Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Sweeney Todd returns for a meaty night out at the opera

Teddy Tahu Rhodes (centre) leads the cast of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Teddy Tahu Rhodes (centre) leads the cast of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

You know how it is when somebody tells you not to talk about something: it becomes the elephant in the room - the taboo topic that must not be addressed - yet you remain curious and possibly a little distracted.

Are you about to overstep the mark? Would it hurt to delve just a little bit?

So it is with opera singer Teddy Tahu Rhodes; the confirmation of an interview with the star of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street comes with a caveat that the Christchurch born and raised bass baritone will not discuss his private life.

He's an opera singer - one of our most successful - but how rock 'n' roll can it be?

If you read the women's magazines, you'll know and it's not that salacious: just an ordinary man, with an extraordinary talent, being human and living life. In any event, I don't talk about it.

I do ask how he feels about being dubbed the "Brad Pitt of the opera world" and he blushes, rolls his eyes and answers with a self-effacing smile.

"I think Brad Pitt would be horrified if he saw a picture of me and was told we were being compared."

So, after the interview, admittedly having been in Rhodes' company for just 45 minutes (there was a media lunch a couple of years ago, too), I come up with a theory: he'd simply be too embarrassed to discuss anything outside of work. He might be tall and imposing-looking, but Rhodes is one of the most shy, self-deprecating people I've interviewed.

On stage, though, he rules supreme. His CV runs to two and a half pages and notes he "sings a wide-ranging repertoire, notable for several world and Australian premiere performances..."

In the past two years alone, Rhodes has performed (again) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, debuted in Chicago and Dallas, taken the lead roles in South Pacific, The King and I and Don Giovanni for Opera Australia, debuted the role of Mephistopheles in Faust, performed with several Australian symphony orchestras and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and in a new work written by Barry Humphries at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

Now he's coming home as the eponymous Sweeney Todd in a co-production between New Zealand Opera and Victorian Opera of the Stephen Sondheim classic. It was created by NZ Opera's director Stuart Maunder with Tony Award-winning designer Roger Kirk and lighting designer Philip Lethlean and touches down in NZ following a successful season in Melbourne last year.

The promo material describes it as a "theatrical horror", but there's been nothing horrific about it so far with reviews which claim it is "magnificent", "revelatory" and a "superb union of technical, musical and artistic balance".

There's a "killer cast" led by Rhodes and Australian soprano Antoinette Halloran in the role of Mrs Lovatt. Other locals include Phillip Rhodes (no relation), Amelia Berry, James Benjamin Rodgers, Andrew Glover and newcomer Joel Granger, while Helen Medlyn has a star turn in the pivotal role of the Beggar Woman.

"It's a great production," Rhodes says, "a classic Sondheim opera with dark sides, but set cleverly in the realm of urban legend so there's a great mixture of emotion and action. It's very satisfying from an audience's point of view."

Able to perform in classical operas and the (possibly) more commercial musical theatre, he's a fan of both, but acknowledges roles like Sweeney demand more in terms of expression and spoken word performance.

"It's difficult hearing your own voice, reading a line from a piece of paper, but I love both because I get the chance to sing," says Rhodes, adding that he regularly performs with orchestras and that's amazing, too.

"Standing in front of an orchestra and making music with them; there's nothing quite like it."

But it almost didn't happen. Always a talented singer, Rhodes joined the New Zealand Youth Choir and won the 1986 Dame Sister Mary Leo Scholarship competition, but opted to study commerce.

In 1991, he won the-then Mobil Song Quest (now the Lexus Song Quest) and, as part of the prize, studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. They wanted him to stay, even offered him a scholarship for a further two years, but Rhodes came home and started work as an accountant. He decided singing would be a hobby because he couldn't see how to make a career out of it; and didn't think he was good enough.

"I was nervous about it, so I took the easy option."

But he kept in touch with Canterbury Opera and, in the late 1990s, was urged to audition for Opera Australia's production of La Cenerentola (based on Cinderella). Rhodes was meant to fly across the Ditch for an audition, but never fronted saying the thought of it was just too overwhelming.

So Opera Australia came here and promptly offered him a role. Rhodes, describing himself as "paralysed with fear", decided to give it a try simply because so many friends and colleagues had faith in him. He says the fact that no one knew him in Australia - they had no "pre-conceived ideas about me" - also made it easier.

"I was no good on stage, though," he recalls. "In one of the early rehearsals, they stopped it and spent an hour or so with the director teaching me how to walk from one side of the stage to the other, but they had faith in me.

"The chorus rallied around me but when I got out there ... the moment before I go on is always tough, but once you're out there and that curtain goes up, you can't just disappear, so you might as well do your best, make the most of it."

And make the most of it the now multi-award-winning Rhodes has done. He can't say why companies keep hiring him - maybe it's his range; maybe it's because he doesn't look like your average opera singer (if there's such a thing) and that opens up a greater range of parts.

Now 50, he wants to keep singing for as long as he can and says his voice is stronger than ever. He's being offered roles he thought he'd never get and loving every moment. Reflecting on his early reluctance to commit to a full-time career, he now believes it was the right move.

"I was 23 when I was first offered those opportunities; by the time I took them, I was 32 and at a better stage in life physically and able to cope with the demands of a performance career."

Would it have been a good life if he'd remained a Christchurch accountant who did a bit of singing on the side?

"Absolutely. Singing would still have been my great passion; I've always loved the outlet and the creative side of it."

What: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Where & when: The Civic, 17-24 September 17 - 24; St James Theatre, Wellington, September 30 - October; Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch, October 12 - 15

- NZ Herald

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