October 19, 2014

A Love Expert Explains Josephine's Marital Prospects

Duana Welch, Ph.D.
This post was written with the assistance of a good friend whom I've never met.

(Don't you just love social media?)

The friend is Duana Welch, Ph.D. She teaches psychology at Austin, Texas universities and has a popular website called lovesciencemedia.com. This site is kind of a contemporary take on the old "advice to the love-lorn" column old-timers like me associate with Dear Abby and Ann Landers.

Folks write to Duana with questions about their love lives, sex, and relationships. What distinguishes her responses is that they aren't based on "life experience" or "good old common sense", but rather the body of scientific data and research pertaining to each question. In addition to the Love Science site, Duana is also a frequent contributor to Pychology Today and eHarmony.

I've gotten to "know" Duana via Facebook and we interact frequently. She's a good egg. At the end of this post I'll include information on how YOU, Dear Reader, can purchase her new book.

I occasionally ask Duana to drop some knowledge on me as relates to amorous predicaments that arise in opera plots. This, despite that she has no particular interest in opera herself. (Hey, I never said she was perfect.) However, opera librettos do raise issues of general interest when it comes to how men and women pursue one another and get along.

Lately, I've been thinking about Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore and the subject of marriage and social class. One of W.S. Gilbert's targets for satire is the British class system. In Pinafore, the plot is driven by this situation:

Josephine, the daughter of middle-class Captain Corcoran, has been betrothed to the aristocratic Sir Joseph Porter, But he's old and gross, and she'd rather marry the handsome young sailor Ralph Rackstraw. That's not a viable option since Ralph is a commoner; Josephine shouldn't marry beneath her social status.

Does that strike you as a bit hypocritical? My question to Duana was this: why is it okay for Sir Joseph to marry beneath HIS class but not okay for Josephine to do the same? To avoid offending Sir Joseph, father and daughter claim that Josephine's reluctance to marry him is due to his "exalted rank", which is "intimidating" to a "humble Captain's daughter". Sir Joseph magnanimously assures the girl that social class should never be an obstacle to true love. He thinks she'll interpret that as a green light for her to marry UP to his level, but (naturally) she hears it as a license to marry DOWN to her low-born beau.

Again: what exactly accounts for the societal attitude that men can marry down (like Sir Joseph hoped to do) but if a woman does so it's scandalous?

Duana wrote back promptly with this reply:

Esteemed Opera Dude: 

While I've never written on the topic directly, I've often indirectly addressed it via something called assortative mating, or "the matching phenomenon". Basically, the more alike two people are - not only in physical appearance, but in nearly every way - the happier they are together. Couples with more similarities are not only more likely to begin dating than people who are dissimilar, they're also more likely to keep dating, fall in love, get engaged, get married, and stay happily wed. It's a phenomenon that's now been validated in more than thirty-seven cultures and countries. The upshot? Most of the time, when folks marry, they do so in their own social class, just as they usually marry someone who is otherwise similar. But when there is a violation of similarity in terms of social class, it tends to be a case of a young, beautiful woman who marries an older, less-attractive-yet-resource-wielding man. This is still a match: men value youth and beauty, just as women value resources. So if folks are going to make a trade, that seems to be the one that works out. 

Yes, she really did call me "Esteemed Opera Dude". (She's clearly in awe of me.)

So this explains a lot, really. The reason that Rossini's Dr. Bartolo expected Rosina to marry him, Sondheim's Judge Turpin expected Joanna to marry him  and Sir Joseph expects Josephine to marry him is that they have resources compensating for their lack of other merits. 

It's also why, once the Big Plot Twist has been revealed, namely that Ralph and Captain Corcoran were switched at birth (thus instantly swapping social classes), Josephine is STILL in the position of "marrying up in class" and it's still okay. And now the newly-middle-class Ralph is in the catbird seat, since 1) his new status will ensure the resources that women value, and 2) he's cute and cuddly, so Josephine remains attracted to him in any case.

As for me, your Humble Blogger, I am stunned and amazed that my own marriage has lasted for thirty-eight happy years despite that fact that until recently I HAD NEVER HEARD OF "ASSORTATIVE MATING". 

And now to plug a book that you'll shortly be seeing at your local bookstore: Duana is the author of Love Factually: 10 Proven Steps From I Wish To I Do. For more information, click on this link; you can read about the book and download a chapter for free.

Thanks, Duana!

October 12, 2014

Pinafore 1: Gilbert and Sullivan defined as co-workers

Virginia Opera's 40th season got off to a triumphant start with a stunning production of Sweeney Todd that received ovations at every performance.

Now on to the second of our four mainstage shows, H.M.S. Pinafore by W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan.

Think of it as the comforting "good cop" following the edgy "bad cop" of Sondheim's bloody spectacle. YO! All of you HSP's ("Highly Sensitive Persons") who have been hiding under your beds until the Demon Barber went away: it's safe to come out now.

For my initial Pinafore post I'm going to recap a speech I heard back in the 90's. I wish I could remember the name of the speaker, but I can barely remember what I had for breakfast this morning. (As we age...) So whoever you were, at least know I'm not taking credit for your insights. The speech was the keynote address at a national convention of arts administrators I was attending back when I was directing a community arts school in Richmond VA.

If you know anything about Gilbert and Sullivan's partnership, you know it was hardly a matter of rainbows and unicorns. Their beleaguered producer Richard D'Oyle-Carte had to use super-human gifts of tact to keep one or the other from quitting the Savoyard venture for good, as they each threatened to do on more than one occasion.

Gilbert was annoyed that, in their joint public appearances, Sullivan was clearly more popular - more of a celebrity - than he himself was. Stupid idiots always like the music best, don't they? He also hated it when Sullivan would read through his latest libretto with a distinctly "MEH" reaction. Not original enough. Too much like the last ones. Can't you do better, old fellow? That sort of thing.

For his part, Sullivan (to a degree) felt trapped by their very success. He had not been the darling of both the Royal Academy of Music and the hallowed Leipzig Conservatory in order to grind out catchy-but-simplistic musical doggerel. No, he was the Great White Hope of British Music, destined to be England's answer to Schumann, Brahms, Wagner and Verdi. He was destined to be a musical Moses, leading his homeland out of the musical wilderness (in which their greatest composer was not native-born, but rather the Saxon G.F. Handel) into the Promised Land of international stature. He would produce symphonies, oratorios, chamber music and (especially) GRAND OPERAS.

Not this silly, absurdist comic stuff.

Now for the recap of that speech. It was all about how to characterize workplace relationships; all of them - even the ones YOU have had in YOUR various jobs, Dear Reader. Here's how it works:

All relationships between co-workers necesssarily fall into four, and only four, categories. Thees categories are defined by the degree of

between the two parties. Here are the four categories defined:

  1. COLLEAGUES: co-workers who have HIGH AGREEMENT and HIGH TRUST.
  2. ADVERSARIES: co-workers who have LOW AGREEMENT and LOW TRUST.
  3. OPPONENTS: co-workers who have LOW AGREEMENT but HIGH TRUST. (In this scenario, one thinks the other person is an idiot, but an honorable/good person even so.) And finally,
  4. BEDFELLOWS: co-workers who have HIGH AGREEMENT but LOW TRUST.
If you review your own personal work history, you'll find that every person at every job you ever held falls neatly into one of these categories. Of course, politicians running for office love to invoke number three above. Even when rival candidates are in reality bitter adversaries, when they're debating on CNN they love to say things like "My opponent is a patriotic man, but I'm afraid his ideas on foreign policy would weaken our country." Et voila...

The point, of course, is that D'Oyle-Carte's librettist and composer were at best in the category of bedfellows. They understood that they could not really walk away from a money-making bonanza like their series of English comic operettas, but testiness and guarded civility were often the rule.

Until, of course, Sullivan did finally walk away, convinced that his true destiny was still within reach, hoping to make his bones as the English Verdi with Ivanhoe in 1891. 

As it turns out, he'd have been well-advised to heed this old saying: 

The way to have what you want is.... to want what you have.

October 5, 2014

Sondheim, Parsifal, and Tobias the Fool

Scene from an 1882 production of Parsifal
One more Sweeney Todd post before we lift our bloody razors in a farewell salute and gear up for a run of Gilbert and Sullivan...

Sondheim's "musical thriller", as pointed out previously, is chock-full of an assortment of literary references. These include The Barber of Seville, Rigoletto, and even Hansel and Gretel (a witch meeting her end in a roaring oven). But there's one more that might not have occurred to you: Wagner's Parsifal.

