Switching from one art form to another is a tricky career change that few people can achieve.
It requires transferable skills as well as lateral thinking and a propensity to learn quickly and on the move.
Luckily for Shane Placentino, director of the revival of three Opera Australia productions this year, he’s covered those bases and more.
Born and raised in Adelaide, Placentino danced with the Australian Ballet for a decade, reaching Principal Soloist level before performing with the Sydney Dance Company for six years under the artistic direction of Graeme Murphy and creative associate Janet Vernon.
Then, in his mid-30s, he developed a lower back injury.
“Graeme’s whole partnership choreography was: lift, twist, push!” Placentino, 49, says with a genial laugh on Zoom during a break from rehearsing production of Murphy’s Turandot, which kicks off Jan. 12.
“So my back started to give out. But considering I graduated from the Australian Ballet School at 19 and joined the Australian Ballet at 20, arriving at 36 in a career of dancing is actually phenomenal and something I’m grateful for.”
It was still a blow at the time.
“Janet Vernon always told me, as a dancer, you die twice, and I definitely went through a period of grief after I quit dancing,” Placentino said.
He soon landed work as stage manager and rehearsal director for the Sydney Dance Company’s new artistic director, Rafael Bonachela, who was appointed after Murphy and Vernon left in 2007.
“But I still didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
Towards the end of 2007 he received a call from Murphy, asking if he would like to be assistant director on his new production of Aida for Opera Australia, although Placentino is modest enough to point out that Murphy had first asked someone else.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he laughs again.
“I was learning everything on the job, really, but we made Aida in Perth in 2008 and I didn’t mess it up. Then we did it in Sydney and Melbourne and I put it on for Graeme at Adelaide and Brisbane.”
After leading a revival of opera in Sydney and Melbourne in 2012-2013, Placentino returned to Adelaide to teach contemporary dance.
Then in 2015 Opera Australia got back in touch to say they would stage the production of Gounod’s Faust by Scottish opera director David McVicar and were looking for an assistant director and assistant choreographer.
Given his experience and skills, Placentino was able to fill both roles.
“Three years later, Graeme and Janet asked me to be assistant director and choreographer on their new production of The Merry Widow by Franz Lehar.”
Looks like the universe – and Opera Australia – was trying to tell him something.
“I just thought I really needed to try this,” he says.
“So in 2018 I told Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini that I was moving back to Sydney and if there was more work I would be available. And it all followed from there. “
He has since served as assistant choreographer/director on Opera Australia’s production of West Side Story on Sydney Harbor in 2019, assistant director on Murphy and Vernon’s production of Madama Butterfly in 2019 (of which he will direct a revival in Sydney mid -2022) and directed revivals of Faust and The Merry Widow (2019-21).
Placentino also served as revival director and choreographer for Italian director Davide Livermore’s 2021 production of Aida in Melbourne and Sydney, although the final season was a one-night-only affair due to COVID.
“It’s been a huge learning curve, but I’m now at a point where I’m as comfortable being an assistant or a revival director as I am doing choreography.”
More than anything, he is grateful to Murphy and Vernon for the support and opportunities they provided.
“I first worked with Graeme in 1994 when the Australian Ballet premiered their production of The Nutcracker, so we have a long-established relationship and strengthened it when I joined Sydney Dance. Company,” Placentino said.
“I can’t stress how much of an influence and mentor Graeme has been to me.”
Murphy says he trusts Placentino because of their long-established relationship.
“Shane understands our modus operandi and has a lot of background on the board, both as the recipient of my direction, as a dancer, and in terms of observing and conveying information as an assistant director. and director of revival.
“Essentially he has the ability to handle an opera choir, which is the biggest machine on earth, really – a many-headed monster,” laughs Murphy.
“And they trust him and love working with him.”
Placentino is currently rehearsing Puccini’s Turandot at the Surry Hills Opera Center in Sydney.
“In this opera, especially in Act 1, Graeme keeps the chorus moving nonstop,” he says.
“They’re like a Greek choir in that they’re always on stage, commenting on the situation they’re in. They do that through the text – through what they sing – but also through how they act. and move. So I’m treating the choir like a corps de ballet.”
As director of the revival, Placentino’s job is to replace the original director and choreographer – Murphy in the case of Turandot – working with the cast and conductor to ensure the integrity and consistency of the vision.
“I think about how a character should move from point to point in the story and what emotions they should display through movements, facial expressions and gestures,” he says.
“Just as singers try to project their voices into the back of the theatre, I try to do the same with movement and gesture without it sounding contrived or banal.”
Until recently, Placentino tended to approach directing quite visually.
“It’s because as a dancer you listen to the music – the score – and memorize the movement. I can’t remember ever looking at a score to memorize a ballet,” he says.
“But in the world of opera, that’s how they grow. They open a score and sing the libretto. So I try to focus more on the text because that’s how you connect and communicate with the singers, who are not necessarily trained in movement.”
One of the singers he will put to the test this year is none other than the world’s most in-demand tenor, German superstar Jonas Kaufmann, who will sing Lohengrin in Melbourne from May 14-24.
“When I found out just before Christmas that we had secured Kaufmann, I was excited, scared, nervous and thrown all at once,” Placentino smiled.
A co-production between Opera Australia and the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, the romantic reimagining of Wagner’s medieval legend is directed by French director, author and actor Olivier Py, who staged the opera in Berlin after the Second World War.
“This is my first time directing Lohengrin, or any German opera, so I’m a novice in some ways, but I’ll just have to study hard and make sure I know it inside and out.”
It’s a far cry from suburban Adelaide in the 1970s, when a six-year-old Placentino and a younger brother noticed three little girls across the road doing ballet in a studio set up in their garage.
“My brother was quickly requisitioned to join them,” he recalls.
“After football I was going to watch them and then one day their teacher saw me doing the moves, even though I was sitting down, and said, ‘Why don’t you get up and do it?’
“Being the older brother, I had a bigger ego and thought, ‘Anything he can do, I can do.
“So there I was, dancing with my brother for a while, until he gave up and started playing football, and I kept going.”
He never really stopped.
These days, Placentino has the cream of the opera world serenading him daily.
“I feel so lucky. I have the best job in the world because I’m in the studio and I hear them every day. You can’t buy that experience. So I love it.”
For tickets and more information, go to opera.org.au
Australian Associated Press