Paul Gemignani and Neil Armfield (Sweeney Todd)

Published April 17, 2008

Anybody with a Gandalfesque beard or rampant tresses is advised to avoid the Royal Opera House in the coming months as Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street will be in situ from Monday. Tom Bowtell caught up with Neil Armfield (director) and Paul Gemignani (conductor) to chat about the show over a corned beef sandwich. At least he thought it was corned beef…

Sweeney Todd is widely recognised as being one of the finest musicals ever written. Along with Company, A Little Night Music, Into The Woods and Pacific Overtures, it makes up the greatest canon of work produced by any modern composer of musicals. Some people wouldn’t bother to add the modern bit. It is testament to the standing of Stephen Sondheim’s work, and of Sweeney Todd in particular that this will be the first showing of a musical in the 111-year history of the Royal Opera House.

Set in the grubby world of Victorian London, Sweeney Todd tells the story of the eponymous Todd, a psychotic barber who takes his revenge on Londoners by slitting their throats instead of giving them a short back and sides. His accomplice in this foul act is the lovely Mrs Lovett (a sort of 19th Century Nigella Lawson with added cannibalism) who helpfully relieves Sweeney of his corpses and converts them into meat pies, which she sells for a healthy profit. There are traditionally two ways in which Sweeney Todd can be interpreted: either as a gory slapstick farce, or as a dark and rather terrifying horror story, which route has Armfield taken his production down? “I hope we’ve managed to get both. There is certainly a type of gallows humour which we’ve tried to capture, but visually we’re taking the space into the darker world of the asylum which is one of the destinations of the play… we have the idea that London gradually becomes an asylum itself. There is also a sense in which the barber’s chair becomes an executioner’s tool – it resembles the electric chair – and so I guess that that is a comment on a society which is ruling through fear, and the idea that the government which is repressing crime is corrupt itself – something which is not too far from the society in which we are living today.”

"The Barber's chair becomes the executioner's tool…"

Armfield’s discussion of these socio-political themes underlines how Sweeney Todd is lifted above the perceived intellectual glibness of American musicals. Opera traditionalists who baulk at the presence of this interloper will be further placated by Gemignani’s assertion that there is much that is operatic about Sondheim’s barberic drama: “it’s the score. I’m not sure if I totally agree that it’s operatic, but it’s certainly one of the pieces that legit voices can bring something special to it. But if we’re just talking operatic vocally then I’m not sure that I agree. It is a very dramatic score and people hear that and think ‘ah! dramatic score – it’s an opera’ but Porgy and Bess was a dramatic score and it wasn’t thought of as an opera right off. Most classical score I guess I’d call it.” At this point Neil Armfield interjects and points out that “Porgy has become an opera, I think.” “Yes” replies Gemignani “and I believe this will become one too, but it’s just that I wonder if operatic is a useful term, I think classical is more fitting.” This semantic debate suggests that while it is unclear whether Sweeny is an operatic musical, a classical musical or a genre-defying cannibalistic hair-cut thriller, it is clear that its dramatic themes, metaphorical resonances and epic score will ensure that it will not be out of place at the Opera House.

Despite this fact, it is inevitable that there will be those affiliated with such a prestigious venue (and certainly among its usual audience) who will be suspicious of this glamorous and gory American masterpiece. Armfield, though aware of dissenting voices, seems determined to let the work speak for themselves: “I think perhaps that that pressure is perhaps for others to feel; I’m aware of a sense of this being – well, if not risqué, then certainly slightly controversial and there are definitely those who wonder if it is appropriate for the Opera House to stage American Musical Theatre.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, both Armfield and Gemignani are robust in defence of the show in the face of any snobbish sniping from the wings. “I see the work as a contemporary rigoletto; I think that in his day Verdi was working for very much the same type of audience that Sondheim is now, and the work over the last ten years or so has found its way onto the operatic stage and is increasingly being accepted as part of the international opera repertoire” confirms Armfield. Gemignani adds that he thinks the Royal Opera House has been “very ballsy” even to take on the project.

