One the country’s most versatile performers, Teddy Tahu Rhodes gets back to his roots.
With one of the most recognisable profiles in classical music in Australia, Teddy Tahu Rhodes is an artist who has conquered both the operatic and musical theatre worlds. On the back of the stratospheric success of the recent productions South Pacific, Don Giovanni and The King and I, Tahu Rhodes has well and truly earned his star status.
Being in demand is something that Teddy Tahu Rhodes has had to become accustomed to. While the pressure associated with continually performing is something that he readily admits is self-inflicted, it’s apparent that even for this seasoned professional, his current workload is confronting. Tahu Rhodes could do well to channel the philosophy of the King of Siam as he contemplates his forthcoming engagements over the coming months. In the words of Rogers and Hammerstein’s King, “If my Lord in Heaven Buddha show the way! Everyday I do my best for one-more day!”
Teddy Tahu Rhodes was born in Christchurch, New Zealand to a British mother and a New Zealand father. The Maori word Tahu means “to set on fire.” As his recent appearances for Opera Australia attest, Tahu Rhodes, has been setting box office ablaze.
Tahu Rhodes with Lisa McCune in The King and I
Smashing all box office records, The King and I holds the title as the highest selling show ever staged at the Sydney Opera House, with Tahu Rhodes playing opposite Lisa McCune in the lead role in the musical. The production was seen by over a quarter of a million people during its national tour.
How does Tahu Rhodes view the current successes of The King and I and South Pacific? “I’ve been very lucky to have done those,” he admits. “I always wanted to do a musical, never thought I’d get the chance but I’ve had the privilege of doing two. It’s been great.”
Following these monumental achievements, it may come as a surprise to learn that he has chosen to perform on a country property in March 2015, when he appears at Opera in the Paddock near Inverell in north-west NSW.
Tahu Rhodes candidly reveals he’s “very excited to be coming.” While it has been several years since he has performed at an outdoor concert such as this, he acknowledges the thrill that this kind of performance offers. “Some of the best concerts I’ve done, and the most interesting, have been places that are somewhat out of the way or extraordinary,” he shares.
Those who have been fortunate enough to attend Opera in the Paddock in the past, would heartily agree with this description. Held annually in March on a warm and balmy night, an idyllic paddock is transformed into a natural amphitheatre. The audience is transported by the superlative strains of the country’s greatest singers performing under the stars.
The event provides a unique opportunity to experience an outstanding cast accompanied by the Mimosa Orchestra, performing in the magical surrounds of the Australian bush, with its superb natural acoustics.
Tahu Rhodes recognises what it is that makes these performances special. “Because they’re often far more community based, there’s such a buzz about the community getting behind it.”
It is precisely this community spirit that comes to the fore when rural communities find themselves grappling with harsh conditions. At the suggestion that having a performer of his calibre appear will lift people’s spirits in the current dry, he responds with the exceptional modesty for which he is renown. “My goodness…I’ll be surprised if anyone knows me up there!”
“You know music has a great calming influence on people. We take it for granted that it’s always there, but it can give so much joy. Hopefully it will be an evening where everyone forgets what’s going on” he adds.
It turns out that Tahu Rhodes has a great affinity with the country. “In New Zealand I actually grew up working on farms, certainly in my teenage years. My family, my cousins, all had farms. In fact my mother and father first had a farm when they first came to New Zealand in Canterbury.
Tahu Rhodes appreciates that there may be a lot of people living in the bush who haven’t had the opportunity to experience opera. What would he say to people who may have an inherent fear of it?
“Music has a great calming influence on people. We take it for granted that it’s always there, but it can give so much joy”
“I think just the word opera can be quite intimidating. I didn’t grow up with opera at all, opera was something which I fell into. I had a cousin whose farm I was working on who was a bit older than me and we’d sit driving around the farm in his ute and he’d have classical music playing on the radio and it’d drive me nuts. This is when I was fourteen or fifteen and ‘I’d say “Cousin David, could we have something else on?’
Cousin David’s response that ‘One day you’ll appreciate how good this music is,’ while taken with a grain of salt, has never been forgotten and ultimately proved transformational for Tahu Rhodes. “I’ve always remembered it because it was referring to classical music really.”
