Playing with razors: Stuart Maunder on New Zealand Opera's Sweeney Todd

If he’s at all fazed by directing New Zealand Opera’s Sweeney Todd while also steering the ship as the company’s general director, Stuart Maunder isn’t showing it.

“I wasn’t employed to direct,” he admits, “but by the time I got this gig, I was already heavily involved in Sweeney Todd.” He’s talking about Victorian Opera’s 2015 production of Sweeney, which he returned to Australia to direct after moving to Auckland to join NZO two years ago. So it made sense for him to also direct Sweeney here in 2016, as a co-production with the Australian company. “Melbourne built the set, we built the costumes. I’ve done international co-productions before; it’s no different to working with Royal Rotorua Opera,” he quips.

Sung in English, Sondheim’s thrilling tale follows a barber returning to Victorian London after years in exile, seeking revenge on the judge who ruined his life. “It’s fine, all the blood and gore and gothic humour,” says Maunder, “but at its crux it’s a love story.”

Billing Sweeney as a “musical thriller”, and staging it at Auckland’s home of musical theatre, the Civic, signals an unashamed pursuit of bums for seats. “Is it a musical, is it an opera, what does it matter? It requires voices on an operatic scale,” Maunder says.

Enter an “operatic beast”, Christchurch-born Teddy Tahu Rhodes — a statuesque baritone with quite a following overseas (his abs alone are worthy of their own Instagram account) — as the malevolent barber. Australian soprano Antoinette Halloran is the manipulative Mrs Lovatt, and New Zealand-based performers, including Helen Medlyn and Robert Tucker, also feature.

It’s the third time Maunder has directed Sweeney Todd during a 37-year career, and he’s not taking any risks with props in the wake of St Kentigern College’s production in April, when two cast members were injured by a prop straight razor. Worksafe New Zealand has inspected the razors being used in the NZO production and deemed them safe. In fact, says Maunder, “they’re so blunt, it’s scary”.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Civic Theatre, September 17-24. nzopera.com