Soprano on the go

Her movie producer friend knows she’s never been to Baton Rouge, yet he keeps seeing her throughout the city.

And so does anyone else who passes one of the city’s many digital billboards.

“Audra McDonald,” they blare.

And then there’s her photograph, followed by the why, where and when — the why being the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra’s Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation Great Performers in Concert Series.

McDonald will be the featured performer in this series on Friday, May 17, in the Baton Rouge River Center Theatre for the Performing Arts.

That’s the where and when.

And then the next night, May 18, she’ll be featured in two performances in the Broadway @ NOCCA series in Lupin Hall at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

The billboards aren’t advertising McDonald’s shows in New Orleans, a city she previously visited. But she’s already a strong presence here.

“My friend is filming Bonnie and Clyde in Baton Rouge, and he called me and said, ‘I’m seeing you everywhere in Baton Rouge,’” McDonald said, laughing. “But I’ll really be there in a couple of weeks, and I’m looking forward to it. I love Louisiana’s food and its beauty and culture. Louisiana is wild, lush, alive and vibrant.”

And together, it creates a harmony. That’s how McDonald describes it, and she’ll add her soprano to that harmony when she takes the stage with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra on Friday.

It’s a voice with which many in the audience are familiar.

Now here’s the tough part, deciding where to begin when discussing McDonald’s career. This part of the story could begin with the fact that she won five Tony Awards for Broadway performances. Or mention of her two Grammy awards could open this section. Or even mention any of her many television appearances or even her passionate political activism for marriage equality.

But somehow, the image she described on the telephone best describes her identity.

“I’m at home right now, walking my dogs through the woods in my backyard,” she said.

That is, her dogs Butler and Georgia, whom McDonald and her husband, actor Will Swenson, adopted from a nonprofit animal rescue organization called Eleventh Hour Rescue.

She enjoys time at her California home, which she also shares with her 12-year-old daughter, Zoe Madeline. McDonald named her for two close friends, Australian actress Zoe Caldwell and late American actress Madeline Kahn, probably best known for her comedic roles.

Now, when looking at McDonald’s schedule, this quiet moment at home seems rare. After her Baton Rouge and New Orleans visits, she’ll be flying to performances in Napa, Calif., then Bermuda. Then it’s to a television set to shoot the pilot for a new drama for CBS.

“I’ll know by the time I arrive in Baton Rouge if CBS is going to pick it up,” McDonald said.

That remained a mystery at this particular moment, but one sure fact is McDonald’s new album, Go Back Home, will be released on May 21, only days after her Baton Rouge concert.

And McDonald will give her Baton Rouge audience a preview of the lineup on that album.

The track list includes the title track, “Go Back Home,” from the Broadway musical, The Scottsboro Boys.

Also included are Stephen Sondheim’s “The Glamorous Life” from A Little Night Music, and “Virtue” and “Married Love” by Michael John LaChiusa, who also is one of McDonald’s favorite composers.

“I had to squeeze it all in when I was recording this album,” McDonald said.

She was talking about time, not songs.

“I’d fly in from touring and go to the studio and record,” she continued. “We recorded this album on three different Mondays.”

That’s life for McDonald, the way she operates. She’s used to working on several projects at once.

It’s always been that way, beginning in childhood when McDonald was born into a musical family. She grew up in Fresno, Calif., and eventually graduated from the Juilliard School of Music in New York.

A year later, she accepted a Tony Award for best performance by a featured actress in a musical for her role in Carousel at Lincoln Center Theater.

Two additional Tony Awards in the same category followed in the next four years for her performances in the Broadway premieres of Terrence McNally’s Master Class in 1996, and his musical Ragtime in 1998.

She had yet to turn 30.

But it didn’t stop there. McDonald won her fourth Tony in 2004 starring opposite Sean “Diddy” Combs in Lorraine Hansberry’s drama A Raisin in the Sun, and in 2012, she was awarded her fifth, this time in the leading actress category for her role in George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

The fifth Tony places McDonald in the company of Broadway legends Julie Harris and Angela Lansbury, as the only people to win five performance awards on Broadway.

Meanwhile, McDonald also had starring roles in The Secret Garden in 1993, Marie Christine in 1999, Henry IV in 2004 and 110 in the Shade in 2007. She also made her Public Theater “Shakespeare in the Park” debut in 2009 in Twelfth Night alongside Anne Hathaway and Raúl Esparza.

McDonald made her opera debut in 2006 at Houston Grand Opera, where she starred in a double-bill: Francis Poulenc’s monodrama La voix humaine, and the world premiere of its companion piece, Send, written by LaChiusa. Next came her Los Angeles Opera debut in 2007, where she starred alongside Patti LuPone in John Doyle’s production of Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which eventually won McDonald two Grammy Awards for best opera recording and best classical album.

And somewhere in between, she’s performed with symphony orchestras throughout the world while appearing in a recurring role in NBC’s drama, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

There’s so much more that can be mentioned here, such as how McDonald made her television debut in the Peabody Award-winning CBS drama, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, and more recently, her starring role in the ABC drama, Private Practice. And how she received an Emmy nomination for her performance in HBO’s film version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Wit.

Mike Nichols directed that film, which also starred Emma Thompson.

Impressive, right? Definitely.

But it’s more an adventure for McDonald.

It’s as if she can’t wait to see what will happen next.

And next is Baton Rouge, a place she’s never been, though her presence is felt throughout the city.

Who knows what might happen? That mix of Louisiana harmony she so loves just may inspire her to return.

To perform yet another concert, perhaps? Or maybe even make a movie?

It’s McDonald’s adventure, where anything’s possible.