Granted, in musical terms the two works are galaxies apart. But consider the simple young Tobias: here a case can be made that he carries some of Parsifal's DNA. They are both "holy fools".

The concept of a "Holy Fool" dates back at least as far as the first century A.D., when the apostle Paul wrote "We are fools for Christ's sake" in a letter to the church at Corinth. He went on to explain that "the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight". In other words, to be a true child of God, one must be so detached from worldly affairs, agendas and standards that one appears impossibly or "foolishly" naive. There is an inherent unspoiled spiritual purity in such innocense.

In Parsifal, the warrior Amfortas has been wounded by the magician Klingsor who used the flower maiden Kundry to lure Amfortas to him. The knight's pain can only be relieved with a touch of a holy spear now possessed by Klingsor. The only person capable of retrieving the spear is a "pure fool", one as yet untouched by the evil of the world: Parsifal.

Parsifal, in Wagner's libretto, is linked to early Christian traditions of the Holy Fool and to St. Juniper in particular. One of his fellow monks told Juniper that he wanted a pig's foot. Juniper rushed out to a herd of swine and rashly cut the foot off a pig, leaving the animal to die while he returned to present the foot to the monk. Parsifal, on the other hand, is found to have killed a swan in Act 1 of the opera, unaware that doing so was wrong. As the opera progresses, Parsifal's experiences will teach him of the evil of the world, leading him to destroy Klingsor's kingdom.

In Sweeney Todd, Tobias is observed unwittingly participating in evil as well, first drumming up business for that "arrant fraud", the Great Pirelli, later doing the same for Lovett's pie shop. Despite being taken in by Lovett as a de facto adopted son, Tobias is innocent of the gruesome nature of her meat pies. In his pathetic mental simplicity, Tobias stands out from the other townspeople of London for his naive goodness and trusting nature.

Of course, like Parsifal, Tobias gradually discovers the nature of the evil hovering about his world. Lovett's explanations for the disappearance of Pirelli are belied by her possession of the latter's purse, raising suspicions of Mr. Todd in the barber shoppe. In the end, he too will bring about the end of Sweeney's "kingdom", using a razor in place of a spear.

The difference, of course, is that rather than becoming a Knight of the Holy Grail, ushering in an era of peace and happiness, Tobias pays a heavy price: utter madness. He is the final victim of Todd's mayhem; when Fogg's Asylum is re-opened (under new management, certainly), Tobias will be the first inmate if he isn't hanged first.

This makes him the most tragic character in the story. He and Sweeney are both men ruined by others' evil, but Tobias' simplicity, gentleness and purity - a purity Todd probably never possessed - render his fate more difficult to take.

September 28, 2014

Sweeney Todd and the duality of man

Sheesh - even GUM can have a dual nature!
A masterwork like Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (it's okay if I dispense with the subtitle, right?) is a complex work of art functioning on many levels, with much to communicate about the human condition. Never have I written about a show with such an abundance of blog-worthy themes. This post takes up another major aspect made manifest both in the script and the music:

The dual nature we all exhibit if we live long enough in this troubled and troubling world.

With one exception (an exception explained by a line of recitative), every character in Sweeney Todd is two characters - just like me. And you. "We all deserve to die", Todd bellows in his volcanic solo "Epiphany". That assertion is debatable, but it is true that all of us have aspects of ourselves we display to the world, and other aspects we prefer no one know about.

In Sweeney Todd, even the chorus has two identities. Beginning with the Prologue ("The ballad of Sweeney Todd"), we see them functioning as a Greek chorus, singing commentary on the action as a single unit. Yet at other times they splinter into highly individualized townspeople of London; this one skeptical of Pirelli's elixir, that one buying a bottle.

Of course, The Great Pirelli himself is one of the obvious case-studies in duality. In public, he's babbling in a Chico Marxian "Eye-talian" patois. Privately, he's the Irishman Daniel O'Higgins.

The opening scene of Act I offers a subtle bit of duality. Anthony Hope launches the music with a jaunty song in praise of London, a solo guillotined by Sweeney's impatient interjection. Within a few minutes Todd repeats the opening of "No place like London", but in place of Anthony's youthful gushing optimism, now the words "There's no place like London" carry the weight of the barber's bitter cynicism.

