The line between opera and musical theater, if any hard line ever existed, gets bridged in the Baylor Opera Theater’s current production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”
The Tony Award-winning 1973 musical by one of the stage’s master composers marries singing and complex orchestration usually found in opera to a story told through acting.
Singing and acting are different skill sets and works like “A Little Night Music” provide a valuable opportunity for opera singers in training, explains Susan Li, interim director of the Baylor Opera Theater.
In many operas, spoken dialogue is often handled as music, set to a musical pitch or a rhythm. Dialogue in a play, however, follows the tone and rhythm of natural conversation. For a singer, switching between the two is harder than it might seem.
“It’s because of the way breath is used, not the way the voice is used,” noted Li, whose professional background includes work with opera companies such as Wolf Trap Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Tulsa Opera and Atlanta Opera Company and theaters such as Kansas City’s Starlight Theater.
“A Little Night Music,” inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” follows the entwined relationships past and present that come together at a weekend country retreat in 1900 Sweden.
There’s lawyer Frederik Egeman (Andy Eaton and Austin Ingalls), frustrated that his second wife, Anne (Becky Armenta and Katie Wick), is still a virgin after nearly a year of marriage. His son Henrik (Joshua Lee and Zack Barba) is a sexually flustered seminary student.
Actress Desiree Armfedt (Julia Powers), whose mother Madame Armfedt (Baylor voice professor Kathy McNeil) raises her daughter Frederika (Casey Daniel and Ashton Griffin), is a former lover of Frederik and current lover of Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Scott Clark), who’s married to Charlotte (Megan Gackle). Throw in flirtatious maid Petra (Blayke Drury) and there’s more than a few relationships that find themselves in flux.
In most operas, orchestration is integrated with the singing into the work as a whole rather than serving as accompaniment to the onstage performers, Li said. “It’s not just accompaniment, but . . . another character,” she said.
Sondheim, the creator of such celebrated musicials as “Company,” “Follies,” “Into The Woods,” “Sunday In The Park With George” and “Sweeney Todd,” bridges opera and musical theater with his writing. “(‘A Little Night Music’) could be considered Stephen Sondheim’s homage to operetta,” Li said, noting that it’s often performed by opera companies, as are his “Sweeney Todd” and “Into The Woods.”
Conductor and Baylor assistant professor of vocal coaching Jeffrey Peterson agrees. “He’s an interesting combination of classical technique and the ability to write a great tune,” he said. While the composer sometimes sets vocalists in another meter than the orchestra, there are also straightforward gorgeous melodies, such as the musical’s “Send In the Clowns,” a hit for pop singer Judy Collins in 1975.
“Sondheim is really satisfying for us as classical musicians,” Peterson said, adding that the musical has provided Baylor orchestra students with the broader experience of playing to action on stage as well as a conductor’s baton. “The orchestra is having a great time playing this. In fact, we’ve had orchestra members requesting to be in the opera orchestra,” he said.
“A Little Night Music,” its title borrowed, and translated, from the Mozart serenade “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” is double-cast to provide more Baylor singers with onstage experience. Li observed that many regional opera companies are open to new works as well as musical theater productions, giving young singers career opportunities closer to home.
The Baylor Opera Theater production continues its run with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at Jones Theatre in Baylor’s Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Center.