Tahu Rhodes continues “I love all sorts of music. I love pop music, modern music, classical music, every style of music. If you start labelling it, then you can feel out of your comfort zone. Opera’s just a name. There’s some fabulous music in it so I wouldn’t be intimidated or frightened of it at all … it’s just music.” Perhaps it is this philosophy that has powered Tahu Rhodes throughout his career. As a member of the school choir at an all-boys private school in Christchurch, he later joined the New Zealand Youth Choir, winning competitions for his singing.
There was to be no natural progression towards a gilded career path for Tahu Rhodes however. Completing his Bachelor of Commerce degree while singing on the side, Tahu Rhodes went on to attend the prestigious Guildhall School in London. Despite being offered a scholarship for a further two years, he turned it down and returned to New Zealand to work as an accountant.
After six years as an accountant, while continuing to perform around Christchurch, he was spotted by representatives of Opera Australia. Through a series of circumstances a role became available. Tahu Rhodes was finally ready to take the leap of faith. In 1998, at the age of 31 he resigned from his job and made his international debut as Dandini in Opera Australia’s production of La Cenerentola. He allowed himself five years to find success as a singer, and success came from almost every corner of the globe. He has appeared extensively, both as a concert soloist and in leading opera roles, with opera companies and orchestras across Australia, Europe and the United States, earning himself armfuls of critical plaudits. But of all of his many critical and artistic successes, is there one moment, above all others, that stands out for this talented performer?
“I often get asked what’s been my favourite performance or where’s my favourite place to sing. It’s just too difficult to say because every time I stand up in front of an orchestra or in a new venue, that particular moment is all I think about.
“The audience that you have at that particular point in time is as important as any other audience… they are the most important people and the music you are about to sing is the most important thing to do. You can perform in the most wonderful places but it’s really just about the thrill you get of being in the music and that the people love hearing it and get pleasure out of it.”
It seems that he has come full circle, back to the Buddhism of the King. Asked whether there is a spiritual dimension to his performances Tahu Rhodes responds “I’m certainly a very different person when I get on stage. I think you have to be. I guess you go to a place which is, for the five minutes you’re singing the piece, or the three hours that you’re on stage, that’s your focus.”
When he’s not focussing on stage, how does he switch off the world? For those who have had the opportunity to witness the extremely toned performer scantily clad on stage, his response will come as no surprise. “I’m a fitness fanatic so I go and distract myself either with sport and exercise. I do things which are unrelated to my work which I’m sure most people love doing – getting away from what they actually do the rest of the time.”
This response provides the perfect cue to make reference to his abs to which he laughs. “I’m almost 50!” he states. “Well I’m 48 now so, you know, that was a while ago, we do our best with what we’ve got” he says in a way which would make the King proud.
And what does life hold beyond the King? “Having done musicals, it’s given me a different perspective but ultimately, so much depends on what other people think you are able to do. For longevity, it’s great being able to stick to what you’re actually good at because there are many, many people better at other things in other fields than I am, so I’d probably like to stick to opera. But if someone asks me to do something else, then I’d be thrilled to take up the challenge if I could.
“I think my future probably lies in opera, given that that’s where I started but you never know. I never thought I’d be playing the king in the King and I so you just never know what tomorrow’s going to hold.”
Does Tahu Rhodes see performing in musical theatre as paving the way to encouraging people to seek an opera experience, or are the two very much separate?
“It might. It’s a hard one because I’m at the other end of the spectrum. I’m just on stage performing. I don’t see the results of what happens with the cross-over of audiences. The King and I was a collaboration between John Frost Productions and Opera Australia. You can be sure that when a company like Opera Australia and John Frost put something on, whatever they put on, it will be wonderful. Audiences are drawn to something which is fabulous. I think that’s the key to it. Whatever you produce has got to be top shelf.
And to those purists who are critical of the musical theatre cross-over Tahu Rhodes affirms: “Some people don’t think I shouldn’t be cast in those things. If you look deep enough, or begin to look too deep, you’ll find those who didn’t think I should have been cast.”
None of that matters for the man of the moment however as he contemplates what’s to come at Opera in the Paddock in March.
“When I stand up in the Paddock, that will be the most important place I’ve sung. Because that will be at that point in time that will be the most important place I need to be and it will be the most wonderful place to be. I get the chance to do what I love doing and there’ll be people out there who are there to have a great time. It’ll be special just by being there. It’ll be amazing.”
Opera in the Paddock takes place 21 March 2015 in Inverell, NSW. For tickets and information visit the Opera in the Paddock website.