The New Zealand bass-baritone is famous for his portrayal of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but in recent years, he’s proved his versatility in Rodgers and Hammerstein roles. We caught up with Teddy Tahu Rhodes between the Brisbane season of The King and I and the beginning of Sydney rehearsals for Don Giovanni.
How have you found the experience of performing the King (a mostly non-singing role) in The King and I?
It was very challenging, even intimidating at first. I had to get out of my comfort zone. But it’s something I have always wanted to do – a straight acting role – and that was it. It’s been enormous fun. You give it your best shot and it’s up to the audience to decide if they like what you do. We’ve had big crowds and lots of standing ovations in Brisbane, so I guess I’m doing something right.
You’re about to start rehearsals for Don Giovanni. What do you do day to day to keep your voice in shape?
While I was in Brisbane I had one of the pianists playing on the show rehearse with me most days. We’d get together and I’d sing through repertoire that I needed to prepare. I’m always preparing something – for an opera or a concert or another gig. I never just rest and stop singing. You can’t, otherwise you’d lose stamina, you’d lose your edge. You can’t afford to do that. It’s like training a muscle. If you stop going to the gym for six weeks, it’s very hard when you go back.
What is it about Mozart’s Don Giovanni that continues to appeal to people?
I was speaking to some patrons about this earlier this week. We were discussing that however many operas you hear, it’s always a pleasure to come back to Mozart. I think in many ways, Don Giovanni is the perfect opera. It’s got humour, it’s got darkness, it’s got drama, and it’s got a moral story in a way. Ultimately, you can’t get away from the music. It’s an opera – so be it Tosca or be it Eugene Onegin - all of the great operas have appeal because we’re moved by the wonderful music.
You’ve played the role many times before. Are you looking forward to working with director David McVicar on a new production?
I just love playing this role. I’ve been doing it for 10 or 12 years now, so it’s very fortunate that someone wants me to do it again. McVicar is an icon in the world of opera, so I’m really looking forward to discovering his vision.
Is the character Don Giovanni an ageing lothario, a rapist and murderer or just a master in seduction? What’s your take?
I can only speak about the way I’ve played him before, and I think you can take all of those facets to create the character. I’m not sure yet what David McVicar wants for the character in this new production, so I’ll have to wait and see. I’m looking forward to working with him and trying to present his vision.
Your voice is deepening as you get older. What kind of roles can we look forward to seeing you in?
The great thing about getting older is that you get to play the roles you couldn’t when you were young. It’s a transition into some of the older characters, some of the more interesting, darker roles. Truthfully, you can find something interesting in every role you play, even the small ones.
When you come to Sydney, where are your favourite places to hang out?
It depends where I stay, really. It doesn’t matter what city I’m in, I generally hang around the area I’ve made my home. I love to find new cafés and make myself a part of that area. I usually find one that I love that becomes my home for six weeks or so.
After a stressful rehearsal, we’re most likely to find you…
I tend to go home, have a beer and turn on the television to find some mindless sport. I don’t have any tried and tested routines, but whether it’s a stressful rehearsal or a good rehearsal, you have to find a way to switch off when you get home.
During one of my very first operas in Australia, the director stopped the rehearsal, took me aside and showed me how to walk on stage – for an hour. I was so green as a performer. I got home and felt completely depleted and embarrassed. But the next day, you’ve got to get up and go back and do the same thing again. It never gets any different. You still have those days where you have to brush yourself off and go back to work. There are far worse things in life than having a stressful day on the stage.
What are some of the unexpected benefits of your unusual career?
There are the obvious things, like the travel, and the people you meet. But the thing about opera singing, is that as a young performer, you have no idea whether you’re going to be successful or not. You turn up for work everyday. You’re not sure if your next contract is going to be around the corner. You can’t foresee the future. But as long as people want me to keep singing, I’ll keep singing.
Watch Teddy Tahu Rhodes sing an excerpt from Don Giovanni’s famous Champagne aria: