Queasy as pie
If you’ve ever been confounded by watching actors in a locally produced musical struggle with challenging vocal roles, Nevada Opera has the antidote. Its new production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is packed to the gills with people whose primary artistic pursuit is flooring you with their voices. Think of it as one of the benefits of an opera company staging a classic piece of American musical theater.
Though Nevada Opera was founded in 1967, and has always been active in advancing Reno’s identity as a center for the arts, local theater fans may have overlooked the company due their own associations about what opera is and who it is for. The new production offers the company a chance to prove to new audiences that they have more to offer than Viking hats and metal underwear, and it offers theater fans a deliciously dark tale delivered by singers with real chops.
In the role of the titular demon barber is the formidable baritone Gary Simpson, a professional opera singer who relishes the rare opportunity to ply his trade in his native tongue. Most opera audiences in America don’t understand the languages they hear. Simpson describes his work as moving his audience by conveying emotion through voice alone, often without much help from the actual words.
“It’s extra fun to sing in English, though,” Simpson says, “because people get all the jokes immediately.” It’s a good thing, because the jokes come so fast and furious in Sweeney Todd that they spin the heads of even those with a keen ear for wordplay.
While composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is famous for packing his songs with witty and elaborate rhymes, it’s his operatic chord structures that make Sweeney Todd so well suited to production by an opera company.
“It’s not just the lyrics, but the music itself that actually explains the characters’ emotions, and of course the music is technically difficult … incredibly complicated,” says Cami Thompson, a stage veteran and Reno favorite who plays Mrs. Lovett, a down-on-her-luck pie shop owner. Difficulties notwithstanding, Thompson’s eyes gleam when she talks about the challenge of biting into Sondheim’s music. “It’s luscious!” she says before dashing off to rehearse a demanding scene involving the suspicious rise in popularity of Mrs. Lovett’s pies.
In the director’s chair is Germany native Joachim Schamberger, a seasoned professional and the innovator of something he calls “virtual theater design.” Essentially, Schamberger’s brainchild is a melding of film and theater in which projectors are used to create dynamic backgrounds onstage. The result, which is cost-effective and brimming with creative potential, should be something fresh for Reno audiences.
While Schamberger is obviously concerned with the production’s visuals, he’s less interested in the distinctions between opera and musical theater and doesn’t approach Sweeney Todd any differently than he would a more traditional opera. Whatever name the final product has, the translation for his cast and crew is the same.
“Nine hours of rehearsal a day,” Schamberger says grimly (or maybe it’s just the German accent). “And that’s nine hours of actual work, not just standing around.”
Though he has worked extensively with professional opera performers, Schamberger doesn’t undersell a cast that includes a lot of locals in the chorus. “It’s been a great cast to work with. I’m very happy with them.”
He seems equally pleased with his venue, the Pioneer Center for Performing Arts. “It’s definitely big enough, but it’s not too big, so there is still some intimacy.”
Getting intimate with a murderous razor-wielding barber may demonstrate questionable judgment, but fans of theater and opera alike mustn’t delay. Sweeney Todd runs for only two nights and tickets—like Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies—will go fast.