Simon O’Neill and Terence Dennis in conversazione for Wagner Society

Wagner Society of New Zealand – Wellington Branch

Simon O’Neill (tenor) and Terence Dennis (piano) talk about Wagner and his music, and O’Neill’s emergence as a leading Wagner tenor.

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 28 February 2010

Simon O’Neill was one of the soloists in the performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with the NZSO two nights before; the following Friday he would sing a number of chunks of Wagner, again with the NZSO.

He needed to protect his voice; in addition, he had a cold – he told us his daughter had coughed in his face a few days earlier, and so he apologized for not singing. Instead, he and Terence Dennis presented a conversazione, an extensive talk for about two hours about O’Neill’s career, discussing his beginnings in New Zealand, advanced study in New York, and his performing career which had begun quite seriously in New Zealand; as well as providing an entertaining miscellany of recondite Wagner lore and scholarship.

They began by touching on aspects of O’Neill’s early stage experience in New Zealand which put him well ahead of most other student singers at the renowned Manhattan and Juilliard music schools in New York; he’d sung in Gianni Schicchi, understudied Enrico in Lucia (he was then a baritone) and sung Rodolfo in Canterbury Opera’s La Bohème.

After studying in New York, he soon burst into prominence, with experience first with New York City Opera and later with the Met.  His first audition with the Met had involved the First Armed Man in The Magic Flute, which is seen as a signal mark of a promising tenor career. Then came the invitation to understudy Placido Domingo, who became a powerful friend and mentor. Later, there was Donald McIntyre in the Wagner repertoire, John Tomlinson and many others.

It was not all talk, however. The session had begun with the sound of O’Neill from his recent CD recorded with the NZSO, singing ‘Winterstürme’ from the first act of Die Walküre. If it created an excited anticipation of more heroic episodes from The Ring, Parsifal or Lohengrin, with Terence Dennis at the piano, we were of course disappointed. But the enforced alternative was to be intimate to continuous intense, volatile dialogue, with the musicians falling over each other to embellish anecdotes and to recall additional detail, or, from Terence, to add flashes of absorbing erudition and wonder at the Wagner experiences he has accumulated all over the world, which held the audience spell-bound.

If Simon O’Neill never hesitated from talking with a touching, boyish passion about the luck that had thrust him quite suddenly into the lime-light, he was full of praise and gratitude for teachers, fellow singers and conductors who had helped him, mentored and opened doors for him, from Otago (where Terence Dennis played an important role) and Victoria universities (Emily Mair), and in New York. Warmly generous in his comments about teachers and colleagues, he heaped praise on many of the teachers both in New Zealand and abroad, including Frances Wilson and Marlene Malas at the Manhattan School of Music. New York vocal mentors included such celebrated singers as baritone Sherrill Milnes and mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, who had sponsored him through her own foundation, and there was also a memorable masterclass with Luciano Pavarotti.

It wasn’t till after his time at the Juilliard School that he studied his first Wagner roles, principally Siegmund and later Lohengrin.

Simon recalled how, at Heath Lees’ urging, he’d written to Sir Donald McIntyre from New York and so began a close relationship that proved a key to his advancement in Wagner performance. ‘McIntyre was so generous!… can’t thank him enough!’

But his path led through more conventional music too – Mozart, with Tamino and Idomeneo (the High Priest), the latter his debut role at the Met.

Simon talked about New Zealand performances that were critical, remarkable in his early career. As Dmitri in Boris Godunov for New Zealand Opera and as Parsifal in the 2006 International Festival, which he rates not only as a momentous step for him but as one of New Zealand’s great opera achievements, with its wholly New Zealand cast. It was ‘an amazing event’, he said, marvelling particularly at McIntyre’s performance of Gurnemanz at age 71.  This reviewer shares his opinion about the miracle of that performance, almost equalling the wonderful Meistersinger at the 1990 festival.

His most exciting step was to understudy Domingo as Siegmund in the famous Otto Schenk production at the Met, and sing the role on a Met tour to Japan. He made his significant Met debut as Siegmund in the last season of this famous Schenk production under the baton of Donald Runnicles in a splendid cast that included such noted Wagner singers as Lisa Gasteen (Brünnhilde), Deborah Voigt (Sieglinde) and James Morris (Wotan); he is incredulous that he had to sing that performance onstage having had no orchestral rehearsal.

