There's no getting around it, Teddy Tahu Rhodes has sex appeal. At the Sydney Opera House in January, he made women‹and not a few men‹swoon when he swung onto the stage as Don Giovanni, all six feet five of him, clad only in leather briefs and an open greatcoat. It made Leporello's long list of the Don's lovers seem credible indeed.
The New Zealand-born lyric baritone is creating something of a stir in this country, too. What's more, he is making a name for himself in new American works: He was a complex and believable Joe de Rocher in performances of Dead Man Walking in San Francisco three years ago, and a violently sensual Stanley Kowalski in André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire last year for the Austin Lyric Opera.
In May, Rhodes debuts at Houston Grand Opera as the Pilot in Rachel Portman's The Little Prince, based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's much-loved tale. And next year, also in Houston, Rhodes will take on a role written expressly for him: the lover in The End of the Affair, Jake Heggie's operatic take on the Graham Greene novel.
For all the accolades, the talent, good looks, and buff body, however, Rhodes is a refreshingly modest figure. A typical New Zealander, although he now lives in Sydney, he has an easygoing personality. If you had seen him as the Don or Stanley Kowalski, you might expect to meet a sex god in the flesh. Instead, he's a polite and friendly accountant who used to love playing golf and senior-level cricket in his hometown of Christchurch, and who still can't believe his luck in landing an operatic career.
"It amazes me," he says. "In America, they could easily have found someone else to do these roles, but for whatever reason they chose me. It's your contacts, who you happen to work with."
His link to the United States came via Patrick Summers, Houston Grand Opera's music director and a regular guest conductor in Australia. Rhodes auditioned for Summers, who was to conduct the premiere of Dead Man Walking, and made an indelible impression.
"I heard Teddy and immediately got a message to San Francisco to say, 'I think we've found our Joe,'" Summers recalls. "The thing that struck me most immediately was his incredibly beautiful, colorful voice, which had a sort of menacing quality to it. And Teddy sounded the way he looked‹a big, rugged man. He was breathtaking in Dead Man Walking."
Austin received him with similar enthusiasm. A review of Streetcar in The Austin Chronicle raved, "[T]all, rangy Teddy Tahu Rhodes was a tower of swagger, a cocky, rough-hewn guy's guy whose disdain for his high-flown, florid sister-in-law grows into a rancor as all-consuming as Ahab's for the white whale; his dark glare revealed a single-minded desire to bring Blanche down. Stanley's rape of her has rarely seemed so cruelly inevitable."
If Rhodes has a charismatic stage appeal, he can also sing. Really sing. "He's just a very complete talent," Summers says. "He's so multifaceted that he can change in one second from this menacing dark sound to this very lyrical, beautiful boyishness."
It is this flexibility that will allow him to switch from the dark roles that have so far marked him out for stardom to the reassuring, God-like quality required for the Pilot, the character through whose eyes the story of The Little Prince unfolds.
Director Francesca Zambello brought the project to Houston. She had originally developed it for the English National Opera with Portman, who is an Oscar winner for her score for Emma (she was also nominated for Chocolat and Cider House Rules). Houston Grand Opera was to stage the U.S. premiere. The London deal fell through, however, and now Houston will mount the world premiere.
"It seems the perfect project for us at this time," says Summers, who will conduct the work. "We really wanted a piece from Rachel. We wanted a piece that people could bring their families to, and we liked the worldwide appeal of The Little Prince. In searching around for someone to play the Pilot, Teddy came to my mind. The role needs someone who can play at many different levels, so that children can look at it and see one thing, and adults will see something different. Teddy has that depth."
Rhodes started singing as a teenager, while attending a sports-mad private school that also had a choir. He combined a performance course with his accounting degree at the university, but soon won a national singing competition and went to London's prestigious Guildhall on the proceeds.
There, he earned a diploma in vocal training, but turned down an offer of a two-year scholarship to Guildhall's opera course. Forced to choose between his marriage and a career in music, he returned to New Zealand and settled down to work as an accountant, singing in small roles at the local opera company when the opportunity arose.
"I was constantly encouraged by supporters in New Zealand, and they could quite easily have given up on me," he says. "They said, 'Don't give it away. You can't give it away.' But at the time, my marriage was the most important thing to me. If I look back now, I don't regret it, but I do feel as though I lost a lot of time."
His marriage ended when he was 30 and, since then, he has been making up that time. A couple of concerts led to the role of Marcello in La Bohème in Auckland. As luck would have it, the Australian tenor singing Rodolfo was so impressed by Rhodes that he alerted Opera Australia. And when a baritone pulled out of the Dandini role in a 1998 production of La Cenerentola in Sydney, Rhodes was called in as a replacement, earning rave reviews. He has hardly been back to New Zealand since.
He might have built a quicker career in Europe while he was studying there. And yet, he is philosophical about that. "Have you seen Sliding Doors?" he asks, referring to the 1998 movie that explores how a single moment can determine the course of one's life. "If I'd gone down that track, the chance of me coming to the States and doing all these major roles here might not have happened. You just don't know."
Miriam Cosic writes about opera for The Australian.