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Teddy Tahu Rhodes in Opera Australia's A Streetcar Named Desire


By VANESSA TAYLOR


Teddy Tahu Rhodes in his role as "Don Giovanni" for Opera Australia. [Photo:Jeff Busby]

It's interesting that a man as unassuming and reflective as Teddy Tahu Rhodes is best known for portraying some of the greatest cads in opera: Don Giovanni, Count Almaviva, Joe de Rocher, Stanley Kowalski.

Rhodes is currently performing the role of Stanley Kowalski in André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire in Melbourne for Opera Australia. It's been seven years since his debut as Stanley for Austin Opera, Texas. At that time, he decided against reading Tennessee Williams's play or watching the cinema version for which Marlon Brando received an Academy Award nomination.

"I definitely didn't watch the movie, purely because of Brando's influence over the role. It was more of an intimidation factor than anything else. You deal with a character who's so iconic in American society, played by the greatest actor. All the directors I've worked with have said make your own way."

Now, as a veteran of the role through further seasons in Washington, Vienna and Sydney, he has relented and watched the film. "It was interesting to see Brando after I'd done it for myself. It's not just the danger, he's subtle at times. In the opera, the music for Stanley is very powerful. You can't hold back on the singing side of it. The vocal side of it seems to require a robust, dark sound. Watching the movie doesn't suggest that sound, it's not so robust.

"So I have to be very careful not to be aggressive all the time otherwise you lose the Stanley Kowalski a litle bit. The more I do it, the more I try to show another side because if he was all aggression and never tender why would his wife Stella be remotely interested in staying with him?"

Rhodes has searched for ways to colour the role without ever condoning the character's violence. "The reason he's aggressive is because his life's been invaded and turned upside down. There are flashpoints for him. Most of the aggression is motivated by questioning of his character, his status or his ancestry. If you can find a way somewhere for just a little bit of sympathy for Stanley, that means you can understand some of his aggression, though obviously not all of it."

In rehearsals for the current Melbourne season, the physical altercations were carefully co-ordinated. Antoinette Halloran as Stella, and particularly Yvonne Kenny as her sister Blanche, needed to be confident that things would go according to plan during the show.

"We have to know what's going on, but within that, need to make it not too choreographed. It was important Vonnie knew I was always going to be in control when I grabbed her and that she was in control too because physically it's intimidating. Yvonne's been fabulous, She's been thrown around by me half the night, and not only me. It's a tough night for her."

Both the Sydney and Melbourne seasons of Streetcar were directed by Bruce Beresford and Rhodes appreciated his guidance. "This role is both cinematic and stage-driven, and then you add the music. In Bruce it's a privilege to have someone you can trust. He's a very supportive general."

Rhodes in the Viennese production of A Streetcar Named Desire

Rhodes expected an American classic such as Streetcar would transfer well to other English-speaking countries, but was surprised when he was booked for the show in Vienna. The production was mounted in the intimate Theater an der Wien. "I had audience members sitting literally parallel with me when I was down front of the stage. They could almost reach out and touch me at times. With the audience being so much on top of the show in a small space, it can be so much more confronting." To his astonishment, despite being sung in English with German surtitles, the show received the most enthusiastic response he's experienced in his career.

Although he maintains his fitness and good health, he is dubious about his prospects of performing Stanley Kowalski beyond the Melbourne season. "I might be pushing past the right age these days. With certain roles you have to be careful to step aside at the right time. I'd think very seriously before doing the role again. If I got asked, I could probably do it once more, I guess. But because of my schedule, that would be two or three years out from now and that would definitely be it."

Throughout his career, Rhodes has enjoyed the opportunity to sing contemporary music. "Once you get involved and are seen as being able to do it, it's kind of a niche area. Even if you don't necessarily like the music the first time you do it, it's amazing when you look back or do it a second time that it becomes so much more profound as you start to understand it. All the classics we've heard so many times that when we come to them, we know what the tunes are and have an understanding. With Streetcar, probably the casual listener wouldn't think Stanley's got a tune, but I hear the tunes all the time now. And you can hear all the harmonies and what the composer was intending. I think it would be a great show to see three or four times, the way that people see Don Giovanni or La Bohème so many times that they know the music."

Rhodes as Don Giovanni and Jud Arthur as the Commendatore [Photo: Branco Gaica]

Aside from Don Giovanni, Rhodes's favourite role is from Dead Man Walking by composer Jake Heggie. He joined the alternate cast as deathrow prisoner Joe de Rocher in the 2000 world premiere season at San Francisco Opera. "Performing the role moved me to tears night after night. And having contact with Sister Helen Prejean, whom the opera was written about, was amazing.

"The story was so significant in the United States that it almost had a political element. It raised questions with those supporting and those opposing the death penalty standing outside the opera house in San Francisco. The opera had the potential to touch people more deeply there than perhaps here where there is no death penalty."

