Susan Bullock
Susan Bullock
Photo by Christina Raphaelle

Houston Grand Opera Stages Sweeney Todd, Pies and All

With her pastry shop on the decline and the prospect of a life sinking even further into poverty, Mrs. Lovett decides upon drastic, gruesome measures to keep her business going and to try to improve her fortunes in life.

Yes, it's Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Susan Bullock plays the lethal lady in Houston Grand Opera's upcoming production of the story of the woman who's not above popping a little human flesh into her pies and the disturbed man who becomes embroiled in her enterprise.

This venture is a first for Bulllock, an opera singer who's done everything from Puccini's Madame Butterfly to Wagner's Ring to Strauss's Elektra (considered one of the bloodiest operas so maybe it was good training for her role in Sweeney Todd).

"It's very challenging. Sondheim is very clever. He's a genius and his music is tricky. It's really quite difficult music. The words are incredible and just the odd change of the rhyme," Bullock says. "Then there's all the spoken dialogue. In my normal repertoire I don't speak a word. And I have to conquer a cockney accent."

Bullock, who grew up in Manchester, England, the daughter of two police officers, said she was originally going to be a pianist but she had to have two "arts" areas to apply to a local academy and when the people there heard her sing they told her she might want to rethink that.

Describing her character, Bullock says: "She's the sort of Lady Macbeth of this opera. She is the power behind the throne. She's very sharp-witted, has her eye on everything all the time. But there's also a part of her that I find quite touching. Basically, she just wants to be married and have a family, and have a normal kind of life. She really does like Toby the young boy but she knows in the end he is going to have to go, he's going to have to go the same way as everybody else because she ultimately driven by a wish to elevate herself socially. She is a monster, but there are sides to her."

Asked why the show has been such a success, Bullock laughs and says: "It's ghastly really but people just love it. The melodies are great."

Performances of Sweeney Todd are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sunday from April 24 through May 9 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, visit houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-6737. $18 to $370.

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