I find myself now in St. Louis rehearsing Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd for performances with the Opera Theatre of St Louis. The last time I sang with the company was in 1983. That is 29 years ago. People still talk about that production of Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict, an opera based on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Curiously, even though that experience and that role bolstered my young career, I was not to sing it again until 2003 in a concert version with the New York Philharmonic.
Here I am, having the time of my life. I was approaching this engagement with apprehension since the last musical theater work I sang was in high school and the idea of dialogue puts my knickers in a fit. I have heard that the idea of singing gives most actors supreme agita so I guess we are even. (Actually, I have yet to head to any job without feeling fear and trepidation. It is a great motivator.)
Although we are only nearing the end of the fifth day of rehearsal I can see why this piece is so beloved and successful. Hmm... "beloved" might not me the best word. "Admired" might be a better choice.
I am channeling my inner beggar woman. What a relief to not have to worry about my beautiful tones and, instead, focus on the cockney accent and the split personality of the character. In other words, I can let the vocalism come from the character and not the other way around. Mind you, I love operatic singing and the challenge of making those golden tones simultaneously with the emotion. That, of course, is one major difference between musical theater and opera -- if one goes too far with the emotion in opera, one's voice cannot always sustain it.
Another great pleasure is to work with these wonderful performers, three of whom, including myself, are over 50, one is even over 70. Go boomers. We even have a Tony winner among us. The stage director, Ron Daniels, is an honorary associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he has worked in since 1977. The conductor, Stephen Lord, is the musical director of OTSL. Our dialect coach, Stephen Gabis, works with virtually every high-level theater and deftly can go from a Chicago accent to a northern English accent in a matter of seconds. Additionally, because this company pays us equally on a weekly rate, there are no divas or impression of inequality.
Unlike Broadway, where productions are rehearsed for months, we have to be up and running for final tech rehearsals in less than two weeks. I am still adjusting to the idea of "safeties" -- bars of music that can be repeated as needed until the action is ready or scene change is done. I am not used to such freedom. Similarly, I am unfamiliar with timing the dialogue with the music so as to be finished my line before the music runs out. When I received my rental score I was a bit stunned to find a book with just dialogue and vocal musical lines without any accompaniment. This was like reading a foreign language. Evidently, many theater performers are trained to count rather than to see/hear/focus on the accompaniment. We opera singers learn our parts in conjunction with the piano reduction. Fortunately, there are both types of scores in the rental packet.
This company nurtures young singers, invests in young budding talent. Look at me back in 1983. That said, it also appreciates experience, as evidenced by the casting of this show. The younger singers work along side us. Some are apprentices, and others sing leading roles. This company is one of few, if any, remaining in the U.S. that performs in English only. It remains committed to the mission of presenting works in the language of the audience.
The following is taken from the company's website:
• Opera Theatre of Saint Louis was founded in the spring of 1976 by Richard Gaddes, with a small group of opera lovers who were determined to bring festival-quality opera to the St. Louis area. With a budget of $135,000 they presented an 11-performance season of familiar and unconventional operas sung in English by outstanding artists. The company has grown enormously since then, but its dedication to high-quality productions of a varied repertory accompanied by members of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra continues to this day.
• As of 2010 Opera Theatre has presented 22 world premieres (almost all commissioned by OTSL) and 22 American premieres -- which is perhaps the highest percentage of new work in the repertory of any U.S. company.
• Opera Theatre has a long tradition of discovering and promoting the careers of the finest operatic artists of the current generation. Each year the roster of the Metropolitan Opera includes more than 60 artists who have recently appeared in St. Louis.
• 94 percent of the seats in our 987-seat theater are closer to the center of the stage than the front row at the Metropolitan Opera, so the audience is close to the action. This scale, combined with an emphasis on text -- OTSL's commitment to singing in the language of the audience with titles projected at the sides of the stage -- help make beautiful music into powerful theater.
• OTSL reaches a year-round audience of 14,000 young people and adults with programs like Monsanto Artists-in-Training, Opera on the GO!, Music!Words!Opera!, Emerson Behind the Curtain, and many more.
• Tickets cost as little as $25, and the whole audience is welcome to join the artists in the popular, summery tent on the lawn after performances in a relaxed atmosphere that is essential to the style of the company.
I am pinching myself. Although my role is short, it is pivotal.
As the saying goes, "There are no small parts -- only small people."
This engagement is an unexpected and welcome pleasure, and I am having the time of my life.