When Teddy Tahu Rhodes walks out of stage door at His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth to meet me, I immediately regret my choice to wear flats. The 6’5” bass-baritone is in town to play Scarpia in Tosca for West Australian Opera, and seeing as this follows hot on the heels of his brilliant portrayal of Sweeney Todd for New Zealand Opera last year, I can’t help but ask him whether he thinks he’s ever going to get to play someone nice again. “Nah, I’m too old for that now!”
Still, these villainous counterparts couldn’t be more different to the man sitting opposite me. To fall into the cliché, he is indeed the gentlest of giants, and it quickly becomes clear that there is one great love of this man’s life: music.
His palpable enthusiasm catches me off guard. I had expected him to be jaded after decades of a life lived on and off planes, filled with relentless schedules and prying tabloids. Instead, when he talks about the first time he saw a symphony orchestra live, his eyes light up like the proverbial kid in a candy store.
“Most of all, I was astounded by how balletic the strings were in the way they moved together. It was just amazing.” Rhodes goes on to gush about his love for Mahler’s songs. When he absent-mindedly hums a phrase to illustrate a point, I’m snapped back to the reality that the bloke sipping a beer opposite me is the owner of one of the greatest instruments in the game today.
The next time we’ll hear that voice with the APO will be in August for Magic of the Musicals. “I can’t wait to come back; I genuinely love working with the APO – and I promise that’s not interview speak.”
Although his first foray into professional musicals as Emile de Becque in South Pacific (GFO/Opera Australia) marked a departure from the operatic world where he’d made his name professionally, it was actually just bringing him full circle: the first song his singing teacher gave him as a youngster was ‘Some Enchanted Evening’. Anyway, as far as Rhodes is concerned, musicals and opera aren’t that different. “In the end it’s all just great music telling great stories. And I see my job being the same in both: I just try to be real.”
However, talk of his early days brings up a traumatic memory: his having been overlooked for the role of Curly in the Christ College, Christchurch school production of Oklahoma. “Didn’t make the cut,” he says with a wry smile. He was cast in the supporting role of Jud instead – the villain, incidentally.
He hasn’t lived in the country of his childhood for quite some time now, but reassures me that he’ll always be a New Zealander. “You can’t take your country out of your soul. I adore living in Australia, but there’s a comfort I feel when I come back to my home country. You step off the plane, smell the air, and you fit right back in.”
We depart so that he can get his head together for opening night, a performance that proves to be revelatory. Talking afterwards to the director of that production, New Zealand Opera General Director Stuart Maunder, who’ll also direct Rhodes in Magic of the Musicals, he gave a perfect summary of what sets this monolithic man apart.
“My favourite review of Teddy’s Sweeney said that he sang ‘as though his lungs were a haunted cave’. What I love most about him is that he’s an open book, he lays everything bare and it’s raw and real and very exciting: perfect qualities for the heart-on-your-sleeve territory of musicals. When somebody steps on stage, you want to feel that there’s nothing more important to them at that moment than making music, and that’s what you get with Ted every time he comes out of the wings