Dream role for globe-trotting star

Daniel Sumegi plays Nourabad in Opera Australia’s 2016 production of The Pearl Fishers. Photo: Keith Saunders

It was an offer that come out of the blue for opera singer Daniel Sumegi to perform alongside Anthony Warlow in the Australian musical Sweeney Todd which opens today (Thursday, June 13) in Sydney. Danny Gocs reports.

NEW YORK-based Australian opera singer Daniel Sumegi spends much of the year travelling around the world to perform with leading opera companies.

For the bass baritone, it has been his life since moving from Sydney to the US in 1991.

When Sumegi returned to Australia this month, it fulfilled a dream that he has harboured since his student days, of playing musical theatre, when he joined the cast led by Anthony Warlow and Gina Riley in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street on the stage in Sydney and Melbourne.

“As a teenager about 40 years ago I had always wanted to be on stage and it was my ambition to be in musical theatre before I started thinking about opera,” he told The AJN by phone from Seattle, where he was performing in the Seattle Opera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen.

“This is my first time doing a musical, which I was thrilled to be able to take part in. It was 40 years ago that Sweeney Todd opened on Broadway, making it a bit serendipitous. And it’s the first time that I have been asked to perform professionally in a musical!”

Daniel Sumegi plays Sarastro in Opera Australia’s The Magic Flute (2016). Photo: Branco Gaica

The musical thriller, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is set around the 19th century story of an unjustly exiled barber Sweeney Todd who returns to London seeking vengeance against the lecherous judge who framed him and ravaged his young wife.

The road to revenge leads to Mrs Lovett, the proprietor of a pie shop, above which Todd opens a new barber shop.

The new concert production by TEG Life Like Company is being staged at Sydney’s Darling Harbour Theatre from Thursday, June 13 until June 16 and at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre from June 20-23.

Anthony Warlow – a veteran of musical theatre with shows such as Phantom of the Opera, Annie and Fiddler on the Roof to his credit – stars as Sweeney Todd, with well-known actor-singer-comedian Gina Riley in the role of Mrs Lovett.

Iconic singer Debra Byrne plays the Beggar Woman, while Michael Falzon has the role of Pirelli and bass baritone Sumegi plays Judge Turpin. Also in the cast is Melbourne Jewish actor Anton Berezin.

Sumegi is looking forward to playing alongside Warlow, who he describes as one of the greatest musical theatre performers in the world.

“I have known Anthony for a very long time – he is a bit older than me and started out in opera singing small roles when I was a student and was an extra at the opera,” he recalled.

“Judge Turpin is the villain of the piece, although Sweeney Todd should be a villain but he is the anti-hero and a vile man.”

Sumegi makes regular visits to Australia for opera roles. Last year he performed in Melbourne Opera’s production of Der Rosenkavalier playing the role of Baron Ochs and Opera Australia’s production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg in the role of Veit Pogner. He also was a soloist at a concert with Melbourne Symphony last year.

After Sumegi has completed Sweeney Todd he will stay in Sydney to spend time with his mother before returning home to New York, where he has lived for the past 25 years.

Next year he is booked to make four trips to Australia for opera productions.

Israeli Opera’s production of Nabucco at Masada in 2010.

In January this year Sumegi was in Israel to perform in Salome for the Israeli Opera, playing the role of Jokanaan in an avant-garde production in Tel Aviv featuring an international cast and set on another planet.

“It was fantastic to work with the Israeli Opera as I had not been to Israel before,” he said. “I recommend anyone to go there and I will be very happy to be invited back.

“I arrived a week early and spent it in Jerusalem, staying with a friend, which made me feel like a local. And I went on a tour of Masada with a private guide who was a leading Israeli archaeologist. It was a wonderful experience.”

In 2010 the Israeli Opera launched an annual outdoor production at the foot of Masada with the fortress as the backdrop under the night sky. That year’s production of Verdi’s Nabucco attracted 50,000 fans from around the world. Other Masada productions included Aida (2011), Carmen (2012) and La Traviata (2014), but it has not been held since 2016.

Sumegi commented: “It is expensive to mount an outdoor production at Masada and it is also limiting in which opera you can stage there – it’s fine for Aida and Nabucco.

“A desert setting with a backdrop of Masada is much more limiting than an opera on Sydney Harbour with a backdrop of the city and the Opera House.”

Being one of opera’s in-demand singers means Sumegi spends a lot of time travelling the world – over the years he has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden and the Paris Opera, as well as with major opera companies across the US, Europe, Asia, South America and Opera Australia.

Among the awards he has won are the 1987 Melbourne Sun Aria, the 1994 New York Metropolitan Opera Contest and the 1995 Placido Domingo Operalia.

“An opera singer’s job is all about travelling. Imagine living out of two suitcases for 9-10 months a year,” he said, noting that while there is glamour to the jetsetting job, the reality is that they usually only stay for a short period.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is at the International Convention Centre from Thursday,  June 13 – Sunday, June 16.  Bookings: premier.ticketek.com.au.