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Alfa Male: Simon O'Neill, opera singer

Alfa Male: Simon O'Neill, opera singer

Opera is an expensive business, but there’s expensive and then there’s expensive. “The Metropolitan Opera in New York runs on a budget of about a million dollars a day. A day,” says Auckland tenor Simon O’Neill.

“My big career break was as the Met’s cover for Placido Domingo. I’d sit on the stage, ready to go on if he needed me, and for that I was paid $4000 a night. To sit on the side of the stage and watch my idol sing. So consider the fact that New Zealand Opera is putting on these extraordinary productions for just a few million dollars total. It’s a form of genius.”

O’Neill sings Cavaradossi, the tenor lead in Puccini’s Tosca. He’s played the part at the Berlin State Opera, the Hamburg State Opera, in Tokyo at the New National Theatre… “My career is Wagner, essentially, and Puccini has been my love affair on the side. I get into the great opera houses with Wagner. Once I’m in there, they say, hey, can you do Puccini for us as well? It’s not so common to mix the styles these days; people are more specialised.”

His voice is what Germans call a “heldentenor”, a heroic tenor. “Often that means I sing just the big heavy roles, Verdi’s Otello, Wagner’s Siegfried… Cavaradossi is a far more romantic part. Beautiful sweeping ardent phrases. Wagner is angular. Wagner is a Mercedes G-class wagon. Boxy, straight lines. Puccini is an Alfa Romeo, all curves. Cavaradossi, you sing for under one hour. A role like Siegfried, you sing for over three hours. Definitely a marathon. I train for the marathon, but Wagner, Wagner, Wagner — do it too much, it kills your voice. Mixing in some Puccini is like pouring olive oil over my vocal cords.”

Tosca, New Zealand Opera, Aotea Centre, September 17-27, ticketmaster.co.nz

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