Our New Champion of NZSSC
We’re delighted that Simon O’Neill (ONZM) recently accepted the role of Vice-Patron for our choir. Simon is an internationally acclaimed tenor who performs in some of the world’s most magnificent venues. And it all began in NZSSC in 1988! (Actually it began even before that with some wonderful teachers at Ashburton College). We fired Simon some questions …
How did you come to be in the choir?
At Ashburton College, I was very active in sports but my forté was music. I had three teaching mentors who developed my musical skills and love of performing, Gordon McGhie, Roderick Lonsdale and Robert Aburn. Robert was a huge influence and he steered me towards auditioning for NZSSC where I performed the only solo song I knew, The Music of the Night from Lloyd Webber’s Phantom! I cringe now but Roger Stevenson (previous NZSSC Director) must have seen potential, like he did for so many others, and he gave me a chance. It was the highlight of my year!
You have fond memories of NZSSC then…
I’m often asked how I got started in my operatic singing career. The answer is NZSSC—it gave me my love of singing, it thrust me into wanting to develop my instrument to the highest level.
To be surrounded by like-minded young adults, all of whom I held in the highest respect, and make great music, it’s the bee’s knees! I had always been into music—piano, brass, rock, jazz, musicals, but the choir opened the door to the classical repertoire of singing. It was a new experience for me as a young musician.
NZSSC was the catalyst for my vocal development. I am so grateful to Roger Stevenson and his wonderful colleagues.
And you got to go on tour…
We went to the 1990 Pacific Basin Choral Festival in Honolulu, Hawaii. Two years earlier, I’d been part of the Canterbury Youth Band attending the Pacific Basin Brass Festival (playing the Euphonium) so I knew how fun it was going be. We sang the hell out of our repertoire and the judges rewarded the incredible level of polish Roger demanded from us. We performed a spiritual, ‘The Solid Rock’ with the great Robert Wiremu as soloist. I felt like I was part of a mid-Alabama State Baptist church choir! I was in awe of Robert’s voice, it was an honour to be in the backing choir.
How did you get to attend the Manhattan School of Music?
In life you get unexpected opportunities, sometimes good, sometimes not so good. My enrolment at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music came about through a disastrous debut in the role of Rodolfo in the Canterbury Opera production of La Bohéme. After that, I thought, ‘I better go and learn how to sing’! My teacher at the time, Frances Wilson, facilitated the application and I was accepted into the Masters programme on a 90% merit scholarship. Frances is another person who has guided me for much of my time studying voice, and throughout my career.
Seems like you are constantly travelling now …
Luckily I love flying and enjoy the travel—right now I am in Basel, last week Lausanne, Melbourne and Auckland and three weeks ago New York City and Munich. I’ll spend a week in Auckland and return to Europe for Die Walküre in Valencia, Spain.
Years ago, I remember watching a documentary on Italian Mezzo Soprano, Cecilia Bartoli where she complained about all the travel. I thought it would be a dream! Well, for the past twenty-two years I have travelled the globe studying, performing and now also as a voice teacher/coach.
I do miss my family terribly though. We live on Birkenhead Head Point in Auckland, our own slice of kiwi heaven, so my schedule means I am away for much of the year. I am indebted to my wife Carmel for bringing up our glorious children when I’m not there.
How do you prioritise your performances and travel commitments?
My priority is to perform in New Zealand as much as I can while I’m singing at the highest international level. My managers in London schedule my work for the season—they do an amazing job, I am contracted with the finest orchestras and opera companies and with the most prestigious conductors on the planet. It is a thrill, a great honour, to perform with the New York Philharmonic one weekend, return to New Zealand and immediately commence rehearsals and perform at the Nelson Opera in the Park the following one. I don’t feel any difference in my standard of performance and view both with exactly the same energy and professionalism.
Words of wisdom for our current members …
Keep singing! Some of you will audition for the NZ Youth Choir, as I did, and love it, as I did. Not everyone should or can be a professional musician or a professional opera singer, many ex-choir members are involved with music in many guises with careers in something completely different.
Whatever you do with your life, remember the wonderful times in the choir, thank the people involved and those who got you there—and keep in touch with your choir friends!
Read more about Simon on his website.