Tina Arena: ‘Why I took the role of Evita’

IT'S a sunny morning at the Opera Centre in Sydney's Surry Hills. Tina Arena is standing by a black piano, giving Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot her look of love on high beam.

It is week two of rehearsals for Evita, the famous musical that opens at the Sydney Opera House next month, but Arena and Szot already seem to make a beautiful stage couple.

Szot will play the role of Argentinian president Juan Peron and Arena will be first lady Eva Peron.

Evita, as she was fondly known, became a legend following her death from cancer in 1952 at age 33. She campaigned for education, health care and women's suffrage. The people adored her.

As large as Arena is petite, Szot finishes singing his part of the duet and Arena takes up the melody.

Tina Arena rehearsing for her role in Evita. Picture: AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts
Tina Arena rehearsing for her role in Evita. Picture: AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

They finish the love song, and collapse into happy laughter, Szot bending to plant a quick kiss on Arena's tumble of brunette waves. Yes, Tina Arena is beautiful at 50. And yes, this lady knows exactly what she wants. And what she doesn't.

Minutes after the brief run-through of the number from Evita, Arena is perched on a chair, radiating svelte, European vibes. She's a Melbourne girl from Moonee Ponds but her Italian genes are unmistakeable in Arena's dark eyes and luxuriant pout.

The jeans fit like a glove, and the smart black jacket is finished with a silk Ferragamo scarf knotted loosely around Arena's neck. The scarf is in the designer's "tree of life" pattern, and Arena loves it.

"I really love soft, beautiful, naive (things)," she says in that dusky voice of hers.

Tina Arena is looking forward to playing Eva Paron in the musical Evita. Picture: Supplied
Tina Arena is looking forward to playing Eva Paron in the musical Evita. Picture: Supplied

She mentions she's been drawing and painting in watercolours.

"Diddle-daddling", as she calls it.

"I'm obsessed with art. Like, I'm very obsessed with it," Arena tells BW Magazine.

"For me, it's something that makes me feel something. It's like music. It's just what guides me."

Just when you're convinced that Arena is the complete lady, full of poise, she shows you her earthy side when she talks about the cute little Gucci watch she's wearing.

"It's tiny. I can hardly bloody read it, darl," Arena says.

"I literally have to put my glasses on to go 'What frickin' time is it?' But I love that. The Italians …"

She trails off, leaving her sentence in the air.

A more tangible topic is Szot, who flew in just days earlier.

Arena had never met him, and had warned Evita's producers - Opera Australia and John Frost - that she would only take the role of Eva if she felt right about the singer chosen to play Juan Peron.

"If that chemistry's not right, it just doesn't work," Arena says.

"You can't fool the public. I can't do it. I'm shit at that. I said, 'If there's no chemistry there, we're pushing shit uphill and that's not what we're here to do'."

Tina Arena has received an Order of Australia. Picture: Tim Hunter
Tina Arena has received an Order of Australia. Picture: Tim Hunter

Arena briefly Googled Szot, but suspended judgment until she met him in person.

"I wasn't interested in discovering him online and all of that," she says.

"I knew who he was, and I very quickly listened to the voice and I thought, 'I don't want to know any more. I want to discover him one-on-one, face-to-face. I don't want the internet to try and tell me who this person is.'"

Opera Australia and John Frost must have sighed with relief when Arena and Szot met and hit it off. Arena calls Szot "a stunning individual with a voice that will just rock your world".

"I feel really blessed to be working with a man of such beautiful human integrity, but artistically also a level of beauty," she says.

With the artistic heft of Opera Australia guiding the production, Arena has confidence that Evita will be a great show. If Arena today appears confident and on top of her game, it hasn't always been so.

Like many performers, there have been dramatic ups and downs. Possibly more so, because Arena has been a star since age eight when she became Australia's darling on Young Talent Time.

Those years saw Arena shouldering a huge workload in addition to her schooling, with her equally hardworking and sensible Italian migrant parents Franca and Joe supporting her every step. YTT was seen by three million Australians on national television every Saturday night. Tiny Tina Arena was big news. But fame brings obstacles, such as the racist attacks by strangers when she was 10.

"It was something that stayed with me," Arena wrote in her 2013 book Now I Can Dance (it was reprinted last year).

Australian singer Tina Arena dances and sings at Evita rehearsals. Picture: AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts
Australian singer Tina Arena dances and sings at Evita rehearsals. Picture: AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

The kids at her new high school "ripped into" Arena so badly she had to move schools after four days. When Arena left YTT in 1983, there was a major clashing of gears as she developed into an adult performer.

She felt "oppressed by people's preconceptions of who I was and what I could do, and the frustration of being shackled to my past".

Despite enormous success with her music career in her 20s - performing to acclaim all over the world, and recording a succession of hits - by the age of 31 a relentless promotion schedule had taken its toll.

Her first marriage had ended. Even her love of music was fading.

"I just felt empty," she wrote.

"My capacity for hard work and my desire to keep everybody happy, whatever the price, had taken their toll."

Arena did what she always does. She worked through it. She went on to sing at Cadel Evans' Tour de France presentation ceremony. She sang at the opening of the Sydney Olympics.

She dined with Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles before they married at Buckingham Palace.

Tina Arena (second right) performs with The Veronicas (left) and Jessica Mauboy during the 29th ARIA Awards in 2015. Picture: AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy
Tina Arena (second right) performs with The Veronicas (left) and Jessica Mauboy during the 29th ARIA Awards in 2015. Picture: AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

She lived and worked for years in France, where she was honoured with a knighthood of the Order of National Merit. At home, she received an Order of Australia.

Even after all that, Arena calls her Evita role a pinnacle.

"It's a definitive role of somebody I would consider a real pioneer. I think (Eva Peron) catapulted women to the forefront. She was so determined. My God. She was an illegitimate child. Her mother had an affair with a middle-class man who had another family altogether," she says.

"When you grow up with a story like that, it sort of sets your character. And I like the spirit. I think her spirit is just inspiring."

When Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita premiered in 1978, a new generation learnt about the woman who would stand on the presidential balcony and keep the crowds yelling for more.

Arena has come through so much and lived at breakneck speed. These days, as partner of French actor Vincent Mancini and mother of their 12-year-old son Gabriel, she has found love and balance.

She hates leaving Mancini and Gabriel behind in Melbourne while she works in Sydney.

"Some days are tough where you just go, 'OK, I'm not there and I miss them'," Arena says.

"But, you know, you can't lose focus of the big picture. And that's my job."

That's Tina Arena. Small she may be - but she uses high-octane fuel.

* Evita plays at the Sydney Opera House from September 13; evitathemusical.com.au

Arena with her Evita co-star Paulo Szot. Picture: AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts
Arena with her Evita co-star Paulo Szot. Picture: AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts


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