Broadway musicals are known as the venue of the triple threat, while the stagecraft of opera is often referred to as "stand and sing," or the even less attractive description, "park and bark."
University of Kentucky Opera Theatre director Everett McCorvey knows which style is more attractive to modern audiences, which is one of the reasons UK Opera is opening its third fall musical in as many years this weekend.
"I think that as arts administrators, it is our job to make sure that we ensure the future of the arts in our country and our profession," McCorvey says in his office at UK's newly renovated Schmidt Vocal Arts Center. "My concern is that we have not done a good job reaching out to a younger generation in all art forms, and we have seen a manifestation of that in the demise of some orchestras, certainly the demise of some opera companies ... and part of it is our unwillingness to retool what we are offering."
But UK Opera has been retooling, staging blockbuster productions of Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables the past two falls. While McCorvey has acknowledged there aren't other titles likely to generate quite the box office of those shows, presenting musicals has been good for the program and the students, he says. So, the fall musicals continue this season with Stephen Sondheim's classic Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
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For anyone thinking that the opera company is somehow lowering itself to present musicals, baritone Matt Turner, one of two Sweeneys in this show vigorously disagrees.
"This is big singing," he says during a break from Monday night's orchestral rehearsal. "It takes well-trained voices to pull off what people are doing on stage."
But it takes something else that is sometimes left wanting in opera performances: acting.
"I hesitantly go to operas, because I find them completely boring when they are not acted well," says Thomas Gunther, who will alternate performances with Turner as Sweeney. "It's really nice to be around actors who can also sing, not just opera singers that stand around and sing really well."
To opera students like Gunther, who has had prominent roles in Phantom and Les Miz, the musicals have played a big part in sharpening their acting skills.
"It demands you to be a little more natural," says Holly N. Dodson, one of the two actresses playing Sweeney's partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett. "You can watch operas by people like Mozart, and it seems like people are stuck, almost like pieces on a chess board."
Working on Sweeney and other musicals, Dodson says there has been more direction to internalize emotions and find motivations, "and that's when I realize all those other shows, like Mozart, require the same thing."
Giving that direction has been Richard Gammon, a stage director quickly gaining a national reputation for infusing opera productions with modern style and movement. For UK's Sweeney Todd, he and McCorvey agreed on what Gammon calls a "modern timeless" setting that stylizes the more gruesome aspects of the story about a barber who exacts revenge on the judge who stole his wife and daughter. The plot becomes a vendetta against wealthy and corrupt people, whom Todd kills in his barber chair and Mrs. Lovett cooks into meat pies that become the toast of London.
The 2007 movie starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter gave the story a gory reputation, but McCorvey wanted a production that would be safe for all audiences, though the darker themes are hard to avoid.
"It is a dark comedy, so I wanted to retain a lot of the comedic aspects of the show," Gammon says. "It's not about blood and guts, to me. It's about a man's journey and those that are affected by it."
To Turner, it's where opera in America needs to go.
"Sondheim would call this dark operetta," Turner says. "We've given a lot of attention to Italian, to German, to French. I think it's really time for English opera to step forward. Where Sondheim and Bernstein left off with Candide and Into the Woods, those pieces are where American and North American opera need to continue to go."
McCorvey emphasizes that the musical productions will stick to shows written for skilled singers, like Carousel and West Side Story.
The musicals have also provided a venue for students in the UK College of Fine Arts musical theater certificate program, a collaboration between the theater department and the voice program. One of the highest profile performers in that is Rachel Snyder, who shares the role of Mrs. Lovett with Dodson in Sweeney and was the narrator in last spring's UK Theatre production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
"It's amazing the musicality I have learned from the voice students that lends itself to musical theater and is required in theater itself," says Snyder, who is a theater major. "You need musicality and theatricality in all types of theater and performance."
UK's goal, after all, is to graduate students who can go into the working world and get jobs. McCorvey points to singers like Jacob Waid, one of the Phantoms two years ago, who he says, "hasn't stopped working since he left here in opera and musical theater." Playing Jean Valjean in Les Miz gave UK Opera icon Gregory Turay a new perspective on his career, McCorvey says.
And for audiences, when UK returns to performing opera in the spring with Jacques Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman, Sweeney participants say they should come at it with a fresh perspective.
"Opera doesn't have to be park and bark," Turner says. "There is so much more we can do with opera than standing around on stage and looking like, 'This is where the director told me to go.'"