NEW YORK – Shirley MacLaine will return to “Downton Abbey” next season, and opera star Kiri Te Kanawa is joining the cast.

MacLaine will reprise her role as Martha Levinson, Lord Robert Crawley’s freewheeling American mother-in-law, Carnival Films and “Masterpiece” on PBS said Saturday. MacLaine appeared in episodes early last season.

New Zealand-born soprano Te Kanawa will play a house guest. She will sing during her visit.

Other new cast members and characters include:

Tom Cullen as Lord Gillingham, described as an old family friend of the Crawleys who visits the family as a guest for a house party (and who might be the one to mend Lady Mary Crawley’s broken heart).

Nigel Harman will play a valet named Green.

Harriet Walter plays Lady Shackleton, an old friend of the Dowager Countess.

Joanna David will play a guest role as the Duchess of Yeovil.

Julian Ovenden is cast as aristocrat Charles Blake.

Meanwhile, the producers have confirmed that villainous housemaid Sarah O’Brien won’t be back. Siobhan Finneran, who played her, is leaving the show.

These announcements come shortly after the third season’s airing in the United States.

It concluded with the heartbreaking death of popular Matthew Crawley in a car crash, leaving behind his newborn child and loving wife, Lady Mary Crawley.

Matthew’s untimely demise was the result of the departure from the series by actor Dan Stevens, who had starred in that role.

The third season also saw the shocking death of Lady Sybil Branson, who died during childbirth. She was played by the departing Jessica Brown Findlay.

Last season the wildly popular melodrama, set in early 20th century Britain, was the most-watched series on PBS since Ken Burns’ epic “The Civil War,” which first aired in 1990. The Nielsen Co. said 8.2 million viewers saw the “Downton” season conclusion.

Seacrest coy about plans for wedding

NEW YORK – “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest is a bit reluctant to discuss the evolution of his relationship with actress Julianne Hough these days.

Asked if there was a wedding date in his future, Seacrest casually responded: “Are you getting married?”

Seacrest and Hough have been together since the spring of 2010.

After a few playful rounds of “Are you?” banter on the subject, he decided to call it a day.

Seacrest made the comments Friday while promoting “Idol Across America,” a relay of the “American Idol” microphone across the country, taking a page from the Olympic torch relay.

As for the prospect of the microphone making it in one piece, Seacrest says if not, “I’m sure there’s one in a holster standing by if it breaks.”

Madonna to present Cooper with award

NEW YORK – Gay advocacy group GLAAD says Madonna will present CNN’s Anderson Cooper with an award for openly gay media professionals.

GLAAD said Saturday that the singer has been chosen to give Cooper the Vito Russo Award at the 24th annual GLAAD Media Awards in New York City on March 16.

GLAAD President Herndon Graddick said Madonna and Cooper are longtime friends who have both used their careers to support lesbian, gay and transgender people.

Cooper last July gave blogger Andrew Sullivan permission to publish an email in which Cooper said he was gay and “couldn’t be more happy.”

– From news service reports