Welsh tenor Dennis O’Neill can truly be called one of the operatic all-time greats.
Since 1979, he’s appeared in nearly every season at the Royal Opera House, and his distinguished career has included major appearances, particularly in the Verdi roles, at Munich, Vienna, the Met, Chicago, Berlin and Paris.
His solo television series was enormously popular in the 1980s, his recordings remain leading examples of their kind, and in 2000 he was awarded the CBE.Now he’s back with the Royal Opera, for the first time since 2003’s Pagliacci, to perform the character of Elazor in two concert performances of La Juive at the Barbican this week. ‘It’s a new role for me, which makes it much more difficult. To do a part for the first time in concert has its own particular difficulties, because [in the opera house] the costumes and the make up give you a certain sort of freedom and your intentions can be very clearly seen in your attitude and acting, whereas in this case you have to get it all into your voice. You normally would do that musically anyway, but it makes it more difficult.
“But on the other hand it makes it easier too, because there’s far less to worry about and think about and memorise. In terms of revving myself up, it’s a job of work to be done, there’s a science to it, it’s hard work. The art is either there or not depending on the quality of the music and how good a singer you are.’
I ask him how it feels coming back to the opera house (where rehearsals have been taking place this week). “It always feels like home to me. I’ve been here since 1979 and I would say I’ve been back for at least three quarters of the seasons since. Apart from the very first role, which was Flavio in Norma in 1979 with Shirley Verrett, I’ve always sung very large and demanding roles here. That in a way was tough, and at the same time a good thing: it was good to do them at home, but home, the Royal Opera House, is one of the greatest opera houses in the world. The pressure was very heavy, though it doesn’t remain so now that I’ve gone away and made my name, such as it is, elsewhere, so it’s good fun. But at the beginning it was tough. This is now my 43rd visit to the opera house, and I’ve done precisely 190 performances for them.’
Dennis O’Neill is unusual in the length of his relationship with the Royal Opera, and we talk for a while on the changes he’s seen. ‘It’s changed enormously, mostly for the better. The building is unquestionably better from a working point of view, although pulling down walls does make a difference: there was an incredible atmosphere here in the old early Victorian house. It was a real theatre. I loved all those crazy corridors filled with pipes and God knows what. The front of house became a bit dowdy too, which was a shame. But I never bothered about that really, because that’s how it was built. So I had very mixed feelings indeed about the refurbishment of the House. Although there were no wing spaces, so it was very difficult for the boys and they worked very hard. And it was becoming dangerous – I was here that dreadful night when one of our stage engineers was killed, just before the performance of Don Carlo when I was singing the title role. It was a terrible, terrible thing and a dangerous place. So I have to concede that practicality must reign over sentimentality.
‘The House reflects how society has changed. When I first came here, you would dress smartly. The jacket and tie hadn’t by any means disappeared for singers in ordinary rehearsals. Certainly all the repetiteurs wore a tie, and suits for rehearsals had only gone by about ten years. So it was a very different place. Its links to a certain strata of society were more obvious than they are now – indeed they were heavier and more real. It’s much more cosmopolitan and not so class-bound. When I came here first I felt it very keenly and I didn’t like it – I don’t like it in any part of society, but life was like that. It’s not like that now; people are much friendlier and much more natural. On the stage, styles have changed – productions more than anything, and some of them are not successful I’m afraid.
“Singing has perhaps changed too. The world is not so much now the singer’s domain. When I started out it was the conductor’s domain. Most operatic conductors like good voices and well-trained singers above all else. So the fat lady did sing, and quite often! That was relatively unimportant. People now look back and say how dreadful it was. Well you know, it wasn’t dreadful at all, because these people concentrated in one direction and the outcome was that they were phenomenal singers. And that’s not a matter of opinion, because you can prove it very easily through recorded sound. We still have a few singers like that, but I think fewer.
“When I was understudying here in the early days, the regular tenors during those three years or so were Nicolai Gedda, Alfredo Kraus, Luciano Pavarotti, Jos Carreras was just starting, Plcido of course, and Carlo Bergonzi. These were the tenors that were here on a very regular basis indeed. So when you woke up in the morning and were covering one of those, you prayed that they weren’t going to get ill because you couldn’t possibly follow them! But also, it was like an academy. Now of course dramatic values have changed and I think that there is a danger in trying to make opera look like a television programme or even a drama in the straight theatre. I don’t think that’s the answer. I don’t think that opera really has much more in common with absolute straight theatre than ballet does. Opera is its own art form. It is a dramatic art form, as good ballet is. We don’t want a tenor to come on and hold his high C for half an hour – that’s going too far. But the pendulum has swung too much in the other direction and I think we must find a way to protect the vocal element of opera, which is what it’s all about in the end. I’m very worried about that.”