Even songs can have a dual nature in this work.

That opening scene also introduces us to the Beggar Woman, a figure whose duality has duality! Long before it's confirmed that this deranged homeless creature is Todd's wife Lucy (duality #1), she is depicted flipping randomly between two mental states: now whimpering pitiably, now spewing obscene propositions to the two men.

How about Anthony? Doesn't he ruin my theory? After all, he's pretty much the same "golly-gee whiz" paragon of earnest good will at the end as at his first entrance.

Ah, but Sweeney himself offers the explanation for his lack of duality. "You are young," he sings gravely, "Life has been kind to you. You will learn."

As for Johanna, Anthony's love and Todd's child, in a conventional musical or operetta she would be the ingenue: sweet, young, innocent and endearing.

Hmmm. Well, three out of four ain't bad.

Johanna is damaged; life has not "been kind to her". The ward of Judge Turpin, a prisoner in his house and the current object of his perverse desires, she is agitated to the point of neurosis. It is Johanna who proves capable of violence in the scene of Fogg's Asylum, grabbing the pistol from her lover and shooting a man in cold blood. Yet, at the same time, the audience does find her endearingly charming as well.

One might speculate, as Johanna's neuroses develop and life stops treating Anthony with "kindness", that their fate may eventually be as bleak as that of the rest of the characters.

Of course, our title character, his partner in crime Mrs. Lovett, and his adversary all support the theme of man's duality. Like his former apprentice O'Higgins, Todd has two names. He is Benjamin Barker, an honest tradesman, devoted husband and loving father. He is Sweeney Todd, insane serial murderer.

Sondheim is careful to depict Todd's duality in musical terms as well. In the aforementioned "Epiphany", the music careens crazily from short rhythmic bursts of staccato rage (Who sir? You, sir? No one in the chair, come on!") to long, anguished, unrhymed wails of grief ("And I'll never see Johanna, no, I'll never hug my girl to me").

As for Mrs. Lovett, this one shouldn't even require explanation. She's a chatty scatterbrain. She's a heartless psychopath. When Todd ignores her shy confessions of love in "My Friends" in Act I, Sondheim tricks us into feeling sorry for her in the face of his disregard. But by the time she sings "By the sea" in Act II, we know better, even though Todd continues to ignore her; we've learned that she's the worse monster.

And Turpin fits the mold as well. A distinguished jurist to his neighbors, only Johanna, Todd and Anthony see the persona of sexual deviate he hides from the world. Even his henchman Beadle Bamford alternates from being a responsible community activist ("Glad as always to oblige my friends and neighbors") to enabling Turpin's brutality with brutality of his own.

Finally, even Tobias, the most tragic figure in the piece, will show us two personas. The treachery of Mrs. Lovett will trigger his metamorphosis from good-hearted simplicity (with a dark head of hair) to babbling Avenging Angel with hair shocked white.

You and I are no different, of course. There are aspects of my own nature I keep hidden from the world, and the same is true of you, Faithful Reader. Let's confide in one another, shall we? Let's confess our darker natures! It'll be fun!

You go first.

September 21, 2014

Sondheim's craft: manipulating the song of Death.

Do you like puzzles? If so, you should have been a composer. Composers like to assign themselves puzzles in their projects. For example, Arnold Schoenberg said "Let's see if I can create compelling music using all twelve chromatic tones in the same order without repeating any." Beethoven's challenge in his fifth symphony was to construct a large-scale orchestral work based on just four notes.

Stephen Sondheim is no different. In Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, his challenge was to see how many ways he could employ a four-note motive borrowed from an ancient dirge.

The Requiem Mass of the Catholic Church, or "Mass for the Dead", begins with the "Dies Irae", a centuries-old hymn depicting the Judgement day. Here is the first line, rendered in modern notation:

The Grim Reaper
This tune, austere and bleak as befits the text ("Day of wrath, day of doom" etc.), has been adopted by countless composers in all periods of music history as the Musical Symbol Of Death. Orchestral music, choral music, piano music, and most definitely opera and music theater - there is a long list of quotations of and musical references to the Dies Irae. In many cases, simply the first four notes suffice.  Famous examples of the tune making its way into classical compositions include the Symphonie Fantastique  by Berlioz, the Totentanz by Liszt, both the Variations on a theme of Paganini and The Isle of the Dead  to name two of several by Rachmaninov, and literally many dozens of other major and minor composers. Sheesh, it even appears in John Williams' score for The Empire Strikes Back, for pity's sake.

