Kevin Burdette as Mr. Todd

We all know Austin is weird (just think of the local government response to the ice storm), but I did not realise until this week the fascination held by many on the subject of cannibalism.

The Sondheim opera Sweeney Todd just finished a spectacular run at the Long Centre. In fact, it was announced as being the biggest seat-selling production in Austin Opera history! Even though there were a few empty seats the day I was there, it was technically sold out. Perhaps a lucky few took a very special backstage tour and never returned.

One wonders who is more pleased by this opera: Sweeney Todd or Jonathan Swift. For those tender souls who have never read his Modest Proposal book from the year 1729, it makes a perfectly sensible case for reducing the excess population of infants in Ireland. The same frisson of excitement that greeted this satiric exploration of cannibalism is evident in Sweeney Todd.

The concept behind the opera is a very OLDE English one, going back to Tudor times. By 1830 a melodrama was playing in London that featured a barber shaving meat for pies. It was presented not in the posh West End theatres, but rather in the working-man’s districts in houses known as ‘blood-tubs.’ It was this play by George Dibdin-Pitt that was reworked in 1966 and performed in the town of Stoke-on-Trent. In the mid-1970s the play made it to London, where Stephen Sondheim saw it. He transformed it from a farcical play to an opera, which had its world premiere on Broadway in 1979.

The result is a delicious opera, with a tasty plot and savoury music. A true gourmand’s delight!

If you find yourself hungering for more after seeing this opera, find a video of Babycakes by Neil Gaiman. Originally published in 1990 in comics form, it was more recently turned into a 4 ½ minute video. Both it and Swift’s novel are currently being used as teaching tools in American high schools.

I’m not going to give away the ending of the opera, but if you think it a bit strange that a married couple cannot recognise one another after some passage of time, it is actually a plot device used by Homer: in the Odyssey, Penelope did not realise her husband Odysseus was standing right before her.

The principal cast were all outstanding. Kevin Burdette as Mr. Todd was mesmerizingly evil. Mela Dailey as Mrs. Lovett (whose bakery sold the meat pies) was full of spice. Mark Diamond as Anthony handled his arias superbly and Raven McMillon as Johanna was entrancing. Scenic design by R. Keith Brumley was especially fine.

If you are still a bit squeamish about seeing it sometime, just think of the opera as a big heaping bowl of chopped liver. Tuck in with a cannibal fork, and enjoy.

Kudos to Austin Opera for serving up the best meat pies in town to liven up a difficult Winter in Austin!


The 2023-24 Season has been announced: Pagliacci, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, and Carmen

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Kevin Burdette as Mr. Todd

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.