Starting in January 2007, O’Neill becomes the director of the Cardiff International Academy of Voice. It’s a long-cherished dream and involves six months of his time every year on training up some of the best young vocal talent. So, I ask him, is his fear for the loss of the vocal element of opera the reason why he’s making such a big commitment to the Cardiff project?
“It is – spot on! That’s exactly what it’s about. I’m 58 now and for a tenor that’s really quite old. The frustrating thing is that I feel easier about singing than I ever have. I’m really frustrated sometimes; I wish I couldn’t sing any more then I could get on with something else! But taking on the Cardiff thing is a big deal because I have to say no now, and I have to give up a lot of time. But that’s not so bad because I have my favourite places and my favourite roles and people that I like singing with. Some of the roles aren’t worth the effort now so I’m happy to say goodbye to them.”
At the moment, he has no plans to return to Covent Garden, so we move onto the current performances of La Juive. ‘It’s an opera of a particular kind, a kind that didn’t really last very long, only 50 or 60 years. It’s very, very French. The style of singing is florid. It finds its drama in very different ways to Bellini, Donizetti and certainly Verdi because it’s more delicate. But it’s still very dramatic. It’s extremely long, which is what the Parisian audience clearly expected, though I was reading the other day that some people think it was probably never performed in its entirety on a single evening because it must be at least five hours long. We’re starting at 6.30 and we’ve cut it down to about four hours. It’s a massive piece. It’s a spectacle. What Aida is for twenty minutes, this is all night long!
“The characters are well drawn,’ he continues. ‘What I found most extraordinary about the piece when I started studying it – and I didn’t really know it at all before – is that the text is appalling. The character of Elazor is so hard and bigoted, as are many of the other characters. It’s about religious hatred, and he goes far too far. It’s quite repulsive. All night, I’m singing, ‘These Christians – I hate them all!’. And I thought, why does anyone want to sing this character? He’s quite a hateful man. Rachel’s character is very sweet and very believable, more so than any of Puccini’s nice ladies. The story is a little difficult but what happens on the stage is very believable. The history behind it is interesting – at the start, Elazor has taken and brought up Cardinal Brogni’s daughter and there’s a nice little twist at the end.’
At the opera’s conclusion, Rachel is forced to jump to her death by the Cardinal Brogni, and just before Elazor is about to do likewise he reveals that Rachel is Brogni’s long-lost daughter. It’s a bit like Il trovatore, I suggest.
“Very – that’s a very good point. La Juive precedes Trovatore and one can’t help feeling that Verdi must have known it – many parts of it are so reminiscent. There’s the subject of a good essay there! Some of it is very beautiful. I think it’s pretty consistent in style, and what is beautiful is very beautiful indeed. On the other hand, there is a lot of mechanical, over-rhythmical recitative. However, that’s not very negative if you think about it. You really should hear it!
“A lot of it depends on the conductor, and I’m being sincere when I say that [Daniel Oren] is perfect for it. He’s very much a singer’s conductor. He knows what a singer needs, starts by saying how he thinks it should go, and as you go along and show what you can do, he starts to modify it. You feel you have a friend there. He’s very strict, and he has a great instinct for style. That’s a real opera conductor.’
“And my colleague Alastair Miles is very good indeed [as Brogni]. I can’t imagine anyone doing it better, and the girls are wonderful too. I think it’s going to be stunning: it’s very strongly cast.”
The composer O’Neill has been most associated with is Verdi. For the Royal Opera alone, he has sung Macduff, the Duke of Mantua, Gustavus, Don Carlo, Foresto, Radames, Otello, Jacopo, Aroldo, Ismaele, Carlo VII and Alfredo, and elsewhere his roles include Manrico, Gabriele Adorno, Oberto and of course, the Verdi Requiem. Is that for vocal considerations or affection for his music, I ask him.
“It sort of happened, really. I started in Opera For All in Scotland. We toured round all the tiniest church and school halls with just a piano and no chorus, but it was staged. It was terrific. The repertoire was mostly Rossini, and I didn’t have the high notes so it was a pretty miserable time of my life. I hadn’t really learnt to sing because I couldn’t get into any music colleges. Also, I didn’t have any money at all so I couldn’t pay for lessons either. But suddenly I did this audition, and the chap who was going to do it got a better offer somewhere else, and they were four or five days from opening the rehearsals. I don’t think any of us that auditioned were any good really, I was just marginally the best and I got the job. So I learnt it on the job, though I later got time off and got scholarships and went to Italy. I learnt mostly from other singers, though.
“After I got out of that, I went to Australia, to join the State Opera of South Australia in touring round the country. At that time I was singing Ferrando in Cos fan tutte. Suddenly, I became very uncomfortable for the first time. I was beginning to understand what the voice should do, but I didn’t know enough and Mozart, particularly that role, is fiendishly difficult. And I couldn’t do it.
“Then by some incredible coincidence they said they were going to do La bohme and wondered if they could use me as a cover. I auditioned for it and suddenly felt, this is me: this is part of my personality. I always tell this to young singers – you must find what’s right for you and become a listener again. Enjoy the music and find the music that excites you, that makes you feel happy. I found it then in that month, but I wasn’t ready for singing it of course. I had to study, and with what tiny amounts of money I could get together, I went to Italy for two or three weeks at a time and found the top notes. Then I started to audition for these roles again and was successful, though I was told not to touch Verdi: wrong. There’s Verdi and there’s Verdi, isn’t there! I got my break when I was offered Alfredo in Traviata and that was it, it was so easy.”
Clearly, this experience was a career highlight. But there was another, perhaps unexpected performance that O’Neill feels particularly happy about.
“Well, I’ve been lucky – I’ve been involved with lots of big events, galas and so on – so there are many of those memories. But I think artistically, although it may not have been obvious to the audience, I remember when I was invited to sing Foresto in Attila here with Ted Downes in Elijah Moshinsky’s new production. I looked at the part and thought, this is tailor-made for me. So I really was enthusiastic about it. And when I arrived, it was even more for me than I’d thought. I had to keep quiet, I was so excited! The first night was a colossal success – it was the biggest success I’ve ever had. I suddenly thought, now I’m alright, I’m a mature singer now.”
O’Neill’s Cardiff Academy is of course a sign of his investment in future talent. However, when I ask him if he’s optimistic about opera in years to come, he apologies for being negative but says, “No, not at all. I’m worried. Very worried. It’s all very well talking about the Royal Opera House or the Vienna Staatsoper. There is a tourist element, frankly, and people will always come here. You’ll always have the very best singers. So expensive though it may be, people will save up to say they’ve been here. But the other houses, which are in a way more important to the cultural life of the country – Welsh National Opera, which I’m very fond of, Scottish Opera, Opera North – they’re all experiencing problems. They aren’t selling as well as they used to, even Glyndebourne. There’s a struggle. I’m not convinced that this is necessarily an economic problem. I think there has been a period in the provinces where people were more conservative than they would be in London, as you’d expect. There was a period of ten or more years where there was a lot of experimentation going on. I’d walk down the street and people would say, ‘What was that rubbish last week? I’m not going there again!’. That sort of thing. And they stayed away. Common sense dictates that if that person stays away, they will also not bring their children to the opera. That is what we’re seeing now.
“How we reverse that, I don’t know. The internet is very important – the fact that, for example, La Juive will be broadcast on the radio and internet in November will give us all a world audience, which was unthinkable at one time. Now it’s an open world and I think that’s terrific. But I’m very worried, because what the public, particularly outside of London, want to hear is voce – voice. They want to hear people do things that they can’t. It’s like when you see an instrumental virtuoso – one of the wonderful things is not that they can make the music live off the page, but the fact that they can do these extraordinary things! Similarly, when you hear a tenor hit a high C, you may not know it’s a high C if you don’t have perfect pitch, but you can feel it: how the heck did he do that? There’s something superhuman about it. If we don’t give them that, everything could come to an end.”
We come to the end of the interview, and I ask O’Neill what he would like to be remembered for. “Oh dear!” comes the reply. So I tell him of a comment made by Royal Opera Music Director Antonio Pappano at the press conference to announce the 2006-7 season: he described Dennis O’Neill as ‘one of the unacknowledged heroes of opera’ and was clearly glad that he’s back to sing in La Juive. The tenor seems touched by this. ‘Well I never knew he said that. I think I’d like to be remembered as a tenor of the people. I’m a very emotional singer – that’s why I get on with Verdi. I’m very committed: I don’t ever go on with the attitude that I can just sail through it. For me, singing is very emotional – it doesn’t mean it’s the only way to sing, but I happen to sing emotional music so I have no choice! That’s what turns me on as a member of the audience. I still go to opera a lot with my wife, I really love it.
“When somebody comes on and does something dazzling, well that’s fantastic. But when somebody comes on and really tries to rip me out of the chair, I literally break down into tears – it’s a wonderful experience. So I hope they will remember me as someone who gave them their money’s worth.”
Dennis O’Neill performs La Juive with the Royal Opera at the Barbican Hall on Tuesday 19 and Thursday 21 September 2006. Tickets can be booked through the Barbican box office, or online to take advantage of a special ticket offer.