Now here's what you may never have realized about Sweeney Todd:

Virtually the entire score, from beginning to end, is infused with and dominated by the Dies Irae. It's everywhere. This might come as a shock, since many of the quotations are so subtle that you'd never recognize them even on repeated hearings. But they're there, and it's pretty appropriate when you stop to consider the manner in which death drives the story.

On the one hand, it might sound tedious, repetitious and gloomy to have multiple musical numbers based on the first 4 or 5 notes of the Dies Irae; you might fear that the music would be too academic in nature for a compelling show.

You'd be wrong.

When composers limit themselves; that is, when they set up restrictions in their musical materials ("Rule: you must find ways to use the beginning of the Dies Irae"). it brings out their best in terms of imagination and resourcefulness. Here's a summary of the various ways Sondheim, a genius, manipulates these seemingly unpromising four notes.
  • Right away in "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd", which is the prologue before Act 1, the chorus literally screams the motive following the first two stanzas:
  • When we first meet Mrs. Lovett, she strikes us as an eccentric but likeable old busybody; we will only gradually come to realize what a psychopath she is. But in her first solo, the music gives us a clue. On close examination, the notes below on the words "What's your hurry?" are an upside-down version of the Dies Irae.
  • When Lovett presents Sweeney with his old set of razors, he croons an ecstatic love song to them. The very first four notes are an exact mirror image of the Dies Irae. Notice how the hymn-tune them climbs higher and higher vocally, corresponding to the scheme for vengeance that is now rising in his mind as he sings. The vocal line illustrates how he's thinking: Death is rising for Judge Turpin!
  • When we meet Todd's daughter Joanna, who would be the ingenue in a more conventional musical, her entrance aria "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" has a particularly ingenious manipulation of Dies Irae. The musical death-tune is hidden in the middle of her vocal line in its original form (with a passing-tone inserted between the two syllables of "Irae"). And, with great song-writing craft, it appears when the girl mentions "Night"ingale and "Black"bird:
  • In the scene of Sweeney's shaving contest with "The Great Pirelli", the latter's simple young assistant Toby acts like a carnival barker, drawing a crowd with his sales pitch. Here the back-and-forth oscillation in his patter is generated by the first three notes of Dies Irae. The original form of the D.I. occurs in the third bar:
  • Lovett sings a near-lullaby to Todd when he grows impatient for Turpin to visit his shop in her sly solo "Wait". Here Sondheim is particularly subtle in introducing the Dies Irae; rather than appearing note-to-note, it's the first note of each bar in this excerpt that reveals the tune, allowing for octave transposition on the word "I've":
  • Meanwhile, young Joanna, a most neurotic young lady (with good reason), is making plans with Anthony to elope. In expressing her disgust over Judge Turpin's attentions, she invokes half-serious plans of suicide. Sound like a good opportunity for the Dies Irae? Our fave tune is quoted neatly and on point on the words "I'd rather die":
  • When Turpin finally has a seat in Todd's barber chair, their bantering paen to the fair sex "Pretty women" resembles those chains of paper clips you made as a child; it's nothing but four-note units mainly derived from Dies Irae. It's truly a Song of (Impending) Death:

  • When Turpin makes his angry exit, the frustrated Sweeney erupts in over-the-top musical rage ("Epiphany"). While the low brass in the orchestra snarl out the Dies Irae underneath him,
          Sweeney is growling a vocal line with an inverted Dies Irae on the words "Mrs. Lovett":
  • The witty "A Little Priest" duet for Todd and Lovett reprises the Dies Irae version heard in "Worst Pies", and the Act 2 curtain-raiser "God That's Good" allows Toby to repeat his own D.I., simply substituting pie-centric lyrics in place of elixir rhymes. The next occurrence of note is in Lovett's vacation fantasy "By The Sea", in which the tell-tale oscillation in the opening phrase is the unmistakable sign of the Dies Irae. Here an inverted example is seen on the words "that's the life I covet", with one extra note inserted on "I":
  • This post is getting long, so I'll give you one more example, though there are others. When Toby, who is somewhat related to the Fool of Shakespearean times, naively offers to protect Lovett from Todd; his tragedy is that he senses evil in the latter but not in the former. The Dies Irae chooses the most apt moment to appear, on the words "Demons are prowling":

Bottom line: the score to Sweeney Todd is so saturated with the Dies Irae that it's as if Death itself was a character; a character who, rather than have a solo number to sing, instead inhabits the music of the human players. 

