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Canberra Today 7°/10° | Sunday, August 14, 2022 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

A man in the first flush of a new love – for opera

Shaun Rennie talks to stage manager Benjamin Lynch, left, and associate director Carlo Sciaccaluga. Photo: Rhiannon Hopley.

WHEN Shaun Rennie arrived in Canberra to play Bert in Free Rain Theatre’s 2015 production of “Mary Poppins” few would have predicted that he was on his way to becoming a director of grand opera. 

But so it was, and now the NIDA and RADA graduate is assistant director to the legendary Italian director Davide Livermore on a new production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, the first time Opera Australia will perform it in almost 10 years.

Canberra had a part to play in Rennie’s trajectory from stage performer to operatic director, as he returned to Free Rain in 2016 to direct the musical “Wicked”, going on in the same year to direct the musical “Rent” at the Hayes Theatre in Sydney, which won the Broadway World Award for Best Direction.

When I catch up with Rennie by phone during his lunch break at the Opera House, I find a man in the first flush of a new love – for opera.

For as he explains, after directing the 25th anniversary production of “Rent” at the Opera House, he got to meet OA’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini, then the offers to move into the vast realm of opera came thick and fast. 

He has since been learning the ropes as assistant director on “Aida”,  revival director of “La Bohème” and assistant director on the “Phantom of the Opera” on Sydney Harbour.

“It’s exciting at this point in my career, ” Rennie says. 

“The more you dive into opera, the more you come to appreciate the immense level of skill. Opera is such an impossible, huge, gargantuan hill to climb.”

Coming from miked-up music theatre, he’s particularly impressed by the voices and says: “The roles are so difficult to sing and you’re always going to find another challenge at the top of the mountain, but if you were to sacrifice something vocal for the physical, you’d feel disappointed.

“Opera singers have such an awareness of their instrument. I didn’t quite appreciate this until I started working with them. Each opera is a marathon.”

And nowhere so much as in “Il Trovatore”, of which, he reminds me, Enrico Caruso once said: “It’s easy, all you have to do is have 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 woman throws the wrong baby into a fire and unleashes a cycle of revenge, the essence of this popular opera is in the big roles and arias, as well as the incredibly famous “Anvil Chorus,” parodied in “The Pirates of Penzance” and turned into a number by Glenn Miller. 

When I speak 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 has re-set “Il Trovatore’s” gypsies in the world of circus freaks, nomadic characters navigating what it means to curse and be cursed, in keeping with the dark motifs of jealousy and revenge in the opera.

“Gypsies are people who live outside conventional norms and so are circus people,” Rennie says, 

Famously the backdrops in Livermore’s productions have been all-digital, but this time there will be strong set elements from Giò Forma, integrated with the moving digital canvas by D-Wok and Italian costumes by Italian designer Gianluca Falaschi, who is having a field day capturing the eccentric characters.

“It’s not set realistically, it’s less time and place and more poetic and exotic,” Rennie says.

“Il Trovatore” at Sydney Opera House until July 30.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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