A veteran Met audience member at those performances was overheard to have said: “This was the finest Siegmund I’ve heard in this house for 41 years”. The earlier singer referred to was presumably John Vickers… indeed James Levine has particularly complemented Simon on the eloquence of his singing, that does recall the Wagner greats of earlier generations; Simon mentioned how he has modeled certain aspects of his approach to singing these roles on the great Wagner tenor Wolfgang Windgassen, and is particularly inspired by the older Wagner greats like Melchior, Lorenz and Völker.

His wide-eyed wonderment at his association with Domingo extended to forcing his feet into Domingo’s boots for the role of Siegmund; and he was bemused at being mistaken on the Met’s tour to Japan for Domingo by a couple of Japanese ladies.

Then Simon described the excitement of his European experiences, singing with the Berlin Staatsoper under Barenboim, in open air concerts of Act one of Walküre at the Villa Rufolo in Ravello, above the Amalfi Coast in Italy (Wagner had stayed there and was inspired by its exotic garden for Klingsor’s Magic garden in Parsifal); he has also appeared at the Waldbühne outside Berlin (Nazi associations through its origins, with the 1936 Berlin Olympic Stadium, and all).

Now he’s in demand as Lohengrin, his latest Wagner role. He sang this at Covent Garden and Houston Grand Opera to much acclaim last year.

There were wonderful Bayreuth anecdotes. Unexpectedly asked at his stage audition to sing a passage from Lohengrin, he confessed he needed the score for the words and hadn’t brought it. Wolfgang Wagner and Christian Thielemann were present and ventured to say that would not be a problem: after all, even Wagner’s autograph of Lohengrin was nearby!;… and Simon was overcome with awe.

Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner ( the present joint artistic directors of Bayreuth) offered him both roles of Parsifal and Lohengrin at forthcoming Festivals.

Departing from Wagner, I liked his little story about singing Florestan in his Covent Garden Fidelio. Simon’s mind went blank at the start of Florestan’s opening aria in Act II. The house was quite dark, and suddenly it came to him: ‘Gott, welch’ Dunkel hier’. Someone up there helping…?

Throughout the conversation, Simon would get up and go to the piano to play the introductory bars to various episodes, and sing a few tantalizing phrases.

At the end of the first half, Terence took to the piano, as originally planned, explaining that he was about to play, perhaps for one of the few times in a century as it was long out of print, Busoni’s magnificent transcription of the Funeral music from Götterdämmerung. Not an orchestra certainly, but the powerful emotion was there in his splendid, sombre performance, and this provided the musical interlude to the second half of the session.

Dennis’s frequent interventions were quirky and wonderful. Just one: The 1936 Bayreuth production of Lohengrin, paid for by Hitler was offered as by the Führer as his present for the coronation season of Edward VIII, which never took place. The monarch is said to have responded that he was happy to receive the production “as long as I don’t have to sit through it.’ (you’ll note, no objection to a connection with Hitler however).

Also outside the Wagner realm though close to it, Simon’s recently recorded opera by Chausson Le Roi Arthus (King Arthur) was mentioned, as a proto-Wagner enterprise: he sings Lancelot in this, opposite the Guinevere of soprano Susan Bullock; with Antonio Pappano he went to Rome to sing Beethoven’s Ninth in the wonderful new Auditorio. And, significantly, before Christmas he sang Verdi’s Otello for the first time, at the Barbican Hall in London, under Sir Colin Davis at the eleventh hour – facing the big opening entrance Esultate! for the first time was singularly scary; the London reviews were sensational. In 2012, he sings in the Covent Garden Ring celebrating the London Olympics.

2013 is of course the big year – the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth (and of Verdi’s too – must stay alive for both). And Simon has frightened himself by saying yes to invitations to sing the Götterdämmerung Siegfried in Ring productions at such eminent opera houses as the Met, both the Deutsche Oper and the Staatsoper in Berlin, at Hamburg Staatsoper, Vienna Staatsoper, La Scala Milan and at Covent Garden.

There are Wagner roles Simon admits he’s still scared of: Meistersinger (the Third Act), Tannhäuser and Tristan. He’s done all the others. He has turned down offers to sing Rienzi in Berlin, several Tristans and Tannhäuser: these are the really exceedingly taxing Wagner tenor roles, and time is on his side for these in the future…..

There was a pretty large audience in the church; all were aware that they might be able to name drop in ten years about hearing O’Neill in his early years.

I have to thank Terence Dennis for reading my account and for making several corrections, amendments and additions. Lindis Taylor

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