Spotlight on AOTC’s “Sweeney Todd” by Grace LydenPosted by Micha on Jul 21, 2012 in Spotlight | 0 comments
“Sweeney Todd:” The name sends shivers down the spines of those familiar with the story of the murderous barber, whose customers become meat pies sold just below his shop. But there is much more to the story of Sweeney Todd. There is horror, there is humor, and there is romance.
“All the characters in Sweeney are actually looking for love, and the way they try to find it becomes twisted because of the world they live in,” says Edward Berkeley, longtime director for the Aspen Opera Theater Center (AOTC), which is part of the Aspen Music Festival and School (AMFS).
The AOTC will perform Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, directed by Berkeley, on Thursday, July 26; Saturday, July 28; and Monday, July 30, at the Wheeler Opera House. The opening performance at 8 pm is part of the AMFS’s annual black-tie opera gala, and all other performances start at 7 pm.
Sweeney Todd tells the tale of Benjamin Barker, a wrongly imprisoned man who now returns to London. With the help of a besotted pie maker, Mrs. Lovett, Barker, now known as Sweeney Todd, opens a barbershop where his customers are killed and baked into pies. It is Barker’s way of seeking justice in a world that has wronged him, yet it leads him down a gruesome path he never imagined and eventually spirals out of control. The opera takes place during the Industrial Revolution of the mid-nineteenth century.
“There’s hunger; there’s unemployment; there are a lot of people struggling just to survive and in the midst of that, a lot of them are looking to connect and find love with someone,” Berkeley says. “Because of how difficult it is to do that, they become demented and desperate as people. That is what leads the piece to becoming so dark.”
There is no character who better embodies this mentality than the desperate Mrs. Lovett, played by Stephanie Sadownik, who is currently pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Southern California. This is Sadownik’s fourth summer with the AOTC.
Mrs. Lovett is a widowed pie maker who has harbored a love for Sweeney Todd since he was banished from London fifteen years before the opera takes place. Sadownik says Mrs. Lovett’s loneliness and unrequited love make her willing to do “literally anything.”
“Out of necessity and out of coincidence, Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett become murderers and promulgate cannibalism, but she really is someone who doesn’t have malice to start off with,” Sadownik says. “It just happens as a consequence of circumstances.”
Sadownik says the opera is more than a horror story, with themes that are relevant even today.
“What a man can do to another man in desperate times and when they have been downtrodden all their life—that is an overarching morality that can be seen in the story,” Sadownik says. “It’s harder to be an altruistic person at that point. When you have been treated unkindly your entire life, it’s much easier to be unkind, rather than turn the other cheek.”
Berkeley has set the opera as a play within a play, in which the cast of AOTC students act as inmates putting on a production of Sweeney Todd in their asylum. Sadownik says this adds an additional dimension to the work.
“These are people who’ve been tortured and mistreated and neglected, and the people coming to see the show have no idea,” Sadownik says. “It shines a spotlight on those who don’t have a voice for themselves.”
Sweeney Todd’s music is full of the wit and humor that characterize American musical theater, as is fitting for the AMFS 2012 season theme: “Made in America.” But the work is also performed in opera houses all over Europe and the United States.
“It’s practically through-composed,” Berkeley says. “There is dialogue, but it’s more sung, and it’s a complex score. A lot of the roles require singing that is more opera than musical theater.”
Sadownik says her role in the opera is one of the most demanding she has played to date, but the challenge is how the Festival helps her grow.
“The great thing about Aspen is that people like Ed Berkeley and the music staff are incredibly supportive,” Sadownik says. “It’s a very cultivating environment, which is why I have come back for four years. That’s why a lot of people come back. They can take risks and be brave, and they know that they can step off the cliff and people will be there to support them.”
GRACE LYDEN – Festival Focus writer