Dead Man Walking launched Rhodes in the US and he was delighted when Heggie wrote a role for him in his next opera. "Jake was always so emotionally moved by what was done with his work. I was very lucky to do The End of the Affair, though I don't think I was so successful in that. If I had another crack at it now, it'd be a different story."

The cast of Affair was distinctly Australasian. Rhodes played the illicit lover of Cheryl Barker, whose real-life husband Peter Coleman-Wright played her cuckolded stage husband. The opera opened with a sensual love scene between Rhodes and Barker. "It was very funny at times, having Peter sit there in the wings. He was extremely gracious!

Rhodes and Cheryl Barker in Houston Opera's The End of the Affair

"That was the first time I worked with Cheryl and we all had a great time doing it. Peter is the guy I look up to as a baritone singing in Australia, so working with him was quite intimidating at first. He's a lot more experienced than I am and done a lot more than I have or ever will do. I still go to him for advice at times."

Another supporter of Rhodes has been Simone Young, who conducted his first Don Giovanni. "I've always had the greatest respect for her. She has been a wonderful mentor for me." A few years ago, Young conducted Rhodes in Henze's L'Upupa at Hamburg State Opera, where she is musical director. "That was a real challenge for me, my goodness. Singing German in a German house. I'd love to have a chance to do it again. It's strange, even now just into my early 40s, I feel capable of dealing with so much more than I did even two or three years ago. When you attack a very difficult work, it's hard to be completely satisfied with it. You can always look back and think you could have done it a whole lot better. Maybe you think a little bit differently about it now, but it's gone by that stage. You just have to accept it and move onto the next thing."

Rhodes in L'Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe, Staatsoper Hamburg 2006

In 2008, Rhodes made his debut at the Met as Ned Keene in Peter Grimes. "The Met is somewhere I didn't imagine I'd ever ascend to, though I was surprisingly relaxed once I got there. Once you walked through the doors you were treated like anyone else was treated. And like anywhere else, you're expected to do the best job you can possibly do. But walking out on the enormous Met stage was quite daunting. I've been on a lot of stages and tend to know how to sing out to an audience but when I got on that stage for the first time I found myself glued to the conductor. He kept saying ‘No, no, Teddy, you can look out to the house, you're fine. Don't worry, you know what you're doing.’ It was just that I wasn't used to seeing such wide space. You can't take the whole space in when you sing there, it's so big."

He has managed to keep his Met appearances in perspective. "As you grow and start to ascend to different levels in a career, the pressure comes more from yourself, but the excitement never goes. There are so many points that you can look at and say ‘that's amazing’. I never imaged when I was working as an accountant in Christchurch that I would ever stand on the Sydney Opera House stage. That was equally amazing to me. If I hadn't played Dandini in La Cenerentola there, my very first role for Opera Australia; if it hadn't been for that, none of the rest of it would have happened.

"It's still exciting to stand on a new stage, wherever that might be. There's a huge profile attached to singing at the Met and rightly so, but it's also amazing to be singing André Previn's music with Bruce Beresford directing and Orchestra Victoria playing here in Melbourne. Once you get on the stage, regardless of where you are, you get immersed in what you're doing. It's afterwards you take stock of what you've been involved in."

Rhodes in the Washington production of A Streetcar Named Desire

Recently, he teamed with popular tenor David Hobson. They became acquainted when Rhodes moved to Australia from New Zealand and first shared the stage at an Opera Australia concert several years ago. Plans were made for the two to work on a project together which eventuated in recording the album You'll Never Walk Alone late in 2009 and a national tour this year. "We're a mutual fan club for each other. With the tour we did, in every corner of Australia, people would know him and love him. He's a wonderful entertainer and artist."

Last year Rhodes married Met regular Isabel Leonard. They met at Sante Fe where he was appearing as Billy Budd and Leonard was singing Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro. "She is a wonderful mezzo, I'm always in awe of her performances. But mostly she's just my wife and I'm just her husband. We've been married a year on December 14th and I arrive back in New York after Streetcar at nine-thirty on the night of the 13th.

"Obviously the next two years are difficult because our commitments are pretty much set in stone, but from somewhere in 2011 we're trying to find times where we can at least be on the same continent together, or in the same show or even the same season together. That's the plan." The couple is currently looking for a suitable residence in New York, and ideally would also maintain a permanent base in Sydney to accommodate Rhodes's Australian commitments. "If you're going to be somewhere for any length of time, it's nice to go home to your own place rather than a rented corporate apartment or hotel. It'd be nice to turn up and have your books and your own cooking pans. I don't complain about what I do, it's great, but it could be even better."

On his days off from the trials of the Kowalski household, Rhodes has been studying the score of Figaro for his return to Opera Australia in 2010. He's accepted the challenge to sing Figaro while his usual role of Count Almaviva will be taken by Peter Coleman-Wright.


Opera Australia

Opera~Opera Teddy Tahu Rhodes article 2007



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