Girls of Summer
SCOTT BARNES steps out with KAREN ZIEMBA, Mrs. Lovett in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis's new Sweeney Todd.
When casting Nellie Lovett in its new production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis turned to triple-threat Broadway baby Karen Ziemba. A four-time Tony nominee (and one-time winner, for Contact), Ziemba performed on the stage of New York City Opera in 110 in the Shade and The Most Happy Fella, but her connection to the opera world doesn't stop there: her grandmother was Winifred Heidt, the leading NYCO Carmen of her day. "She also did Carousel with Jo Sullivan Loesser and Barbara Cook," says Ziemba, "so crossing over is not new in my family!"
OPERA NEWS caught up with Ziemba while she was in final rehearsals at San Diego's Old Globe for a new musical version of E. M. Forster's A Room With a View,in which she plays Charlotte, the fussy spinster cousin played by Maggie Smith in the 1985 Merchant–Ivory film. "I'm a little crazed right now, because St. Louis wants Sweeney memorized before we get there. I have my work cut out for me! Nellie is really the engine of the show — the light to Sweeney's dark."
Although the role of Mrs. Lovett is rangy, most of it is what the Italians would deem centrale — it may touch the occasional high or low note, but it lies in the middle (often treacherous waters for classically trained women's voices). Most of her big numbers are patter songs where the emphasis is on the text and rhythmic precision.
St. Louis's Sweeney, which plays for eight performances this May and June, pits Ziemba opposite the demon barber of Rod Gilfry. The cast also includes Susanne Mentzer as the Beggar Woman and a former Sweeney Todd, Timothy Nolen, repeating his award-winning performance as the evil Judge Turpin. Does Ziemba find the notion of being surrounded by honest-to-God opera singers daunting? "I've been doing eight shows a week for years, with and without amplification. Actually, I find the days off between shows [Sweeney plays in repertory with three other operas] a little strange, but it is probably a good thing, singing-wise. I think that opera audiences have different expectations. It's very important for us to hit those money notes!"
Although she still has legs that go up to ... there, and she could step right back into her Broadway role of Chicago's Roxie Hart, Ziemba wisely has chosen to explore character roles that rely more on her dramatic and comedic skills. She also feels the responsibility of leading by example when she is the star of a show — as was once the norm in the opera and theater. "You set a tone, do your work and collaborate. Having been trained as a ballet dancer, my orientation is to be part of an ensemble — to push through the pain and get on with it. People call in sick a lot more than they used to. I was very blessed to work with Jerry Orbach, who set a really beautiful example. As the star of a show, so much of it is how I conduct myself in the workplace and out of it. You don't have to be a nun, but it all shakes down. I start rehearsal with an open heart and mind, and I'm just glad to be there!"