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When a Cover-Up Is a Good Thing

Simon O'Neill—When a Cover-Up Is a Good Thing!

Submitted by Lindsay Perigo

When a Cover-Up Is a Good Thing!

Tenor Simon O'Neill loves coming back to Wellington. He did the Honours year of his music degree here, studying with the iconic Emily Mair, who, "along with my Aunt Eileen," is "my favourite person in Wellington." He says as a cultural hub, "Courtenay Place is second to none in the Southern Hemisphere." He's rapt about the "rehabilitation" of St James Theatre, where he'll be performing as Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini's Tosca from October 10-17, with what he calls "an A-Grade cast." (The opera opens in Auckland on September 17.)

At 43, O'Neill is among the world's top ten dramatic tenors (“dramatic” being a formal sub-category of tenor, denoting a voice on the heavier, darker side of the spectrum), and in his own estimation among the top five when it comes to his specialty repertoire, German music of the late Romantic period (i.e., Wagner). Arguably he's as good as his pal and mentor, Domingo, only not as famous. Yet. He hesitates to rank himself equal to his idol, and points out that in any event, where fame is concerned, times have changed. Recordings are what used to get an artist out there, but they're no longer being produced in such quantity as they were in Placido’s heyday; now "it's a struggle to get on Spotify." He does have a solo album out and will be doing another later in the year—but if these don't get him on magazine covers around the world, he's not worried. He loves the adulation he already enjoys; loves getting reviews that say things like, “As Otello, New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill is tireless and thrilling”; “This is a reading of enormous panache, considerable vocal nuance and some of the most exciting top notes you are likely to hear on an operatic stage today”; and “I’ve never heard so many of the words in a live performance of the role.” He loves being hailed as “the most complete Otello since Domingo," not to mention "a Wagnerian of the first order." But even more, he loves being hailed as "Dad" by Tom, Grace and Violet. "Doesn't matter where I am in the world, thanks to technology I have breakfast with my wife and children every day. And the kids do their piano practice with me on their Ipads next to the piano!"

His path to the top was rough. Starting out as a baritone, O'Neill decided at a certain point to upgrade himself to tenor. The initial results weren't pretty. "I became what we now call a 'bari-tenor' at 24; by 26 my voice was in shreds. It fell apart in a very public way. I was doing La Boheme in Christchurch, but I couldn't get through it. We had to cancel the whole season. I was fired. I had to go home, and then to hospital."

What was the problem?

"I hadn't learned to 'cover' through the passaggio."

Well, however arcane that may sound, in serious singing it's a big deal. The passaggio is the transition between a singer's lower and middle, and middle and upper, registers. It's the latter "passage" that is relevant here—if a tenor doesn't modify his voice placement (‘cover’ it, as opposed to keeping it ‘open’) as he navigates from middle to upper, usually around the F-sharp mark, he'll end up in major strife. O'Neill has very stern advice for youngsters hoping for a singing career: that they learn from his experience. "If you haven't got your technique organised by your mid-to-late twenties, your voice is going to fall away." He reminds them of another of his idols, Giuseppe di Stefano, to whom this infamously happened, "singing all the way up to a High C without putting the 'cover' on. You can get away with it when you're young, and as brilliant as Di Stefano, but it's not what you'd do if you want a long career. My ideal is to be very, very disciplined in the passaggio area." He cites Carlo Bergonzi, Jussi Bjoerling (“my favourite Cavaradossi”), Mario Lanza and Luciano Pavarotti as master-coverers—especially Pavarotti, with whom he studied, who can be seen demonstrating the difference between a covered and uncovered tone on YouTube:

And here is Mario Lanza, covering on the fourth note of each of his arpeggios:

Still, O’Neill is a committed advocate of the view that such questions of technique are but a means to an end—the communication of emotion. To sit in on one of the master classes he conducts at Victoria University's School of Music is to hear him repeatedly admonish the young aspirants to live the meaning of the words they are singing. I observe to him that some of them seem to find this exhortation novel, strange and even alien, and ask if he agrees that too many—not all, but too many—sound like homogenised outcomes of a factory production line.

"I do agree with that. I'd like not to agree, but I do. It’s not that they don’t have top-notch teachers—they do—but somehow ‘generic' has become a sort of 'go-to' place. Everyone all the same. Whereas what we're looking for is something special. Not just a pretty voice—not even a pretty voice, perhaps—but that extra something. And even more than that. Not only the talent, but the mind and the drive and the work ethic. Know your game. Bone up on the greats who’ve gone before. Know the commitment required and go for it. Talent alone is not enough. Our great rugby No.10 can kick spectacular goals, to be sure, and he clearly has a unique talent for it ... but he does as well as he does with that talent only because he studies and practises. Endlessly!"

Those not willing to go all-out, he advises, should get some other day job. "Love the music, join the chorus, sing in a choir by all means—but get a B.Com!"

Returning to his upcoming appearance in Tosca, I remind him of the diva who threw herself off the parapet as is required at the end of the opera only to reappear several times thanks to a trampoline some miscreant stage hands had placed below. "I don't want to alert the work and safety people at the Beehive about our production, but let me just say our Tosca [Irish diva Orla Boylan] is having to learn to stunt-jump." And the kisses in this sizzler are not mere "stage kisses" either! O’Neill is genuinely enthusiastic about this production, his co-stars and the standard of opera emanating from New Zealand generally. “The flair, passion and imagination it should have—it’s all there! World class.”

Simon O'Neill, Wagner specialist, and Lindsay Perigo, Wagner-despiser, have a running gag where I say to him, "Your Wagner is great, dear—how I'd love to hear you sing some music at some point!" He responds with a regulation groan and a forlorn fantasy that he might have brought me to the cusp of enlightenment. As this conversation closes, I revive the gag, telling him how much I'm looking forward to hearing him perform Puccini, one of the greatest writers of music—one of the most irresistible melody-spinners—of them all. And I truly am. The boy from Ashburton who had to flee Christchurch for want of a cover-up but then found one and conquered the world, will assuredly pull off a Cavaradossi that would do Di Stefano, Pavarotti, Domingo, Bjoerling, Lanza et al—the titans who inspired him into this near-impossible lark in the first place—proud.


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