Meaty Production

Arizona Opera tackles the popular and challenging 'Sweeney Todd.'

In an open space at the center of Arizona Opera's cavernous rehearsal hall/scene shop/costume warehouse, director Kelly Robinson was working hard to draw from a pair of singers a claustrophobic, emotional intensity that could swell to fill not only the opera headquarters but, eventually, the 2,200-seat TCC Music Hall.

Something seemed odd about what was happening. There was nothing amiss in Robinson's instructions to baritone Stephen Powell and mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott, nor in the singers' vocalism or acting. But everything else was somehow out of synch with one's expectations of an opera rehearsal.

First, the two lead roles were sung by a baritone and a mezzo, rather than the almost-mandatory tenor and soprano. They were singing in English, rather than the usual Italian, German or French. They were speaking many of their lines over the music, rather than singing everything. And the music itself, played by a rehearsal pianist while conductor Brent McMunn kept time and gave cues, was a far cry from the steady oom-pah of mid-period Verdi.

The scene started with a dissonant chord, and quickly developed a rhythmic complexity. Soon Powell and Baggott were singing to a waltz rhythm, but the music was brash, as if Leonard Bernstein had re-written Ravel's demented La Valse.

Some purists would maintain that the work under rehearsal wasn't opera at all. It was Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, which made its debut on Broadway in 1979. Yet this particular Broadway musical has been making the rounds of opera houses in North America, Australia and Europe, including such a notable, serious venue as Lyric Opera of Chicago. The past decade has seen more than 30 opera-company productions of at least seven Sondheim works, including Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music (source of "Send in the Clowns").

"Sondheim intended to write Sweeney Todd as an opera at first," Robinson pointed out during a lunch break. "But he realized he wanted to tell more story than he could in a music-driven opera, so he brought in (librettist) Hugh Wheeler and turned it into a piece that lives as much in its text as in its music. And the score may not have been as dramatically potent if it hadn't started as an opera."

The blackly comic story revolves around the title character, a barber, who cuts the throats of his customers and sends them down a chute to the kitchen of Mrs. Lovett, a baker who incorporates the victims' flesh into her meat pies. (English food is so notoriously bad that the addition of human remains to the pies proves to be a distinct improvement.)

In most 19th-century opera--the bread and butter of companies like Arizona Opera--stories and character motivation are stripped down to the essentials; little bursts of plot-propelling action separate long vocal tableaux. Sweeney Todd, in contrast, maintains constant forward motion. Sondheim packs in far more action and character complexity than the average opera troupe is used to handling.

"It's not a problem for me, because I work in the theater as well as in opera," said Robinson. "But it is a challenge for singers who are accustomed to allowing the voice more primacy. With this, they get to flex all their muscles--acting, movement and singing. It's easy to underestimate the size of this piece; opera audiences are sometimes surprised that it's as big and challenging a work as it is.

"We're starting to break down the line between what an opera is and what a musical is," he continued. "It has less to do with style than when a composer asks, 'What kind of story will my music tell?' When it's driven by music, that's what makes it an opera, I think. Sweeney Todd is driven by the story, but we have soaring melodies, big emotions and unleashed passion--things you'd expect of opera. And the issues--revenge, blood, death, savagery, love, betrayal--are issues that opera has always dealt with."

They're certainly issues mezzo Baggott is familiar with, at least on a professional level. Last seen here in the title role of Arizona Opera's 2001 production of Carmen, Baggott is well known on the regional opera circuit and in secondary roles at Lyric Opera of Chicago for throwing herself into her work with dramatic flamboyance.

Baggott has straddled the fences between classical music, musical theater and popular music so long, you'd expect her to be bow-legged. Her father worked in musicals; her mother sang folk music; and Baggott used to sing in her brother's heavy-metal band. But she also has a thorough classical training and has participated in young-artist programs at Santa Fe and Chicago Lyric Opera.

"It's very important to sing in the right style," she emphasized during a break. "I would never try to sing Dulcinea (in Man of La Mancha) like Carmen, even though they're similar characters."

She also sees clear vocal distinctions between Carmen and Mrs. Lovett. "I sing Carmen with more of a 'legit' voice, more in the chest," she said. "Mrs. Lovett is more of a character part, and just to do the Cockney accent, I have to throw the voice more into my nose. But we're doing this in a pretty big house, so I'll be doing a lot of belting in this production."

"Buffy Baggott" sounds like a sorority-girl name, and the mezzo does look the part: tall, trim, blonde, with open American good looks and a lively manner. She wore jeans to the rehearsal, with a long sweater jacket over a blouse cut to reveal both cleavage and a bit of midriff. Pretty much the Greek next door.

There's nothing unusual about this in the opera world anymore; Baggott well represents the current generation of opera singers. Not the imperious, bellowing mounds of flesh of yore, today's singers know they must not only sing in many different styles, but they must look and act the roles they assume. And they see no advantage in adopting a haughty personal manner.

"If you want to be correct and sing Bach in a different style from Mozart, you should also sing musical theater in a different style from opera," she said. "And even though people still say that opera singers can't act and musical-theater actors can't sing, today that's all crap."

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