August 2007

Rhodes wows them in Paris


"I love Paris in the Springtime" could be Teddy Tahu Rhodes's theme song after a season of Carmen at the Châtelet.

This French connection was initiated two years ago in London when Rhodes auditioned for Châtelet's John Elliot Gardiner and Jean-Pierre Brossman for the role of Escamillo. He was successful, and two years later found himself in Paris.

Singing a French opera in France has been both an honor as well as challenge for him, and he is very grateful for the unusually long five-week rehearsal period as it gave him time to refine his French accent. Adding: "After all, there are no surtitles, the acoustics are great and the local audience want to understand every word, so you must be respectful of the language and you are certainly more conscious of it in the country of the opera's origin."

Obviously the audience found him and his diction to their liking on the night I attended (May 22). His entrance aria and his final curtain- call both received tumultuous applause. He admits that he has been surprised at the number of Australians and New Zealanders in the audience and was rather "chuffed to find a tour of 30 Kiwis in the opening night audience." The entire season was booked-out apart from a few seats behind pillars.

The Châtelet audience is a composite of Parisians and tourists and its eclectic programs cater to all tastes. The theatre's history goes back to the early 19th century when it was known as the Théâtre-Imperial built on the site of the old Châtelet prison. After the fall of Napoleon III the theatre reopened under its present name in 1871, and boasted of having the largest auditorium in Paris.

For many years the Châtelet also produced musical comedies which drew huge crowds of Parisians with shows like Le Beau Voyage d'un Enfant de Paris based on Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days which had 25 revivals in 65 years.

However, it was the arrival of Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe that led to the "Paris Seasons" at the Châtelet. This began with the French premiere of Salome under Strauss in 1907 featuring Emmy Destinn in the title role and ballerina Natalia Truhavnova performing the dance of the seven veils. Premieres of Stravinsky's ballets Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), The Rite of Spring (1913), Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1912) and Eric Satie's Parade, danced and choreographed by Massine with sets and costumes by Picasso, followed. In this manner the Châtelet became the home of some of the early 20th-century's most avant-garde productions.

Nearly a century later this theatre is still producing new, exciting works as well as many of the tried-and-true opera classics. Many Opera~Opera readers will recall Pierre Strosser's Châtelet production of The Ring in Adelaide in 1999. The 2006-7 season included Francis Lopez' operetta Le Chanteur de Mexico; Rameau's comédie-ballet Les Paladins; Candide; Rossini's La Pietra del Paragone, a concert version of Shostakovich's Katerina Ismailova; Bach's St. John Passion; Thaïs and Carmen.

This production, from Berlin's Staatsoper unter den Linden, focuses on death. The opera opens with Don José (Nikolai Schukoff) facing the firing squad; a scene that is reprised in the finale when, having stabbed Carmen (Sylvie Brunet), he again faces the gunmen and this time he is shot. However, the murder and mayhem continues as Micaëla (Genia Kuhmeier) is hit by a stray bullet and the gored and bloody body of Escamillo is stretchered across the stage.

Laughingly Rhodes admits that even though he has performed Carmen in Munich, Houston and Austin, Texas, as well as Lindy Hume's Opera Australia production, he has never died in the role before. Adding philosophically: "I suppose with all the thousands of Carmens performed annually, they have to think of something different. It's an interesting take on this French classic."

Rhodes sees Escamillo as an outsider. "He really doesn't have any soul and I find it hard to get under his skin. I can honestly say that it is the hardest role I do - to make something of him in a relatively short time on stage. So I try to make him understated, but of course it all depends on the director. However it's really about singing the first aria and if you don't sing that well, you may as well not turn up for the duet!"

In his spare time between performances of Carmen he has been preparing for the title role in Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah which he will be singing in New Zealand later in the year. Surprisingly it is a work he has not sung before. "Even as a choir boy" I ask? "No, never," he replies.

He admits that the life of a touring/freelance artist has both advantages and disadvantages. He has really enjoyed the Parisian spring when, between rehearsing and performing he has been able to walk around and get to know the city. However, he has left the crowded museums to the tourists, preferring to explore back streets rather than crowded thoroughfares. During his stay he has adopted a small café where he breakfasts close to the theatre each morning and this is also where we meet for our interview over coffee. He's greeted as a regular.

For Rhodes the other or negative side of international touring is that it precludes a family life-style, and even though his partner joined him for a while in Paris, he always seems to be travelling. "It's a decision you have to make," he adds ruefully.

However, his face lights up with a wicked grin as he contemplates his next gig. He'll be returning to his beloved Opera Australia to sing Stanley Kowalski in the Australian premiere of André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire. Unlike the rest of the cast, Rhodes has sung the role before: firstly in Austin, Texas; then in Washington, DC with the composer conducting; and then recently (just prior to Carmen in Paris) at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. "So I know it," he adds, "but it will a new experience singing it for OA when it opens in Sydney."

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