A musical New Orleans family steps neatly into three principal roles this weekend as Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” is performed for the first time by the New Orleans Opera Association.
Internationally acclaimed bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, in the title role, will be co-starring at the Mahalia Jackson Theater with his wife, mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee, as Mrs. Lovett, who is also his onstage “partner in crime.”
Joining them will be their 24-year-old daughter, Emma, a soprano and Loyola University graduate making her New Orleans Opera debut as Sweeney’s long-lost daughter.
Since its 1979 opening on Broadway starring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, “Sweeney Todd” has been considered one of Sondheim’s greatest masterpieces. It won eight Tony Awards and nine Drama Desk Awards, including the best musical of the year from both judging organizations.
The fictitious story of a murderous, Victorian-era London barber, it has been termed “a macabre and sophisticated comedy ... filled with classic opera themes like wrongful imprisonment, mistaken identity, murder and revenge.” The title character dispatches his victims by slitting their throats with a straight razor.
“It grabs you by the throat,” Bybee quipped.
Emma is the couple's only child, and they're extremely proud.
“She teaches us something every day,” Bybee said.
As a child, Emma traveled with her parents to performances and appeared on stage with them sporadically as an extra or as a member of the children’s chorus.
“I’m equally proud of them," Emma said. "It’s hard not to be.”
Grimsley, a New Orleans native and Loyola graduate, has performed numerous times with New Orleans Opera, as well as with the New York Metropolitan Opera and many of Europe’s leading houses. His most recent local role was in the 2013 production of “Samson et Dalila” as the High Priest of the Philistines.
Bybee, a voice teacher at Loyola, has sung off and on with NOOA since a 1987 performance of “Rigoletto,” just a few months after she and Grimsley were married. The couple will celebrate their 30th anniversary this summer.
The two of them have sung the same roles in “Sweeney Todd” twice before, with Vancouver Opera in Canada and Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York.
Although known largely for his mastery of the Wagnerian German-language operatic repertoire, Grimsley feels “very comfortable” singing in his native tongue.
But it's not necessarily easier for him to sing in English, he said.
“In many ways, you have be more alert,” Grimsley said. “For your own language you might tend to be — for lack of a better word — lazy about pronunciations. You have to approach English with the same attention you give to any other language when you’re singing.”
Said Bybee: “I like the accessibility and the ability to understand all the nuances (of English) and not have to pore over it and study it. It opens a lot of creative doors musically as well as dramatically.”
Among fans, there's a debate over whether “Sweeney Todd” is an opera or musical theater. The three singers agreed it could be both.
“It depends on the venue,” Grimsley said. “If it’s produced in an opera house, people will expect a more operatic treatment of it. If it’s produced in a theater they’re going to expect a more musical theater tinge to it. Part of our training as performers is to respect the style of the piece, and that’s what we endeavor to do here. It’s a wild ride.”
“It’s a great piece of theatre,” Bybee saud.
“For those who love opera, it’s got all the makings of a classic opera,” Emma said. “It’s got all the melodrama and intensity and the tragedy and humor. For those who may be new to it (opera) it’s a perfect way to get your foot in the door.”
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, 1419 Basin Street (Louis Armstrong Park), New Orleans
TICKETS: $26-$218 (Optional brunches)
INFO: (504) 529-2278 or (800) 881-4459 or neworleansopera.org