Image: Teddy Tahu Rhodes, left, as Sweeney Todd and Antoinette Halloran, right, as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd / Jeff Busby
The short, five-letter word conjures up all kinds of images in the imagination, but let’s be honest here: a lot of those images are of pretentious divas in ridiculous-looking costumes either belting out something in Italian a la Luciano Pavarotti or singing at such a high pitch they can shatter glass (not to mention explode eardrums). Then there’s the subject matter of a lot of operas: death, love, death, and more death.
But that’s not always true, according to people who actually work in opera for a living. Plus, being an opera singer can be downright empowering.
The New Zealand Opera will be presenting Sweeney Todd, based on the Stephen Sondheim musical thriller (and later turned into a film starring Helena Bonham Carter), beginning this Saturday, September 17 at the Civic Theatre in Auckland. Villainesse had the chance to chat with soprano Antoinette Halloran – who plays Mrs Lovett, one of the opera’s main (and certainly most kickass) characters – about her role, women in opera, and how opera is adapting to our changing times. Here’s what she had to say.
Villainesse: What can you tell us about your character in Sweeney Todd? What’s she like?
Antoinette Halloran: Mrs Lovett is lonely. She had fallen in love with an unattainable man who was a barber in the shop upstairs from her pie shop, and obsessed about him for 15 years, until fate would have it, he returns. She is powerful, manipulative, self-sufficient and single-focused. All these attributes put to good would have made her a heroine in the most fabulous sense. However, she decides, due to her sexual obsession with Sweeney, her lust and greed, to channel them towards evil. She is still kind of fabulous, in a very dark and immoral way!
Villainesse: Were there any particular challenges for this role that you haven’t had for other roles? What were they?
Antoinette Halloran: Well, technically, being an operatic soprano, the challenge was to perform this role in my chest voice, where I am usually hired to sing in my head voice. So it is a different part of the voice. Mrs Lovett is written in the speaking register whereas operatic soprano roles are written an octave or so above that.
Artistically it is lovely to play this role as Mrs Lovett is empowered and drives the action. And the chance to use broad comedy and make the audience laugh is wonderful. Hearing laughter is the most immediate feedback we can get from an audience. You can tell if they are with you on the ride… or if you are boring their pants off!
Villainesse: Conversely, what’s been the most rewarding part about the whole experience?
Antoinette Halloran: To work with Stuart Maunder, the director of this piece, is always rewarding. He collaborates with the artist, giving them firm direction, yet allowing a great amount of conversation and ideas from everyone in the room. I feel he sees me, as an artist. To have the courage to cast me in this iconic role is proof of that. To feel someone out there understands your artistic soul is so lovely – I feel lucky to know him, actually.
Villainesse: A lot of people have certain preconceived notions about opera (like that it’s old, expensive, etc.). What do you have to say to them? Do you think what opera is really about would surprise them?
Antoinette Halloran: Oh god – I think all they need to do is take two kids to a movie and buy some popcorn to understand expensive! Opera is not expensive. There are always seats in the house under $50. In Europe you can buy seats for about ten bucks! It is really just breaking the ice and going and then, if you are lucky to see great performers whose voices touch your soul, you will be hooked. It happened to me at 15 years old. My mum dragged me to Madama Butterfly and I lost myself forever to the world of opera. I wasn’t posh or rich or highly educated – I just fell in love. It is so intoxicating when it is done right. I think the human voice, acoustically unenhanced, can have an enormous effect on the listener. When I hear a great tenor sing a top C, I want to die (in a good way). It is heaven.
Villainesse: What do you think about how women are depicted in opera? Are stereotypes sometimes a problem?
Antoinette Halloran: I wrote a thesis on this subject back at university. It was inspired by a French feminist book, Opera: The Undoing of Women (French: L’Opéra ou la Défaite des femmes). Why do women always die in opera? I could post my thesis here and put you all to sleep immediately as it was 10,000 words long. In a nutshell, the female lead has to die. Take Carmen for instance. Sexy, empowered, calling the shots, the unashamed seductress running the joint. Of course she had to die! It would not have done for Victorian women to leave the theatre thinking women like that existed in the world. No. She had to be killed for her sins so that all those housewives wouldn’t get strange ideas about empowerment and liberation!
Villainesse: Are there some female characters in opera who you admire because of how amazingly kickass they are? Who are they, and why?
Antoinette Halloran: I kind of try to find the amazing, kickass in all the women I play. It is how I make sense of them. For example, Butterfly (in Madama Butterfly) and Tosca (in Tosca) both commit suicide. However, I try to make this choice empowered, by playing, “No – you won’t break me, or keep me in subjugation – instead I make the decision to end my life – and you can watch my dust!” It’s making a feminist statement in the worst possible circumstances, I know – but at least it’s not playing the victim.
Mrs Lovett is as kickass as it gets – especially the interpretation that Stuart and I have come up with – that she is running the joint totally. She da boss. No doubt.
Villainesse: Do you think there’s a place for a modern opera with a kickass female lead?
Antoinette Halloran: I just did Cloud Street for South Australian Opera. An adaption of the epic Tim Winton novel. There were three female leads and they were all strong and gorgeous women. Tim Winton wrote better parts for women than men. The women were wonderful – so yes – it can happen, and is happening.
Villainesse: What are some things about being an opera singer that you wish friends and family who aren’t involved with opera knew?
Antoinette Halloran: That to sing unenhanced to a 3,000-seat theatre requires an enormous amount of energy and dedication. That being away from my kids to work abroad leaves a burning pain in my chest. That the rush you get from feeling you have brought an audience joy is indescribable. That I can love opera and still be a loving partner and mum – there is room for all of it. We women have big bottomless hearts and are great at multi-tasking – it’s a scientifically proven fact!
Villainesse: What is it you love most about opera?
Antoinette Halloran: It’s purity. It’s raw emotion. It’s escapism from the everyday. It’s extremes.
Villainesse: Anything else you’d like to say?
Antoinette Halloran: I heart New Zealand, I really do. Xxxx