Tedious, repetitious and gloomy? Hardly. In the hands of a master craftsman like Sondheim, the four-notes of the Dies Irae are like a musical chameleon; a "tune of 1000 faces", so to speak. Conveying every affect from bawdy humor to girlish impetuousness to rage to filial love, the Dies Irae lets us know that the Grim Reaper is never far from these doomed (but entertaining!) citizens of London.

September 15, 2014

Rigoletto Todd: the Demon Jester of Mantua Street

Sweeney's daddy? Titta Ruffo as Rigoletto
In my book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and other Primates, I wrote some essays about Verdi's middle-period masterwork Rigoletto in advance of Virginia Opera's 2010 production. In one of those, I made the case that the opera was uncannily close in plot points, characters and themes to Stephen Sondheim's musical thriller Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Well, Faithful Readers, it's four years later, and Sweeney and his friends will be making their company debut at the end of the month. I'm sure in the time between these productions I've managed to pick up two or three new readers, so strictly for their benefit I now recap this bit of "compare and contrast". (Also, I'm lazy. Sue me.) See if you think my argument holds water. Or meat pie gravy, as the case may be...

  • Rigoletto was once married to the love of his life, but lost her - a tragedy that haunts him. He sings mournfully about her in the solo "Deh, non parlare al misero", in which he recalls her as an "angel" who showed compassion to such a "lonely, deformed, poor" man as himself.
  • Sweeney Todd was once married to the love of his life, but now believes she is dead. He sings mournfully about her in the solo "There was a barber and his wife", in which he describes her as "virtuous" and himself as "foolish".
  • Rigoletto's sole surviving family member is his daugher Gilda.
  • Sweeney Todd's sole surviving family member is his daughter Joanna.
  • Rigoletto's nemesis is the Duke of Mantua, a serial womanizer whose crude obsession with women belies his wealth and social standing. Rigoletto hates him for having debauched his daughter.
  • Sweeney Todd's nemesis is Judge Turpin, a serial womanizer whose obsession with women belies his wealth and social standing. Todd hates him for having debauched his wife.
  • The Duke of Mantua sings a musical number in which, while praising women, he also objectifies them: "Questo o quella".
  • Judge Turpin sings a musical number (with Todd) in which, while praising women, he also objectifies them: "Pretty women".
  • Rigoletto's bitterness and rage toward his fellow man erupts in a violent solo, "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata".
  • Sweeney Todd's bitterness and rage toward his fellow man erupts in a violent solo, "Epiphany".
  • Rigoletto's thirst for vengeance via murder results in a catastrophe: the unintended killing of his daughter. He collapses in remorse.
  • Sweeney Todd's thirst for vengeance via murder results in a catastrophe: the unintended killing of his wife. He collapses in remorse.
What does all this prove? Mostly, it demonstrates something we already knew: that throughout human history, the traditions of storytelling include archetypes that appear and reappear from one generation to the next.

Second, with apologies to all the 20th-century operas which debut at opera houses, receive a few performances, and ultimately fail to enter the so-called "standard repertoire", one can argue that the entertainment known for the past four hundred years as "opera" has most compellingly been represented by Broadway musicals like Sweeney Todd in modern times. Sweeney's mix of complex, sophisticated music and popular appeal recalls operas like Tosca and Carmen more convincingly than some avant-garde operas I could mention.

Oh, and as a bonus "contrast and compare" not mentioned in 2010's blog post, here's another observation: Sweeney Todd also echoes Rossini's Barber of Seville.  

Think about it: 
  • Joanna is the ward of the elderly Judge Turpin, who keeps her a prisoner in his house and intends to marry her. The dashing sailor Anthony Hope serenades her ("I feel you, Joanna") and vows to steal her away for himself. In Barber,
  • Rosina is the ward of the elderly Doctor Bartolo, who keeps her a prisoner in his house and intends to marry her. The dashing Count Almaviva serenades her ("Ecco ridente") and vows to steal her away for himself.
Gotta love archetypes!

