Becoming the Selfish Giant

Nick Sheppard performs in Victorian Opera's production of The Selfish Giant. Photo by Jeff Busby, courtesy of Victorian Opera.
Nick Sheppard performs in Victorian Opera's production of The Selfish Giant. Photo by Jeff Busby, courtesy of Victorian Opera.

When understudy Nick Sheppard was called to play the lead in a recent Victorian Opera production, the opera performance student stepped into his biggest role yet.

Performing a new Australian score is a rare opportunity for any opera student. But the opportunity to sing in the lead role is particularly special.

That’s the situation Nick Sheppard found himself in during Victorian Opera’s recent production of The Selfish Giant, stepping in to play the Giant during one of the production’s seven performances.

It was the Master of Music (Opera Performance) student’s biggest role to date, and he landed it aged just 22.

“Singing with Victorian Opera at the Arts Centre was a really awesome experience,” he says.

“I was performing as the Giant during the relaxed performance, which is for people with sensory disabilities. The house lights stayed up and the crowd was very lively, it was a pleasure to perform for them.”

Unusually for an understudy, he’d had a week playing the Giant in rehearsals (while the lead, Stephen Marsh, had Covid), which helped him prepare for the role.

“Having that extra time to rehearse was really lucky,” he says.

The Selfish Giant is a family opera based on Oscar Wilde’s much-loved short story. It was written by composer Simon Bruckard and librettist Emma Muir-Smith who, as  University of Melbourne graduates, are just a few years ahead of Nick.

Part of Victorian Opera’s education program, with three performances exclusively for primary school-aged children, this was the opera’s second run. It debuted to sell-out audiences and received a Green Room Award in 2019.

This year’s post-Covid return provided an opportunity to connect with children – some for the first time, given their limited access to live performance in recent years.

“Performing for primary school children was a delight,” says Nick.

“They were cheering as soon as the music started, even before the house curtain was open. Their wide smiles and loud cheering made it clear that we were giving them a unique and entertaining experience.”

It was also moment of celebration for the performers, marking another step in Melbourne’s post-lockdown cultural recovery.

“You realise you can take it all for granted,” says Nick, who spent much of 2020 and 2021 singing to a screen.

“But we were lucky. As soon as we were able to perform again, we did. This opportunity with Vic Opera also came through uni.”

Nick was joined on-stage for this most recent performance by fellow opera performance students.

“In the course, we get to know everyone, it’s a very personal experience,” says Nick.  “We learn a wide array of tools for becoming an artist – not just for performing on stage, but also for elements like education for school kids. It’s been a great experience.”

With graduation coming up at the end of this year, Nick is sanguine about what the future holds.

“I feel very excited for whatever might come,” he says.

“We all have dreams of big theatres overseas but, ultimately, if I can make a living by performing and singing in some capacity, I’ll be happy.”

Stepping into the lead role in The Selfish Giant taught him some useful lessons for life as a professional performer, too.

“Always be prepared,” he says.

“I knew I was understudying and then I actually got the call up. I had to make sure I knew the score; that I was ready to step in, say yes and give it a go. That was tricky, but it was absolutely worth it.”

Master of Music (Opera Performance) and Bachelor of Music students from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music joined The Selfish Giant cast as part of a work-integrated learning experience. Find out more about studying Music Performance at Fine Arts and Music.