In 2009, Simon O’Neill got a phone call that stopped him in his tracks.
“Is this the hero? Is this the warrior of such noble daring?” – Otello, Verdi
That’s not quite what the voice on the end of the phone was asking, but for Simon O’Neill, it amounted to the same thing.
Could he step in for a sick tenor to sing Otello, in concert, with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Colin Davis as maestro? Could he do that tomorrow night? Did he know Otello?
Simon O’Neill said yes, immediately. “Otello is such a phenomenal role and the score is so glorious, I had to say yes. I only knew half the role, really. And it wasn’t until I walked out onto stage and saw all the microphones that I realised it was a live recording.” Despite his utter lack of preparation, the praise flooded in – “an immense performance”, said The Times, a “tremendous debut”, said The Telegraph, “I can’t think of an Otello to touch him,” said Keith McDonnell, a prominent UK Critic.
It was the realisation of a long-held dream – O’Neill had been workshopping this role with two of opera’s greats for years: firstly, with Italian maestro Riccardo Mutti, and second, with none other than Placido Domingo – “the greatest Otello of the last half-century. These were the two that started teaching me this role,” O’Neill says.
The New-Zealand born and based tenor is affable, unassuming and self-deprecating as he speaks of a career that has taken in pretty much every major opera house in the world. He was a student at Julliard when he first realised he had a powerful voice – a voice suited to the heavier German repertoire. Between tuition with some of opera’s brightest stars (Pavarotti and Horne, to name a couple), he started on Wagner’s Siegmund. And then Lohengrin, and then Parsifal. “Once you get bitten by the Wagner bug it’s very hard to get rid of the disease,” he laughs.
He holds a similar reverence for Verdi, describing the score of Otello as a “wave of wonderfulness which just washes over you”.
“I just cannot wait to do this role on stage. Dramatically, the character of Otello is a gift to try and portray. The music is so delicious, the Verdi is so unbelievably great,” he gushes.
He describes a musical moment at the end of Act 1, as Otello and Desdemona sing a love duet, where a single note reveals something of Otello’s emotion. “There’s an E natural which is right in the crack of the tenor voice. It has a real sense of vulnerability – not insecurity, but vulnerability – both dramatically and vocally. It’s a terrifying, beautiful moment.”
Before the duet is over, the audience already has glimpses of Otello’s pride and weaknesses.
The part is incredibly demanding, and O’Neill sings at least a part of the score everyday to keep his voice in shape for the role. “Verdi’s music is like a scalpel,” he explains. “It can cut people off at the legs, when Otello’s searing anger bursts out. That has to grow inside the character. One has to keep vocally under control, or you’ll sing yourself out every night. You want to have the voice simmering at 85 per cent.”
The opening line is impossibly beautiful and very short, “but boy, it takes you to the extremes of the voice! You need the resources of a heldentenor for this part – stamina and power to make sure you won’t die on stage.”
Already on first-name basis with some of Verdi’s great interpreters, O’Neill has turned to some of Shakespeare’s greatest interpreters to find the character, heading regularly to the Globe Theatre in London when he has the chance. Watching actors portray the great moor has helped him find the nuances in the character.
“Otello is more than a war hero. You see his tenderness, his poetry and his intelligence. It’s one of the greatest roles in Shakespeare, and then you add Verdi’s glorious score.”
Despite his illustrious career in Europe and America, O’Neill has chosen to base himself in his native New Zealand, with his wife and young children. “But I love to come back to New Zealand or Australia and perform. I want my home audiences to hear me singing these great roles in my prime. I don’t want to be locked away in America and Europe.”
O’Neill was last on the Opera Australia Stage for Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, in 2009. “Returning to Sydney is so exciting,” he says. “I love the opera company and I love the city. It’s an honour to sing in the Sydney Opera House.”
O’Neill is quick to point out that he is only at the start of his journey with the character of Otello – unlike the man he learnt it from. “I wish you could talk to Placido Domingo about playing Otello,” he says. “You learn so much every time you perform a role. I want to create this role with the director. I don’t go in with a book of my own ideas.”
O’Neill will debut Otello at the Sydney Opera House in July. Book your tickets here.
Want more? Listen to O’Neill singing Puccini’s Nessun Dorma from Turandot: