Forget Tina Arena, Evita is a dream come true for teenager Alexis van Maanen

On her second-last day of high school in Melbourne Alexis van Maanen was standing next to her locker when she received a phone call from her agent.

"It's either good news or bad news when you get the call," she recalls. "And he said, 'You're going to be at the Sydney Opera House this time next year'. I just started bawling my eyes out at my locker. I was so excited to be chosen and grateful they decided to take a chance on a younger person."

Young Evita star Alexis van Maanen says she has been picking the brains of fellow cast members such as Kurt Kansley.

Photo: Christopher Pearce

Van Maanen had just been cast in not only her first professional role, but her first principal role – as the mistress in Opera Australia's production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Evita opposite Tina Arena as Eva Peron and Brazillian opera superstar Paulo Szot as Juan Peron.

For a first gig, it's not a bad start. For an 18-year-old's first gig, it's incredible. ​

"Every day I'm just realising this isn't what normally happens," she says. "People study for years, and I've been lucky that this was coming and I was right for the role.

"Getting into a professional musical to start with is a humungous aspiration, and to then be on stage with people like Paulo and Tina and Gemma Rix and Kurt Kansley, I'm lost for words. You forget the amount of experience there, you just think 'I can't believe I made it into this musical'."

The role of Juan Peron's mistress, who is nameless, is critical in that it represents the oppressed women of Argentina and shows how cold-blooded the social climbing Eva Peron could be.

"She's just a microcosm for a lot of women in that country," says van Maanen of the mistress. "To stay off the street they were forced to become the mistress or something of that sort. She's nameless and faceless in a way that represents larger Argentina, so it's a moment that shows how cruel and ruthless Eva can be. The audience have only really seen Eva's performance side and now they're getting to see that second side."

The show has also allowed van Maanen to pick the brains of a raft of musical talent, including South African-born Melbourne performer Kansley, who has spent the last 15 years living and working in London, starring in everything from big West End shows such as Miss Saigon and The Lion King to smaller roles in independent theatre.

Like van Maanen, Kansley, who plays the young revolutionary Che, was also stunned to learn he had been cast.

"I've been waiting for this moment for so long. And the big dream was actually this part," he says. "I auditioned in Melbourne last year and I was happy just to be in the ensemble, but to get the part, it was a dream come true.

"I've been waiting for a homecoming for a while. I've had great experiences in London, but there's always been part of me that misses home. I'm having lots of pinch-me moments every day."

And that includes working with his one-time teen idol.

"Tina Arena has been an idol of mind since I was a kid," he says. "I used to watch Young Talent Time and as an ethnic kid growing up in Melbourne in the suburbs in the 80s, to see ethnic talent kicking goals on TV was an inspiration for me."

Evita is at the Sydney Opera House from September 13 to November 3.

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