How Kiwi opera star Simon O’Neill confronted Wagner’s anti-Semitism

by Elizabeth Kerr / 08 June, 2018
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Simon O’Neill.

Ahead of touring with the NZSO, Simon O’Neill reflects on his storied international opera career and why singing Wagner is okay, despite the composer’s reputation. 

Simon O’Neill was walking up Broadway in New York in 2001 when he took a phone call that changed his life. Only 20 minutes earlier, at the end of an audition for a minor role in a Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, he was asked if he would like to sing some Wagner. Luckily, he’d been working that year with the Auckland-born Wagner specialist Sir Donald McIntyre. O’Neill turned to the back of his book and sang Siegmund’s Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater from Die Walküre.

“I sang it okay,” O’Neill told the Listener “and I thought I might have a chance of getting that part in the Mozart.”

That phone call, from his New York agent, was to tell him he didn’t get the part, but that he was, at 32, the official understudy for Plácido Domingo at the Met.

As Domingo’s cover for the role of Siegmund in Otto Schenk’s famous production of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), the second of the four operas in Wagner’s Ring cycle, he sat in the wings at the Met stage, “just watching. I studied the man, watched his stage work, how he related to people. He became my mentor.”

Doors opened to more auditions. He was double-cast with Domingo: they shared the role of the hero Siegmund, the mortal son of Wotan, king of the gods, in the Ring Cycle at Covent Garden in 2007. Then, in 2012, an upgrade. Domingo retired from the role and now O’Neill is Siegmund: he has played it at the Met, La Scala, twice in London, three times at the Berlin State Opera; just last month he sang it for the 80th time, with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

O’Neill’s schedule is packed. Between now and the end of next year, he will sing the title role of Siegfried in the third Ring opera in Manchester, Edinburgh and Berlin; Wagnerian title roles Parsifal and Tannhäuser in Basel, Berlin and Prague; Kaiser in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) in Berlin; Calaf in Puccini’s Turandot in Tokyo and Barcelona and numerous international concert performances of music by Mahler, Schoenberg and Janáček. He’s booked five years into the future.

So how does a boy from Ashburton become a fixture on the stages of the world’s most glittering opera houses? O’Neill says he grew up in a “normal, Irish-Catholic family” that listened to local commercial radio. He was asthmatic as a child, and his family doctor prescribed swimming and tuba lessons; for 14 years, he played in the Ashburton Silver Band. He also played the organ in church – to avoid the detested role of altar boy.

“I’d pick some Beatles song, like Let It Be, and play it really solidly like an extended Bach motet. I loved that; brass bands and playing the organ were the foundation of my musical training.”

In all that time, no one had ever heard O’Neill sing. Then, at Ashburton College’s sixth-form prize-giving, he sang The Music of the Night from The Phantom of the Opera. People sat up. “I played First XV rugby and I got up and sang [he breaks into song] ‘Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation …’ People have approached me in Ashburton saying, ‘I remember that; I was there’.”

O’Neill as Siegmund, at Covent Garden in 2012: “I want my voice to be a laser beam, but I want beauty and warmth as well.”

O’Neill as Siegmund, at Covent Garden in 2012: “I want my voice to be a laser beam, but I want beauty and warmth as well.”

He sang the same song for his successful audition for the New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir, moved up to the New Zealand Youth Choir and realised he wanted to be a singer. But when he auditioned to study singing at the University of Otago, he was turned down, so he enrolled in the performance course on tuba. He added singing later, graduated in both, retired the tuba and did postgraduate study in singing at Victoria University, where he changed from baritone to tenor. He says studying with Emily Mair at Victoria was “a massive thrust, and Frances Wilson in Auckland also drove me forward and took me to New York”.

O’Neill is what is known as a Heldentenor (German for “heroic tenor”): the term describes the rich, dark, powerful and dramatic voice suited to heroic roles in German romantic operas, particularly Wagner.

“My voice has developed a decent resonance and can ‘cut’ over a big Mahlerian or Wagnerian orchestra. I want to be a ‘laser beam’ but I want beauty and warmth in the voice as well. That’s what I’m working on now. They say in your forties and fifties you’re at your peak. I’m 46; I feel in great shape, I’ve lost 20-odd kilos recently, because I was getting pretty heavy.”

Specialising in Wagner means confronting that composer’s associations with anti-Semitism, Hitler and Nazism. O’Neill’s work with Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim over the past decade has helped. He’s recorded Die Walküre with Barenboim and also toured with the conductor’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which O’Neill describes as “perhaps the most important youth orchestra in the world”. When he sang with them at the Waldbühne, the 22,000-seat amphitheatre in Berlin, Angela Merkel was in the audience.

“I look to my left, there’s Barenboim, the most famous Jewish conductor in the world; there’s this orchestra of young Egyptian, Iranian, Israeli, Jordanian, Palestinian and Syrian musicians; I’m singing Sigmund in Wagner’s Walküre in an outdoor amphitheatre built by the Nazis in 1934. I have a cold shiver down my spine.

“The big deal is that Barenboim is doing this. Barenboim points to the score and says, ‘Simon, you show me one anti-Semitic note in that score.’

“So when I sing Wagner, I sing from a character point of view. It’s unbelievably beautiful, passionate music.”

O’Neill and his wife and three children live in Auckland and he commutes to international engagements. “I loved living in New York and London but we live in paradise here.” Overseas for eight to nine months of the year, he revels in being a full-time dad when home, taking his kids to football, netball, tennis and piano lessons. Once a year the whole family travels with him to engagements – this year it’s to the London Proms and Washington DC.

New Zealand audiences are not forgotten. In March, O’Neill sang Cavaradossi in the Christchurch season of New Zealand Opera’s Tosca, a production staged in Auckland and Wellington in 2015. And he’s about to tour with the NZSO, singing Wagner’s passionate Wesendonck Lieder, a work he’s recently recorded with pianist Terence Dennis for Deutsche Grammophon. “I fell in love with the piece while recording it.”

O’Neill’s repertoire extends beyond opera. “I go down to my studio with my piano and sing Billy Joel, Wagner, Whitney Houston, Ray Charles. I love it all. I’m very proud of how far my career has gone – and I’ve been very lucky. I pinch myself.”

AN EVENING WITH SIMON O’NEILL, NZSO Hamilton, Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Wellington, June 8-16.

This article was first published in the June 9, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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