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Clash of cultures

Worlds collide and collude at Opera Australia these days. Popular screen actor Lisa McCune last year washed that baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes right out of her hair and this September audiences will rinse and repeat when South Pacific returns.

But first, The Boy from Oz star Todd McKenney takes the lead in the dual role of Aristeus/Pluto, a role previously filled by singer David Hobson, inveigling the cast of Orpheus in the Underworld to dance the can-can throughout March.

Audiences are loving this cross-pollination of opera and Broadway, of course. Even standing-room tickets were hard to come by when South Pacific played the Opera House for four weeks last year, hence the two-month season this year. Australian cast members in the Lincoln Centre production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit have included comedian Eddie Perfect, Underbelly star Gyton Grantley and pop singers Kate Ceberano and Christine Anu - none of them known for operatic fare.

Likewise, Wharf Revue satirist and director Jonathan Biggins and co-writer Phil Scott are hoping for a repeat of the success of French composer Jacques Offenbach's very accessible 1850s classic Orpheus, an operetta they first updated with lots of biting up-to-the-moment references a decade ago, which may in 2013 involve Australia's first man of the lodge, Tim Mathieson, getting the proverbial big finger. Again.

McKenney, sitting beside Biggins in the Opera Australia Surry Hills rehearsal room, is chuffed at his musical progress among some big opera voices such as Christopher Hillier, Rachelle Durkin, Andrew Brunsdon and The Mikado actor and singer Mitchell Butel, even if Butel's 15 minutes on stage threaten to steal the show.

''One of the things I'm loving most about this is [that] the rehearsal space is relaxed,'' McKenney says, ''and that comes from the top. You feel safe to fail, to try things; no-one's belittling you. There's a very great sense of camaraderie between the different worlds in here.


''You've got Jonathan's world [of satire]; you've got my world as a dancer; you've got the opera world.''

''That's an interesting point, because this is an operetta,'' adds Biggins, who alongside Scott has felt able to do some liberal tinkering with the libretto. ''There's dialogue; there's dancing. I mean, the can-can comes from this. Pluto's the guy who suggests it so, of course, Todd leads the can-can.

''When Pluto comes up to Olympus to try and impress Jupiter, it's a song-and-dance number. This is not unusual, because a lot of what Aristeus sings, there was this whole part with this curious falsetto, and the guy who originally played the part had this great falsetto, so Offenbach said: 'I'll write this for you'.''

McKenney jokingly drops his voice to a guttural low: ''I'm not so good with falsetto.''

Which is exactly Biggins's point about adapting the century-and-a-half-old show: ''Todd is a great dancer, all right, so we can make [Aristeus/Pluto] dance,'' Biggins says.

''The singers are all watching Todd and Mitchell Butel, who's another person best known for acting, and they're having to lift their acting game, and Todd's having to lift his singing game, and there's this curious hybrid that everyone works off each other, and that's the type of show it is.''

So, what is the audience for Orpheus? Is it opera-meets-Broadway? ''I think so,'' McKenney says. ''If you're a family who wants to introduce your kids to opera, this would be the perfect vehicle, because it's got colour, movement and a story that's easily understood.

''It's got dancing, singing, and it's not too high-brow but it's still a traditional opera.''

''And it's funny,'' Biggins says.

The previous adaptation, under then-director Ignatius Jones in 2003, had Orpheus demonstrating love for his own gender, but has been de-gayed under Biggins as director, at least as explicitly. (Though there is some naughtiness on an adult level: ''I'm the town bike [as Pluto], let's face it,'' McKenney jokes.)

There's plenty of camp appeal remaining in Mark Thompson's over-the-top set and costumes. ''It's very rich and lush and has lots of props and if you can build it, it's in the show,'' McKenney says.

Adds Biggins: ''I think Mark Thompson actually is the hero of this piece, it really is his idea, going back - and I'm sure Ignatius would acknowledge Mark's input into the original production [in 2003] as well - all the visual wittiness: Mercury descending on his rocket-powered bicycle; 'public opinion' being this massive figure up on this revolutionary tumbrel that gets pushed through; and Olympus being this very cool, sedate nightclub.''

Which is not to underplay Biggins's and Scott's sly wit.

''Satire and 19th-century French morality are probably not all that important today,'' Biggins says.

''The good thing is human nature doesn't change: the outrage about [nude children photos by photographer] Bill Henson, or the outrage about the modern political correctness: the fact Tim Mathieson is not allowed to make a joke about doctors with small hands; that sort of hypocrisy is still rife today.''

Orpheus in the Underworld begins on February 28.