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Paulo Szot Sets Sail from South Pacific

The Tony Award-winning star talks about the closing of the hit musical, reuniting with Kelli O'Hara, and his upcoming cabaret show at the Cafe Carlyle.

By New York City
Paulo Szot
(© Joan Marcus)
Paulo Szot
(© Joan Marcus)
In the beginning of 2008, Paulo Szot was relatively unknown to most audiences. Now, he's become a major musical theater star and sought-after opera singer thanks to his Tony Award-winning turn as Emile deBecque in Lincoln Center's production of South Pacific. As the show prepares to close on August 22, TheaterMania talked to Szot about the production's final month, reuniting with co-star Kelli O'Hara, his upcoming cabaret show at the Café Carlyle, and his future opera commitments.

THEATERMANIA: How do you feel about finally saying goodbye to South Pacific after two and a half years?
PAULO SZOT: In some ways, I am very eager to finish this wonderful work, but another part of me is sad and already very nostalgic and thinks I want to do this show for the rest of my life. This whole process has been amazing since the very first moment, and it's something I had never experienced before as an opera singer. In opera, you stay two months and you're done. After 15 years of that, I wanted a routine and now I've had a routine, and it was great. Now I have to break it again.

TM: Your original Nellie Forbush, Kelli O'Hara, returns on August 10 for the last 12 days of the run. How do you feel about that?
PS: I think it's going to be great. The last time I saw her was when we did The New York Pops concert together in the spring, and we always have such a good time together. I am still the same as I was at the beginning of our relationship, but now Kelli has a baby -- I think that's the big change.

TM: Are you also excited that the show is being taped on August 18 for Live from Lincoln Center on PBS?
PS: I am so happy about that. I think it's such a great thing that we can come into people's houses who weren't able to come to see us. I am aware that the economic situation made it so not everyone could come even if they wanted to. I think people all over America will be able to forget their troubles while watching this show on their couch.

TM: Have you ever seen your own performance in the show?
PS: No, I am excited I get to see myself finally; because from the stage, we have no idea what we look like. I only saw the show once from the audience; I went during one of my vacations to see it -- and I was so proud to be part of this production.

TM: You did leave the show numerous times for opera commitments. What was that like?
PS: Every time I left, I felt bad and wanted to stay. But actually going away made the return better. I would come back with more power, new thoughts, and full of energy. As much as I enjoy the routine, sometimes you get tired of it. I think if you don't go forward, you go backwards.

Paulo Szot in The Nose
(© Ken Howard)
Paulo Szot in The Nose
(© Ken Howard)
TM: One of your longest absences was when you were doing The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera. Was that a good decision for you?
PS: It was wonderful and thrilling, and I think Emile would forgive me for doing that part. It was such a challenge to learn this strange music with its weird intervals, but once I devoted myself to learning it, I couldn't have been happier. It was great to do a role that was so different from Emile. And the nice thing is that I was in my own apartment -- I wasn't sleeping in a different bed. It was so close to the Beaumont that I could see both theaters every day, and I felt like I really had the support of South Pacific.

TM: You will be performing for two weeks at the Café Carlyle, beginning on September 14. How did that come about?
PS They asked me recently to do it and I thought it would be a great time to do a very intimate show. I've done something similar only once before, when I did American Songbook at Lincoln Center, and I loved it. As a singer, I get to express what's inside me. The show isn't totally conceived yet. I am still trying to come up with the best songs, but I am very sure it's going to be fun -- well fun for me, at least. There will be no opera at all, but definitely some Brazilian songs, some bossa nova, and some standards. I think it's inevitable that I will do something from South Pacific, but since I am doing this show with a trio, it's definitely going to sound a little different than it does at the Beaumont.

TM: What other jobs do you have lined up?
PS: I am doing Don Giovanni in Dallas in the fall. I never get tired of the role; I once did four different productions in one year. I get into the rich psychological conflicts of the character; he's so compulsive about conquering these people and it's very interesting how far he can go. Mozart is always hard to sing; you have to pay attention to style and clarity, and it's a big role. It's not an easy gig but I love it. Then I'm coming back to New York for Carmen at the Met in January, and then I am going to Paris for three months to perform at the Garnier Opera.

TM: Does this mean you're done with Broadway?
PS: No! I just want to take a little bit of a break after such a long run. But South Pacific was one of the most wonderful times in my life, and I want to do musical theater again -- when it's the right time and the right job. I never think too much about what I would love to do in the future, but when something comes up that I want, I go for it!


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