September 7, 2014

Sweeney Todd: the show even “nice people” can love.

I'm thinking of letting my beard grow out....
(photo by Alex 1011)
I’m nice. Are you? I’m sure you are – you look nice. (I’m sure people tell you that all the time.)

Most of my audiences, whether readers of this blog or folks who attend my classes and lectures around Virginia, are made up of refined, educated, well-mannered, civilized and (above all) nice people.

They’re kind to animals. They‘re concerned about foreign affairs and the economy; they vote in national, state and local elections. They recycle. They support local businesses over national chains. They don’t use vulgar language and feel uncomfortable when others do. They watch “Masterpiece Theater” and especially enjoy “Downton Abbey”.

When it comes to movies, they stay away from films with gratuitous graphic sex, violence, car chases and explosions, preferring romantic comedies, substantive dramas and stylish mysteries.

If you fit this general description, then you don’t have to tell me, because I already know what you’re thinking:

You’re not so sure you want to come to see Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Virginia Opera.

You’re pretty sure it’s not nice. You’ve heard about the goings-on in this show. “I don’t think I would like it”, you’re thinking. Homicidal barber? Cannibalism? People eating meat pies with……. with human flesh in them? Who would want to see THAT? Oh sure, maybe some big-city hipsters enjoy that sort of thing, those godless pagans from New York and Boston and L.A.

But this is Virginia – it’s the Bible Belt, for Pete’s sake! We’re simple folk hereabouts. We want our operas with uplifting stories and lovely tunes and tender emotions. “Golly”, you’re thinking, “I sure wish they were doing Puccini instead.”

Yep, you’d be hippy-hoppy-happy if we were staging Tosca. You know – that classic opera containing a torture scene, an attempted rape, two murders and a suicide. Why, it’s practically Mary Poppins.

LISTEN TO ME: Sweeney Todd isn’t what you think it is. It’s a masterpiece and you WILL enjoy it, I promise. This music drama, a hybrid of opera, operetta and musical, is bursting with humanity, humor, pathos, toe-tapping tunes, soaring love music, and tragic destiny.

Let’s confront the gorilla in the room: the whole baking-people-into-meat-pies subject that has you scared and grossed out.

This show is not The Silence of the Lambs. I know you’re wondering why it was necessary to add that element. I mean Tosca killed Scarpia but she didn’t EAT him, right? So let’s consider: why and how is this element present?

One aspect of drama is catharsis; the notion that by vicariously experiencing that which we fear, we rise above our fears and feel spiritually uplifted. The Silence of the Lambs exploits one such fear: that we might experience the horrifying death of being eaten. 

Sweeney turns the tables: what if WE were the (unwitting) cannibals? What if WE unknowingly consumed human flesh? That's another cause for morbidity and dread.

Remember being served “mystery meat” in your school cafeteria? It was brownish-gray, oily, covered in fried breadcrumbs and no one could figure out what it was. And no one has seen Mr. Jackson the Algebra teacher for a few days – you don’t suppose…….??

In Sondheim's music drama, the subject is handled with humor, which drains all the shocking revulsion out of it. The finale of Act I, “A Little Priest”, becomes a vehicle for Stephen Sondheim’s greatest achievement in amusing wordplay as the two principal characters speculate on what priests, lawyers and other professionals might taste like. Far from recoiling in revulsion, you'll chuckle and even belly-laugh.

But there’s a higher purpose in introducing the spectacle of citizens devouring their neighbors.

It’s a metaphor, of course; a metaphor for man’s inhumanity to man. The class system in London was like those food chains we saw depicted as children:a tiny fish eaten by bigger fish,the bigger fish eaten by a giant fish. In nineteenth-century England, each strata of society used (read: “ate”) the class below them for their survival and comfort. Judge Turpin “consumes” Todd and his wife Lucy to satisfy his wanton desires. This is no cheap horror show; it's literature. It's art.

One final reassurance: the music is of immortal quality. Now passionate, now anguished, now bantering, now lush and melodic, now harrowing, now majestic, it is one of Sondheim’s richest, most rewarding scores.

It’s a masterpiece, one which even you nice folks out there will find enhances your life. Don’t stay away. Sweeney Todd is not what you think.