Allerta!: Was seeing Bartlett Sher’s South Pacific production at New York’s Lincoln Center the reason for your decision to get the production for OA?
Lyndon Terracini: I’d been wanting to do a big musical that had a connection to operatic singing, and I’d heard about this South Pacific production at the Lincoln Center Theater, so I went and saw it, and was completely bowled over by it. I knew straightaway that this was the one we wanted to do. From there it was a matter of getting the rights and convincing people that we could do eight shows a week in the Opera Theatre, something which had never been done before.
What was it about Sher’s production that made you think that it would appeal to a wide audience here in Australia?
It’s a wonderfully crafted piece, both in terms of text and music. Rodgers and Hammerstein were absolute masters and South Pacific’s music is better than that of many operas. The piece also has a lot to say to contemporary Australians: we live in the South Pacific and the subject matter is bound to resonate with Australian audiences: Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are all cosmopolitan cities grappling with the issues of race and racial intermarriage.
|Teddy Tahu Rhodes with|
It’s not the operetta audience, although a number of our subscribers will come to see it because the role of Emile De Becque is sung by Teddy Tahu Rhodes, one of the world’s great bass baritones. There may also be some crossover from HOSH – we certainly hope that there is – but if there isn’t, it doesn’t matter because HOSH has its own audience. We know that people who like musicals will come. And that the subject matter will draw an audience who doesn’t normally come to opera. What has been crucial for OA is the realisation that we do not have only one audience: we have several different audiences and our task is to figure out who they are and how we can play to each one. That’s what we’ve been trying to do in the past few years.
How did you approach the Lincoln Center, and before that, the Metropolitan Opera, to get the rights to stage The Magic Flute and now South Pacific?
The Magic Flute happened because I was able to convince Julie Taymor, with whom I’d had contact when running the Brisbane Festival, to let us bring the show to Australia. I went to see her at her Greenwich Village apartment in New York; it was on the 10th floor and the lift had broken on that day, so she was waiting for me in the street. We had to walk up ten flights of stairs. She was really keen for us to bring her Magic Flute production to Australia, and when I spoke to the Met they’d obviously consulted with her and they knew what her wishes were. And so they allowed us to do it. It was the first time that the Met had given another opera company permission to perform a production still in its repertoire. I’d hoped that Julie would come to Australia to direct the show, and she was going to, but then she had a lot of problems with Spiderman, which made it impossible.
As for South Pacific, after seeing it in New York, I came back and we contacted the Lincoln Center and set up appointments with the relevant people. I then went back and negotiated with the producers and other people associated with the show. In the meantime Opera Australia had spoken to [Australian producer] John Frost, and he was very keen to come on board. It’s been a wonderful collaboration so far and at OA we’ve learned a lot about how to work in the commercial area. We’re doing it in Sydney and Melbourne and hopefully it will go to other capital cities after that.
|Director Bartlett Sher|
Bart is a terrific director; he has a great sensibility and soul as well. John Frost is the most important producer of commercial musicals in Australia and he’s consulting on the production – when we need advice we call Frosty.
Why obtain the rights to stage an existing production rather than opt for a co-production?
South Pacific was already on so we couldn’t do a co-production, and because it is such a wonderful production, I really wanted to do it. It was the same situation with The Magic Flute. But we have a lot of co-productions in the pipeline – with Covent Garden, La Monnaie in Brussels, La Fenice, Oslo, Houston – and we’re developing really good relationships with all these companies. Where in the past co-productions always started outside Australia, we are now moving towards having more world premières in Sydney. It’s important for us as a company to feel that we’ve commissioned a production and that we’re doing it here for the first time. We don’t have to do it all the time, but there has to be a balance.
The cast are all favourites with the public. Could you tell us a little more about the reasons for the inclusion of each of the principal artists?
From when I first thought of doing South Pacific, there was only one person I wanted to see as Emile De Becque, and that was Teddy Tahu Rhodes. We never discussed alternatives; Teddy had no say in it either [laughs]. We had auditions for the rest of the cast, and some really fantastic people came in. Lisa McCune was one of them; she was just terrific. So was Kate Ceberano, who has never done a musical before but spent an hour with us, working on Bloody Mary. She’ll be wonderful. As for Eddie Perfect: we’ve often talked about doing a project together, and as it happened, when Bart Sher arrived three days before the launch, we still hadn’t found our Luther Billis. Eddie came in to the Melbourne studio and I said, Eddie, can you sing ‘There is Nothin’ like a Dame’? So he went over to the piano and started belting it out. It was wonderful. Bart just loved it. And that was it; we hired Eddie that day and launched two days later. The audition process was an education for us at OA, it was inspiring to see how dedicated, how talented, how committed artists who work in the musical theatre world are.
At the Sydney Opera House we’re in the Opera Theatre, where our winter season is in full swing at the moment, whereas in Melbourne we can run South Pacific at the Princess Theatre for a longer season. Besides, we’re still growing this part of the business and part of making it work is not biting off too much too soon. We’ll be doing eight shows a week and we only have one cast.
You’ve done everything you said you were going to do when you were appointed Artistic Director a few years ago. What else can we expect?
Well, we’re doing OA’s first Ring cycle in Melbourne next year, which is a very important thing to do for an opera company: it largely defines how a company sees itself as an organisation, internationally. Planning and working on it has done wonders for OA’s morale. And 18 months before opening night, it’s clear that the problem is not going to be finding the audience for it; it’s going to be finding seats for all the opera lovers who have indicated that they want to see it. Other than that, our community projects are doing very well; through HOSH we are connecting with a broader audience, and in 2014 we’ll have a new outdoor piece, not on the harbour. We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve taken risks and they’ve paid off, and we’re not going to stop now. There will be a lot more interesting things. Our aim is to connect with more and more people in the community.