Simon O\'Neill
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Q&A: Simon O'Neill

An interview with the heldentenor who performs an art song recital this weekend for the Dallas Opera.

published Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Photo: Lisa Kohler
Simon O'Neill

Dallas — Art Song is the close stylistic cousin of the operatic aria. An art song is typically a freestanding work, or sometimes part of a larger cycle, that is nevertheless not part of an organized narrative. Not sung by any specific character, this freedom allows the song to be personal and intimate, a close reflection of the poetry of its lyric and in the best cases its singer.

Over the last several years, The Dallas Opera has celebrated the wealth of non-opera-based singing with its annual Titus Art Song Recital Series, endowed in honor of patrons Robert E and Jean Ann Titus. The 2019 installment features prominent tenor Simon O’Neill in a program of Schumann, Wagner and Beethoven. Mr O’Neill, a native of New Zealand, has had a celebrated career, first as a pianist and now as one of the premier heldentenor voices in the world. He also has a newly released CD collection of German lieder called Distant Beloved on Decca, many of whose songs will be presented at the recital at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan 27 at Moody Performance Hall in the Dallas Arts District.

O’Neill was happily forthcoming about the program, the unique aspects of lieder versus the operatic literature and his New Zealand roots:


TheaterJones: Dallas is becoming more aware of the New Zealand music scene, with the recent appointment of Gemma New as DSO principal guest conductor.

Simon O’Neill: New Zealand is a wonderful country to grow up. After completing my studies in New York and then being based out of London my wife and I were very glad to return home to bring up our three kids. I now ‘commute’ to my northern hemisphere operatic and concert engagements returning to my home on the Pacific Ocean frequently throughout the year. As a country we are very proud of Gemma New and her new position with Dallas Symphony. Having performed Die Walkure with the DSO and the incredible Jaap van Zweden, I know that the Gemma will very much enjoy the musicians and making music in the incredible Morton M. Meyerson [Symphony Center] — one of my absolute favorite places to sing on the globe!


What stylistic are the stylistic differences and similarities of Art Song or lieder in comparison with opera performance?

I hope the audience will be curious to hear a larger instrument in the recital context - I also hope the listener will enjoy my new Decca release of German Lieder which many of the pieces will be performed in the Dallas recital. I have performed lieder throughout my whole life, both as a singer and as a pianist. Over the past decade I have been fortunate to perform the great role of Siegmund in Wagner’s Die Walkure over 80 times—there are so many moments throughout the role that call for a tenderness, a poetic warmth that can easily be drawn from singing Lieder. The lieder aspect can be seen in the ‘Friedmund darf ich nicht Heissen’ monologue during the first act of Walkure. This monologue is where the character explains the great pain of his life story to date. The performance of Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe' is a fantastic entree to this sort of singing. The Wagner grouping on the recital contains his Wesendonck Lieder which was the study on which he based Tristan und Isolde. I am preparing the role of Tristan at the moment—the Wesendonck group has been a wonderful exercise into the opera.


German lieder, particularly Schumann and Beethoven, are frequently about longing and loss. You touch on this connection in your CD notes. Are there specific thematic connections between the works in this concert?

I am very humbled to be invited to perform this recital in the prestigious Titus Art Song series for 2019—my operatic schedule up to now has not allowed me the time to devote to being a recitalist, so I am grateful for the opportunity. Generally, the theme of this recital is ‘distance.’ Travel plays a significant part in the life of any opera singer, and, whilst I am privileged to have the opportunity to sing Siegmund, Siegfried, Parsifal and many other dream roles in the great opera houses and concert halls of the world, my career takes me away from home and loved ones for over nine months each year. Such is the singer’s lot. The title of my new Decca album, Distant Beloved, is deeply evocative for me. Though I may be performing on the opposite side of the world, my thoughts are never far from my beautiful wife and children, and our wonderful family home in New Zealand, overlooking endless majesty of the Pacific Ocean.


What aspects of these songs and compositions speak to you during performance? How do you bring these aspects forward?

I adore the song repertoire of Schumann and Beethoven, they speak directly to my heart. In both performing the works and in listening to the great recitalists like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Christian Gehaher I get a great thrill. Being a pianist, I am fully involved with both aspects of the song in performance. I get great inspiration from the piano part—particularly in Schumann as the composer frequently takes the piano line to a dramatic climax which surpasses that of the vocal. 

My priority in performing the recital and in the recording of the accompanying Decca CD is that of the aspiration of honest singing. What do I mean by that? To me, honest singing is one voice—a voice that has the same DNA in Strauss’ delicate Lied ‘Die Nacht’ and in the expansive second act aria from Die Frau when Schatten where the vocal instrument is taken to extremities. I am not a fan of singers who sing with multiple voices with audible changes between registers. I hope to couple my operatic career more frequently with recitals—when I sing this music it is such a joy, a sincerely hope the Dallas audience enjoy the music as much as I do in performing it for you. Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Simon O'Neill
An interview with the heldentenor who performs an art song recital this weekend for the Dallas Opera.
by Keith Mankin

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