rogue

"I was 16 when I directed my first play." How Sarah Giles built a 14-year career in theatre and opera.

Opera Queensland
Thanks to our brand partner, Opera Queensland

We’ve all wanted that Pretty Woman moment. Not just the handsome businessman delivering flowers on the fire escape or the opportunity to go back into a boutique to show a snooty sales assistant your shopping bags from a rival store. 

No, we want the moment where Vivian is overcome with emotion when she goes to the opera for the first time. That moment. 

Director Sarah Giles promises that audiences new to opera will be moved in the same way as Viv when coming to experience Opera QLD’s La Traviata.

"Oh totally! It’s exhilarating, stunning — they absolutely will," Sarah tells Mamamia.

The show promises it all: love, intensity, and heartache.

It was an intense love of music, theatre and sport at school that led Sarah to becoming an award-winning opera and theatre director, the career of her dreams.

"I was 16 when I directed my first play," she says.

"I found my posse of theatre lunatics and oddballs.

Director, Sarah Giles, in rehearsals for STC’s Perplex, 2014. Image: Grant Sparkes-Carroll.

"At school I was called ‘bossy’ — a term used exclusively to describe women who show leadership qualities. All the elements of my favourite subjects and passions came together to lead me here."

Although "intrigued" by musical theatre, she hasn’t directed a musical… yet. Plays and operas are where it starts and ends for Sarah.

"I’ve always loved music. I’ve performed and played music. My first experience of opera was when I was younger and backpacking overseas. I bought cheap standing room tickets and saw as many as I could.

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"In opera, the music is so enormous and so completely liberating and exciting."

Sarah’s professional directorial debut came in 2008, and she hasn’t looked back. 

Director, Sarah Giles, in rehearsals for STC’s No Pay? No Way!, 2020.  Photo: Lisa Tomasetti ©Sarah Giles in rehearsal. Image: Lisa Tomasetti. 

Her directing credits include productions for Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company, State Theatre of South Australia, Malthouse Theatre, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Victorian Opera and Sydney Chamber Opera.

A directing graduate of NIDA, Sarah also holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne with a double major in History and Italian.

More recently a new role – motherhood – has been juggled alongside a demanding freelance career.

It was during lockdown mayhem, her children running naked through the house and Sarah trying to cook dinner, when she was phoned by the artistic director for Opera QLD to take on La Traviata.

"Everything around me at the time was pure chaos, and I thought 'do I want to do this? Yes, I do!'" she laughs.

"I’m so excited about it."

Sarah plans to approach the production with a feminist take.

"I want to look at both sides of Violetta’s story within the opera — the public and the private. The staging will reflect that. I want to show the dirty, devastating, political underside of this story," she says.  

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“I really want to make a show that my friends would love and surprise the people who think they know opera."

La Traviata follows a party girl and a courtesan, Violetta, who can charm her way into the life of anyone she chooses. She then meets Alfredo, and the rules of the game change. They fall madly in love, but the society around them has other ideas. 

The show offers a glimpse into a world of opulence, wild parties, and forbidden love, all to the music of one of the greatest opera composers, Giuseppe Verdi.

It opens on July 14 in Brisbane after a short rehearsal process. The opera will tour Adelaide and Perth after that.

The mum of two said she'll be leaving her children at home in Melbourne this time, which brings new challenges.

Sarah’s 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son will stay at home with Sarah's partner while mum sinks her teeth into staging the show, the first classic opera she has directed.

"When they were little, they would come with me, but now my daughter has school, my son has kinder. My husband has a full-time job so we have to work out how we do life.

"I will definitely miss them, but they’ll be fine. It’s actually really good for them to see their mum so passionate about her job," she tells Mamamia.

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"Personally, work makes me a better mum and being a mum makes me better at my job."

Director, Sarah Giles, and her son Tom, in rehearsals for STC’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, 2018.  Photo: Lisa Tomasetti. 

Sarah says directing allows her to have vision and run with it.

"I can pick up a text and respond to it. Work out what it looks like, what the staging looks like, the lighting... no two productions are ever the same because it’s had someone different creating that vision every time," Sarah says.

"That’s why we keep returning to the classics. La Traviata is a timeless tale but now is a really great time to stage it because of where we are politically, in terms of feminism.

"A woman directing the show will see different things within it. I’m intrigued to approach such a brilliant, enormous text."

The opera is sung in Italian with English supertitles. 

Dane Lam leads the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and an ensemble of Australian singers, including Kang Wang, José Carbó and Lorina Gore as Violetta.

A co-production between Opera Queensland, State Opera South Australia and West Australian Opera, La Traviata is on July 14-23 at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC. Get your tickets  here

Feature Image: Lisa Tomasetti.

Opera Queensland
La Traviata offers a glimpse into a world of opulence, wild parties, and forbidden love, all to the sublime music of one of the greatest opera composers of them all, Giuseppe Verdi. In this new production, Director Sarah Giles peels back the curtain to reveal what sits behind the outer world of glamour and opulence and explores the complexity of sex work and existing in a society that expects you to stay in your lane.. and when you step outside that lane you are punished mercilessly.