Aussie ballet boy turns opera buff

Tony Magnusson |

Shane Placentino was an elite ballet dancer before embarking on a directorial career in opera.
Shane Placentino was an elite ballet dancer before embarking on a directorial career in opera.

Moving from one art form to another is a tricky career move few can achieve.

It demands transferable skills as well as lateral thinking and a propensity to learn fast and on the move.

Fortunately for Shane Placentino, revival director of three Opera Australia productions this year, he has those bases covered and then some.

Born and raised in Adelaide, Placentino danced with the Australian Ballet for a decade, reaching the level of leading soloist before going on to perform with the Sydney Dance Company for six years under the artistic directorship of Graeme Murphy and creative associate Janet Vernon.

Then, in his mid-30s, he developed a lower back injury.

“All of Graeme’s choreography for partnering was: lift, twist, push!” Placentino, 49, says with a genial laugh over Zoom during a break from rehearsing Murphy’s production of Turandot, which opens on January 12.

“So my back started to give way. But considering I graduated from the Australian Ballet School at 19 and joined the Australian Ballet at 20, to get to 36 in a dance career is actually phenomenal and something for which I’m grateful.”

Even so, it was a blow at the time.

“Janet Vernon always said to me, as a dancer you die twice, and I definitely went through a mourning period after I stopped dancing,” Placentino says.

He soon picked up work as a stage manager and rehearsal director for the Sydney Dance Company’s new artistic director, Rafael Bonachela, who was appointed following Murphy and Vernon’s departure in 2007.

“But I still didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

Towards the end of 2007 he got a call from Murphy, asking him if he’d 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 asked someone else first.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he says, laughing again. 

“I was learning it all on the job, really, but we premiered Aida in Perth in 2008 and I didn’t screw it up. Then we did it in Sydney and Melbourne and I put it on for Graeme in Adelaide and Brisbane.”

After directing a revival of the opera in Sydney and Melbourne in 2012-13, Placentino moved back to Adelaide to teach contemporary dance.

Then in 2015, Opera Australia got in touch again to say they would be staging Scottish opera director David McVicar’s production of Gounod’s Faust and were looking for an assistant director and an assistant choreographer.

Given his experience and skill set, Placentino was able to fulfil both roles.

“Three years after that, Graeme and Janet asked me to be assistant director and choreographer on their new production of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow.”

It sounds as though the universe – and Opera Australia – was trying to tell him something.

“I just thought, I really need to have a go at this,” he says. 

“So in 2018 I told Opera Australia’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini I was moving back to Sydney and that if there was any more work, I’d be available. And it all followed on from there.”

He’s since been assistant choreographer/director on Opera Australia’s production of West Side Story on Sydney Harbour in 2019, assistant director on Murphy and Vernon’s production of Madama Butterfly in 2019 (which he will direct a revival of in Sydney mid-2022) and has directed revivals of Faust and The Merry Widow (2019-21).

Placentino was also revival director and choreographer of Italian director Davide Livermore’s 2021 production of Aida in Melbourne and Sydney, although the latter season was a one-night-only affair due to COVID.

“It’s been a huge learning curve but I am now at a point where I’m as comfortable being an assistant or revival director as I am doing choreography.”

More than anything, he is grateful to Murphy and Vernon for the support and opportunities they have provided.

“I first worked with Graeme in 1994 when the Australian Ballet premiered his production of The Nutcracker, so we’ve had a long-established relationship and we fortified that when I joined Sydney Dance Company,” Placentino says.

“I can’t stress how much of an influence and mentor Graeme has been for me.”

Murphy says he trusts Placentino because of their long-established connection.

“Shane understands our modus operandi and has plenty of runs on the board, both as the recipient of my direction, as a dancer and in terms of observing and passing on information as an assistant director and revival director.

“Crucially, he has the ability to handle an opera chorus, which is the biggest machine on earth, really – a many-headed monster,” Murphy laughs.

“And they trust him and love working with him.” 

Placentino is currently rehearsing Puccini’s Turandot at the Opera Centre in Sydney’s Surry Hills.

“In this opera, especially in Act 1, Graeme has the chorus moving about nonstop,” he says.

“They’re like a Greek chorus in that they’re always onstage, commenting on the situation they’re in. They do that through the text – by what they sing – but also through the way they act and move. So I’m treating the chorus like a corps de ballet.”

As revival director, Placentino’s job is to stand in for the original director and choreographer – Murphy in the case of Turandot – working with the cast and conductor to ensure integrity and consistency of vision.

“I’m thinking about how one character needs to get from here to there in the story and the emotions they need to display through movements, facial expressions and gestures,” he says.

“Just as the singers are trying to project their voices to the back of the theatre, I’m trying to do the same with movement and gesture without it looking contrived or trite.”

Up until recently, Placentino tended to approach directing in quite a visual way.

“This is because, as a dancer, you listen to the music – the score – and memorise the movement. I don’t ever remember looking at a score in order to memorise a ballet,” he says.

“But in the opera world, that’s how they grow up. They open up a score and sing the libretto. So I’m trying to focus more on text because that’s how you connect and communicate with the singers, who aren’t necessarily trained in movement.”

One of the singers he’ll be putting through their paces 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’d secured Kaufmann, I was excited, scared, nervous and thrown all at the same time,” Placentino grins.

A co-production between Opera Australia and the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, Wagner’s Romantic reimagining of the medieval legend is directed by French director, author and actor Olivier Py who has set the opera in Berlin following the Second World War.

“This is my first time revival directing Lohengrin, or any German opera actually, so I’m a novice in some ways but I’ll just have to study hard and make sure I know it back to front.”

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 from across the road doing ballet in a studio set up in their garage.

“My brother was soon commandeered into joining them,” he recalls.

“After footy, I’d go and watch them and then one day their teacher saw that I was doing the movements, 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 I thought, ‘whatever 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 just kept going.”

He’s never really stopped.

These days, Placentino has the cream of the opera world serenading him on a daily basis.

“I feel so lucky. I’ve got 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 just love it.”

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