Season, ShowBoat, TonyAward


Backstage at San Francisco Opera is a fascinating, fast-moving, mysterious and sacred space for the Company’s singers, musicians, dancers, technicians and production crews. Musical and staging rehearsals are on-going, scenery is loaded in and taken out, lighting cues are set, costumes and wigs are moved around and everything is made ready to receive the audience. From the principal singers, chorus and orchestra musicians to the creative teams for each opera, in addition to the many talented folks who don’t take a bow on stage, this blog offers unique insight, both thought-provoking and light-hearted, into the life backstage at San Francisco Opera.


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