Meet the Makers: Auckland Choral Handel's Messiah's Simon O'Neill

Meet the Makers: Auckland Choral's Handel's Messiah's Simon O'Neill

Published: Thursday 30 November, 2023

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After 3 centuries, Handel’s Messiah still captivates audiences across Tāmkai Makaurau. With its beautiful melodies that transcend its biblical text, it’s a celebration of hope and rebirth after the struggles of life and darkness. Featuring acclaimed Tenor Simon O’Neill at the forefront of the show, we’re super happy to have sat down and discussed all things classical music with him

Now sit tight and meet the maker! 

Who were your most important musical influences?
I’m pretty broadly influenced. I love the music of Richard Wagner and J. S. Bach, but I also love Ray Charles, Whitney Houston, and Dolly Parton. In terms of vocal influences, I was fortunate enough to study with Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo, so they were a major inspiration to me. Historically speaking, I’m fascinated by the work of the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling.


Did you always want to become an opera singer or did the passion develop over time?
It definitely developed over time. I started out as a brass player and studied that at university; I’m also a pianist and played the organ at church. I joined the National Youth Choir and the New Zealand Secondary Schools Choir, to which I am now proudly their patron. I began studying singing in my second year of university in 1990, the same year that the Three tenors sung at the FIFA World Cup in Italy. That was the moment that I really decided singing is going to be my thing.
I absolutely love choral music – I’m honoured to be patron of a number of choirs. Most of New Zealand’s great singers have grown and emerged through choirs, by participating in events like the Big Sing. When schools prioritise their music department, they tend to see some extraordinary talent emerge.


Can you tell us about your preparation for performances? Do you have a routine or a system?
I don’t have any rituals as such. Pavarotti used to always find a bent nail before going on stage to perform, but I don’t do anything like that. I try to keep my performance days as normal as possible. I avoid singing too much on the day or the day before, though sometimes there are rehearsals to sing through of course! I usually warm up by working on my technique, keeping my voice in good shape, and perhaps singing something from Parsifal or Das Rheingold.


What’s the hardest thing about your work?
Loneliness. My career takes me around the world, which is something I could only have dreamed of. I’ve been doing that for 20 years, and I’m incredibly grateful for it. But this does mean I’m often away from my family, my children, my schnauzers, and New Zealand. If you’re lucky to have success in this career, the one downside is that it can be a lonely life, so you have to get used to your own company.
I’m always very supportive of New Zealand’s singers who want to go overseas and study. I was lucky enough to receive a Fullbright Scholarship to study at the Manhattan School of Music, but unfortunately university fee structures have changed in recent years. I always worry about our students indebting themselves with crippling student loans to go and study abroad.


Who are your most inspiring composers?
I love Wagner and J. S. Bach, and also Mahler. One of my career highlights was being the tenor soloist in a recording of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil, which received a Grammy Award.


You perform in a number of opera houses and concert halls around the world. Do you have a favourite destination that you enjoy travelling to for work?
My absolute favourite is returning home to Birkenhead Point, Auckland, being with my family and the dogs. But I also love performing in Berlin, London, and Paris, and I lived in New York for ten years, which was incredible. 
I find I’m able to make the best of everywhere I go, but I’m mostly there for work so there’s usually only a limited time for sightseeing.


What performances do you have coming up in 2024?
In March 2024 I’ll be singing the role of Waldermar in a performance of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House. This will be spectacular, with an orchestra of 125 musicians and over 200 choristers.


How often have you sung Handel’s Messiah?
I first sung Messiah in Ashburton in 1987, and back then I was singing bass in the choir. The first time I sung a solo role in this work, I actually sung the bass part. Messiah is one of the absolute joys of the choral repertory and I’m looking forward to singing it with Auckland Choral soon.

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