Hanging around with a doomed sailor

By Brian Rudman

Opera pin-up boy Teddy Tahu Rhodes seems genuinely impressed by his latest conquest. Opera Australia publicist Emma Williams has admitted to him that towards the end of the final dress rehearsal of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd in Sydney this week, she had tears in her eyes.

For the Christchurch-born baritone, playing the lead role as the doomed sailor Budd, it's a pleasant reminder of the power of opera done well to draw people into the drama.

He admits afterwards that at the spot in the opera which usually triggers the tears, the build-up to Budd's hanging, his mind that night was on other things. He was worrying whether he was in the right position on stage. Regardless, the music and drama was doing its work. "You are not always aware of the profound affect it can have on people."

There'll possibly also be a tear or two shed by some of his fans over his plan to marry up-and-coming New York mezzosoprano Isabel Leonard, 26, in December and set up home in New York.

Rhodes, 42, who has lived out of a suitcase for the past 10 years, says the idea of a permanent home is exciting. If he hasn't had time to build a house in the decade since he escaped Christchurch and a seven-year previous-life as an accountant, it is because he's been concentrating on building an impressive international career _ one built not just on a great voice, but also on his facility with modern works and his "look".

In Melbourne he was plastered topless over the side of city buses to promote his leading role in Andre Previn's operatic version of A Streetcar Named Desire. On YouTube, he is shirtless, in clips from his San Francisco debut as condemned prisoner in Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking.

But as the reviews from his New York Metropolitan Opera debut this year emphasise, he also has a great voice. "I was covered from head to toe," he laughs. "At the Met the only thing you saw of me was my little face. It's nice to be recognised in that way."

He was playing Ned Keene in Britten's Peter Grimes, a performance broadcast worldwide in Metropolitan Opera simulcasts. Rhodes' growing reputation as an interpreter of modern works "just happened".

"I did one, Dead Man Walking, it was a success, and from that everyone thought I could do modern music.

"It's not just opera, I have done premieres of concert works of a lot of stuff first time out. I love doing it."

He says it's hard work and you can't take "the cheat's way" and listen to a recording to help learn it. "Then again, you get to work with the composer and get the real insight."

He hastens to add he still does plenty of classical work as well, but is happy "to have cultivated this modern niche" for himself.

"It's a competitive world and there are countless baritones out there. I am not downplaying myself, but if I was one of the greats, a name that comes on the tip of every tongue when people think of an opera singer, it would be a different story. But there is only a handful of those in the world. Those of us who craft a good career and are lucky enough to be doing what we are doing have to be prepared to broaden our spectrum, make ourselves marketable, I guess."

Being a believable looking sailor as Budd, or Stanley Kowalski (the role made famous on film by Marlon Brando, in Streetcar) also helps in an era where fat ladies are finding it increasingly difficult to find a place to sing.

He is relaxed about the headlines about his good looks. If it improves his marketability, then good. "We can be politically correct and say casting is not about that, but ..."

He hastens to add it's ultimately about the voice, but in an increasingly mobile world if a director has to choose between two singers of the same level, "I guess they'd go for the package they thought was right."

Looking back over the past 10 years, "I can't imagine my life not having gone this way. But it is easy being a fatalist looking back on the journey."

He cringes a bit about the shy raw talent he was when OA hired him back then. So diffident, he failed to turn up for the audition when an OA talent scout flew to Christchurch. "I was like a plank of wood on stage. I hope I have outgrown that."

His first role in Sydney was a success and his career took off. "But there are still days when I turn up at opera houses around the world and I feel uncomfortable at the first few rehearsals. Sometimes you don't always gel with the people you are working with. I tend to find it somehow, but you never can take it for granted."

He hopes basing himself in New York won't mean offers dry up from this part of the world. It's unlikely, given his star status in Australia and continuing appeal in New Zealand. He returns next month for a national tour with the NZSO, which, he says, "I'm really nervous about." His last gig with the flagship orchestra was when he was about 20.

No doubt keeping him company on tour will be his DVD of Whale Rider, to remind him of home and the DVD Rabbitproof Fence, to remind him of his Aussie years.

Rich pickings in the lucky country

Opera Australia's 2009 season of 16 productions - six of them new shows - seems like musical nirvana alongside Opera New Zealand's miserly two offerings. Particularly so if you add in the eight 2008 seasonproductions which Sydney or Melbourne audiences can still catch over the nextthree months.

Among Sydney offerings before the end of the year is their Jenufa, Cheryl Barker taking the title role in Janacek's Makropulos Secret, and Antoinette Halloran, Opera NZ's recent Mimi, reprising her La Bohemerole.

For Handel lovers still disappointed that Xerxes, the secret highlight of next year's Auckland Festival, has been canned, there's a wonderful substitute in the baroque master's Orlando, transferred from Sydney to Melbourne. Then, in mid-2009, there's a baroque double-billing of Handel's Acis and Galatea coupled with Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.

There's even a smattering of Kiwi singers including, according to the publicity, "world-renowned Australian" Teddy Tahu Rhodes, and "outstanding Australian artist" Jud Arthur and our Simon O'Neill.

O'Neill stars as Sergei, Katerina's lover in Shostakovich's gritty Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Rhodes is in Melbourne as Stanley Kowalski in Andre Previn's opera A Streetcar Named Desire, with Halloran as Stella and Yvonne Kenny as Blanche DuBois.

He's also Lescaut, brother of Cheryl Barker's Manon Lescaut in Puccini's opera of the same name. Six new shows include Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, a Graeme Murphy production of Verdi's Aida, a Neil Armfield production of Britten's Peter Grimes and Sondheim's A Little NightMusic.

Jim Harman, legendary director of Hair, The Rocky Horror Show and Jesus Christ Superstar, is producing an English-language version of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte.

Among old favourites returning are The Magic Flute, Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci and The Mikado.

Making their Australia Opera debut along with O'Neill are British sopranos Susan Bullock, Susan Gritton and Claire Rutter, American soprano Tamara Wilson and British conductor Sian Edwards.

Performance

Who: Teddy Tahu Rhodes in Billy Budd
Where and when: Sydney Opera House tonight, and until Oct 16

What: Pacific Blue Tour, with Teddy Tahu Rhodes and the NZSO
Where and when: Various centres incl. Hamilton Founders Theatre Oct 30, Auckland Town Hall Oct 31 and Nov 1

* Brian Rudman travelled to Sydney with the assistance of Air New Zealand

- NZ Herald

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