A man at the first glimmer of a new love – for opera
WHEN Shaun Rennie arrived in Canberra to play Bert in the Free Rain Theater production of ‘Mary Poppins’ in 2015, few would have predicted he was on his way to becoming a great opera director.
But it was, and now the NIDA and RADA graduate is assistant director to legendary Italian director Davide Livermore on a new production of Verdi’s ‘Il Trovatore’, the first time Opera Australia will perform it in nearly 10 years. .
Canberra had a hand in Rennie’s trajectory from stage performer to opera director, as he returned to Free Rain in 2016 to direct the musical ‘Wicked’ and then the same year to direct the musical “Rent” at the Hayes Theater in Sydney, which won the Broadway World Award for Best Direction.
When I catch up with Rennie on the phone during his lunch break at the Opera, I find a man at first sight of a new love – for opera.
Because, as he explains, after directing the 25th anniversary production of “Rent” at the Opera, he met OA artistic director Lyndon Terracini and then the offers to move into the sprawling estate of the ‘opera have multiplied and fast.
He has since trained as assistant director on “Aida”, director of the revival of “La Bohème” and assistant director on “The Phantom of the Opera” on Sydney Harbour.
“It’s exciting at this point in my career,” said Rennie.
“The more you delve into the opera, the more you appreciate its immense level of skill. The opera is such an impossible, huge, gargantuan hill to climb.
Coming from a microphone musical theater background, he is particularly impressed with the vocals and says: “The roles are so difficult to sing and you will always find another challenge at the top of the mountain, but if you had to sacrifice something vocal for the physical , you would be disappointed.
“Opera singers are so aware of their instrument. I didn’t really appreciate that until I started working with them. Every opera is a marathon.
And nowhere more so than in “Il Trovatore”, of which, he reminds me, Enrico Caruso once said: “It’s easy, you just need four good singers.
They have those, in international stars Yonghoon Lee, Leah Crocetto, Elena Gabouri and Maxim Aniskin.
Despite the over-the-top plot set in 15th-century Spain, in which a gypsy throws the wrong baby into a fire and sets off a cycle of revenge, the essence of this popular opera is the great roles and arias, as well like the incredibly famous “Anvil Chorus”, parodied in “The Penzance Pirates” and transformed into a number by Glenn Miller.
When I talk to Rennie, he’s just left a session with director Livermore, who’s here with his associates from Italy, giving Rennie a rare chance to work with artists who really understand Verdi.
Livermore placed the gypsies of “Il Trovatore” back into the world of circus freaks, nomadic characters navigating what it means to curse and be cursed, in keeping with the opera’s dark motives of jealousy and revenge.
“Gypsies are people who live outside conventional norms, just like people in the circus,” says Rennie,
Famously, the sets for Livermore’s productions have gone entirely digital, but this time there will be strong set elements by Giò Forma, integrated with the moving digital canvas of D-Wok and Italian costumes by Italian designer Gianluca Falaschi, who spends a day in the field capturing the quirky characters.
“It’s not realistically set, it’s less time and place and more poetic and exotic,” Rennie says.
“Il Trovatore” at the Sydney Opera House until July 30.
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Ian Meikle, editor