"The opera house was very ballsy to take the production on"

Both Paul and Neil also believe that it is in opera’s best interests for more modern works to be welcomed into the fold: “the less people separate the two – musical theatre and opera – the more quickly the quality and range of the repertoire will grow – something which is important for both the pieces and the individual opera houses” points out Gemignani, while Armfield agrees “the introduction of variety into the repertoire ultimately makes composers compose differently”. Both men are keenly aware that this evolution in the operatic canon will also serve to attract new audiences to the traditionally rarefied ranks of opera-goers: “I think that this is as much a job for the opera house itself” suggests Gemignani, highlighting a multiple ticket-scheme in Chicago where audiences for Sondheim shows could also go and see Massenet and Wagner. Both Paul and Neil also feel that ticket reductions are a good idea (the Opera House is selling tickets for Sweeney at a considerably reduced rate.) “I don’t know too much about the specific pricing of the Royal Opera House -” confesses Neil, “although I will soon as I’m buying tickets for friends tonight! But what I do know is that it costs a lot to put an opera on, and it is generally possible to get in to be part of the experience at some level if people want to. I personally think that the cost of going to see an opera is a problem – but it is such an incredible experience when you do get in!”

This Gemignani / Armfield production has already survived the rigours of performing in front of the opera-going regulars at a leading opera house: it originally opened at the 3563-seater Chicago Lyric Opera House where, according to Gemignani and Armfield, it was well received by ‘the regulars’: “it was almost as much as much of a novelty in Chicago as it is here, but by and large those season-ticket holders who were sceptical about the performance were pleasantly surprised.” Gemignani also admits that he actively welcomes dissenters – “there are those don’t think the piece belongs in a opera house, they don’t like amplification and don’t like all the things that they will talk about. But that is a good thing, it makes it controversial and makes people think”.

While Sweeney Todd is an American musical set in England which is bridging the gap between musicals and opera, London is currently playing host to an English opera set in America which is doing exactly the same thing: Jerry Springer The Opera. Have Paul and Neil heard of this phenomenon? “I’ve heard a lot about it and I’ve investigated the rights for it – but I haven’t been to see it yet” says Armfield. “I’ve heard a lot about it too” adds Gemignani “and I’ve heard that the score is brilliant – perhaps we’ll get to see it while we’re over here”. Do they think that with new shows such as Jerry Springer The Opera and older pieces such as Sweeney being repackaged for opera audiences, that we are on the cusp of a new generation of musical dramas which are neither one thing or the other but share the best bits of both? “I hope so” they chime together before Gemignani adds: “it’s about time this happens, because when people ask me what new composers I’m listening to, I say nobody, everything in musical theatre needs a voice and Sondheim has been that voice for so long, but he can’t be it forever – he’s no longer a young man – so we need people to pick up the ball and run with it, and this Jerry Springer show is a good example.”

"When people ask me which new composers I'm listening to, I say nobody"

One of the biggest problems that comes from melding opera and musical is finding performers who can cope in both disciplines. Both productions of the Gemignani / Armfield Sweeney have had opera singers playing the lead roles but how, in general, do Paul and Neil find opera singers cope with the different disciplines of performing in a musical? “If they are actors, the adapt very well” says Gemignani “but if all they’ve done all their life is sing lyrics in a different language, they find it slightly harder. Most of the actors I’ve worked with have risen to the challenge. Opera singers sometimes get a bad press because they can’t act – but it’s not that the tools aren’t there, it’s just like anything else, if you don’t use them, they get rusty and acting an Italian aria is very different from acting a Sondheim.”

Both Gemignani and Armfield point out that the opera stars used in Sweeney Todd have risen admirably to the challenge, albeit in very different ways. In Chicago Mrs Lovett was played by Judith Christin, while the demon barber himself was played by Bryn Terfel. For this production Felicity Palmer plays the pernicious piemaker while Thomas Allen steps into the vast shoes of Terfel. Armfield outlines the different qualities of each performer: “Felicity and Tom are such different animals to Bryn and Judith; Felicity is harder and a bit rougher and more hard-bitten while Tom and Bryn have very different vocal colours.” Gemignani adds that “Tom wears his vulnerability on his sleeve a little more while Bryn was slightly more of the still-water-runs-deep mould – as Sweeney I mean, not in life!”

While Neil Armfield points out that the worlds of musical theatre and opera are “constantly in a state of potential crisis” both he and Paul Gemignani appear enthusiastic about the prospect of growing commonality between opera and theatre. Neither are remotely snobbish – they were both fans of Mamma Mia if not its clones – and outline a new generation of composers (William Bolcom , Andre Previn, Adam Geddel, Jake Heggie, Mark Anthony Turnage) whose work, like that of Sondheim, spans operatic and musical fields. Despite all of the above, however, it still seems disappointingly unlikely that Luciano Pavarotti is going to play Baron Bomburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Still, one can always dream…