Long before he left New Zealand for the Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard, before he became a principal artist with the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House and La Scala, before his face was printed on a New Zealand stamp -- helden-tenor Simon O'Neill was a 12-year-old kid dodging altar duty by instead playing the organ in church -- where, during communion, he played Beetles songs very, very slowly. And, he says, they didn't catch on.
Talking with O'Neill, who is singing the role of Florestan in Ludwig Van Beethoven's opera Fidelio, it's clear that he's retained his sense of wry humor through the years. He doesn't have much respect for opera singers that are "blobs" on the stage -- no reference to weight here -- he's referring to those who sing without any acting or energy. He calls them "oxygen stealers."
That isn't a problem in Houston Grand Opera's production of Fidelio, he says, especially referring to Karita Mattila, the Finnish soprano who's singing the lead role of Leonore. "She's an energy giver," he says. "She energizes the people around her."
"In Fidelio there's quite a brutal fight scene. We want to make it look as real as possible. It's very active, very physical. Coupling this with singing very active and physical vocal lines and trying to make the vocal lines as perfect as possible. That is the balance we need to get."
Although Beethoven finalized his version in 1814, Fidelio still resonates today, O'Neill said. "We live in a time right now, October 2011, when it's obvious that the story of Fidelio is happening all around the world."
Fidelio is Beethoven's only opera and it took 11 years of twists and turns for him to get it right. The opera, based on a true story, tells how Leonore, whose husband is falsely imprisoned for political reasons, refuses to believe he is dead and ultimately finds where he is hidden away in prison. More used to writing music for instruments, Beethoven gives singers a run for their money in what he asks of them. "You need to have your voice in order," is how O'Neill put it.
This is O'Neill's first time back since singing the role of Lohengrin in HGO's production, and he's been very busy in his private life as well. He and his wife, a lawyer, have three young children, a boy-girl set of twins and baby Violet, born just last week at the end of a very long airplane flight from New Zealand to London. In addition, they've decided to move back to New Zealand from London and are caught up in those arrangements as well.
Actually, he started singing rather late in life -- as a junior in high school when he joined the school choir. "It's a good way to meet girls," he said. An accomplished pianist -- he says he can play the score of any opera he's in - and tuba player, it was later that people started noticing his voice.
He went to four different schools, getting a music degree at each one, including two in New Zealand, but when he applied to HGO's Young Artist program, he was rejected. Actually, he tried to get into every young artist opera program available and all of them said no, he said, laughing. "Either I was one of those young guys who didn't audition well or didn't have the right stuff. I probably didn't have my voice together as much. I'm 39; I'll be 40 next month, my voice is really starting to feel right."
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As a budding professional, O'Neill said he did more lyrical roles and as a bass baritone, but it was when he first did the title role in Mozart's Idomeneo at the Manhattan School of Music that it felt like things fit. Four years later, he would make his debut in the Metropolitan Opera in the same role.
Since then his repertoire has tended to the Germanic, including all the big Wagner roles. He sings in German although he still doesn't speak it fluently, which he means to do something about when he can find the time, which is difficult with all the performances he has lined up. (He'll sing the Mao role in Nixon in China in San Francisco next year.)
His big career break came when he got a job as understudy to Plácido Domingo in the role of Siegmund at the Met. From there, he went on tour and everntually he was double cast ("I would do two, he would do two") with Domingo in the role. And eventually, as he said, when Domingo was busy, other opera companies asked O'Neill if he was interested in roles.
"I see talented opera singers all the time. Some are equal or better than me. It's all in the timing, same in any business. You need to work hard and make your luck." Houston Grand Opera's Fidelio performances at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Avenue, start at 7:30 p.m. on October 28 and November 1, 5, and 10 and at 2 p.m. on November 13. Tickets start at $38. For information go to www.houstongrandopera.org.