Stephen Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd is returning to Philadelphia as the great American opera — with many crossover elements for musical theater audiences who might be curious about opera, from its Broadway score to its service-industry setting.

In this Curtis Opera Theatre production, the student company departs from its typical Mozart-to-Bernstein repertoire to take on the Tony-winning musical/opera hybrid. It's a rare chance, in this era of shrinking pit orchestras, to hear the score in its full orchestration.

And talk about cultural relevance. "Demon Barber" Sweeney Todd and his accomplice Mrs. Lovett are stuck in the lower economic rungs of Dickensian England one minute, but in the next are breezily recycling their murder victims into profitable meat pies.

Anyone mired in a thankless job can appreciate the upward mobility.

"I can't think of anything … that is so full of articulate rage … but so much fun," stage director Emma Griffin said during a break in rehearsals at the Philadelphia Film Center (formerly the Prince Theater), where the Curtis production has three performances, on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.

The Curtis Opera Theatre production of “Sweeney Todd,” running Nov. 14, 16, and 18 at the Philadelphia Film Center.
KEN HOWARD / Curtis Institute
The Curtis Opera Theatre production of “Sweeney Todd,” running Nov. 14, 16, and 18 at the Philadelphia Film Center.

The show has been a steady presence over the years since its debut in  1979 — in Broadway theaters, in the movie starring Johnny Depp, and, locally, in a 2005 Arden Theatre  production that may just have bested them all. But for operatically trainer singers, Sweeney Todd remains a bag of surprises.

One natural reaction is that anything written for the limited vocal range of Angela Lansbury (the original Mrs. Lovett) has to be easy. But hidden challenges are everywhere, with complex time signatures, emotional hairpin turns, and rapid-fire velocity.

"The nature of this piece is that if you miss the train, you're left walking," conductor Geoffrey McDonald told the Curtis musicians at a recent rehearsal. Though the score has plenty of Broadway-style tunes, the story has enough life and death to fill three operas, plus ensemble scenes with Mozartean complexity.

Moments requiring dramatic weight — accomplished with sheer acting power among Broadway performers — comes easy to operatic voices. But good diction does not.

For the imposing, Slavic-colored voice of Canadian Armenian bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian, singing the title role has been like jumping off a cliff. His voice was trained to sing in Italian. Now his sound must change to accommodate Cockney-flavored English.

Mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms, whose voice has versatility similar to Audra McDonald's, spoke the text first while learning Mrs. Lovett and then created a character requiring "the bravery that what you know as an artist is what's right."

So they get used to Sondheim. They have to.

Opera’s new direction

Mikael Eliasen, artistic director of Curtis Opera Theatre, headed the production (much to the puzzlement of some colleagues) with the belief that Sondheim created the single greatest American opera. "The kids need to be exposed to this kind of vocal writing if they want to make a living in 15 years," he said. "The definition of opera … is going to take a very interesting turn."

How Sweeney Todd and its archetype characters are perceived amid the changing world is an ongoing question. Having seen the 2007 film numerous times, Bottoms is now struck by how much all of the characters are driven by one obsession or another — Sweeney with revenge, Lovett with money.

But when Eliassen last saw the piece on stage, he was struck by how the characters long for normality. "They want to be just like everybody else. To just be ordinary," he said. "And yet they are not "

Ironically, they also long for home — and safety.

Among the young parents in the cast and crew, there's been a discussion about the show's suitability for children.

Some are keeping their 8-year-olds away. Others think their 7-year-olds can handle it.

One deciding question: During onstage murders, how much blood will there be? How far will it spurt? Griffin's lips are sealed: "I can't give it away. That's cheating."

OPERA

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

    • Curtis Opera Theatre performances Nov. 14, 16, and 18 at the Philadelphia Film Center (formerly the Prince Theater), 1412 Chestnut St. Tickets: $20–75. Information: 215-422-4580 or PrinceTheater.org