Home-grown talent takes centre stage

Simon O’Neill as Siegmund in Die Walkure at the Metropolitan Opera,  New York. Photo: supplied
Simon O’Neill as Siegmund in Die Walkure at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Photo: supplied
In a rare event, the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra is dedicating a full concert to opera featuring home-grown talent with international credentials — Anna Leese and Simon O’Neill. 
Rebecca Fox talks to the Covent Garden singers about surviving the effects of Covid-19.

Life since Covid-19 hit has been tough for opera singers Simon O’Neill and Anna Leese, but in very different ways.

Leese, a soprano who is based in Dunedin, had her second child during lockdown alone because of Covid-19 restrictions and her husband, Stefano Guidi, who is in full-time care in a residential facility due to motor neurone disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), was unable to come home to spend time with them due to the same restrictions.

Dunedin-based soprano and University of Otago alumna Anna Leese  will perform in the first DSO...
Dunedin-based soprano and University of Otago alumna Anna Leese will perform in the first DSO concert of the year. Photo: supplied
"He could not meet his new son. We could not see him at all. His communication devices all seem to break down at the same time. I couldn’t even send him a text — I haven’t been able to call him on the phone for years.

"There was zero communication for quite a long time when he just had a new-born son. It was gutting."

For O’Neill, a tenor, it has meant being home-bound in New Zealand fighting for more than $40,000 in refunds from cancelled flights and watching his international calendar rapidly empty.

"It’s not what I planned for 2020. There was a lot of opera singing all around the world in various important cities. My career is mapped out years in advance, but everything postponed or cancelled — if you don’t sing you don’t get paid. It’s pretty harsh."

Yet both can see the positives the situation has also afforded them, especially time at home with their families.

O‘Neill: "I’m absolutely grateful to be here in paradise. It’s the longest I’ve been in New Zealand since the early 1990s. I’m loving every second of it with my three children and my wife."

Leese: "It’s been a hard year but it brought us Samuel."

So, instead of performing international gigs, O‘Neill, who is based in Auckland, spent the time trying to recover the money from cancelled flights as well as taking on the responsibility of child care, allowing his wife, a barrister, to concentrate on her career.

"It took a lot of work. I got 90% back."

He has also been concentrating on learning some of the big roles in opera, especially Tristan and Siegfried.

"I have my pianos here. I’ve never felt more fit, singing-wise."

Auckland-based tenor and University of Otago alumnus Simon O’Neill  will perform with the DSO for...
Auckland-based tenor and University of Otago alumnus Simon O’Neill will perform with the DSO for the first time. Photo: supplied
Despite losing all of his international work, O’Neill, who lived in New York and London for nearly 20 years, has not let that discourage him from creating his own in New Zealand. He has curated concerts and performed with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Auckland Philharmonic and also performed recitals for the likes of the Arrowtown Creative Arts Society.

"These sorts of thing have kept me very busy."

Another of those concerts is the 2021 Celebration Concert with the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra later this month.

As he was no longer performing in Germany as expected this month, he found he finally had an opening to do something he has wanted for a long time: perform with the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra.

O’Neill, who trained as a singer in Dunedin and played tuba for the St Kilda Brass Band, found his international schedule never allowed for a DSO concert. A planned concert late last year with the DSO was cancelled due to a Covid outbreak in Auckland.

"I’m excited to get back to Dunedin to perform; it’s going to be a really cool concert."

He is looking forward to performing a programme of grand opera alongside Leese, whom he also corralled into an Auckland performance last year.

"She’s a beautiful singer."

The pair have come up with a programme of music they love, including favourite scenes and arias from Bizet’s Carmen, Beethoven’s Fidelio, Mozart’s Idomeneo and Verdi’sOthello.

They will be joined by soprano Rhiannon Cooper from the University of Otago, the City Choir Dunedin and leading New Zealand conductor Kenneth Young (also the Mozart Fellow).

Leese is full of praise for O’Neill’s motivation to provide opportunities for New Zealand-bound singers to perform.

"Through hard work and perseverance, he’s created quite a few opportunities to perform and bring back some income."

Like O’Neill, Leese had many bookings cancelled but it gave her extra time at home with Samuel.

"The year I started with was completely different to the year I finished with, but then, through Simon, there were a few concerts that came about unexpectedly."

Given her family situation, Leese is very selective about which performances she accepts.

"I have to weigh it up as it takes me away from my family ... having a home gig is great as I don’t have to travel."

Most of her preparation is done at night after she puts Samuel and older brother Matteo to bed.

"At the moment Samuel is sleeping so badly ... I’m too exhausted, I collapse after I get them off to bed."

Her solution has been to make a Spotify playlist of the pieces and play them in the car everywhere she goes. The music scores are open on the kitchen bench which allows her to read and memorise the music whenever time allows.

Many of the pieces for the upcoming concert she has sung before, although Desdemona from Othello is new to her.

"This will be the first performance with an orchestra. The highlight for me will be doing Willow for this first time. It’s always been one of my favourite pieces of music."

Alongside her freelance career, Leese also teaches voice part-time at the University of Otago.

"I love it. It’s an awesome job. I’ve wanted to do it for so long. That it’s part-time suits me very well. I’m very lucky."

O’Neill is also enjoying teaching at the Whanganui Opera School.

"The talent is good, but the potential is amazing."

While itching to head overseas again to perform, he is perfectly happy to stay in New Zealand until the Covid situation settles down.

"I will not be hanging up my boots ... I love it. It’s a honour to represent New Zealand at that level. But who knows what the situation will be for some of the great opera houses which have not been working now for a year, or year and a-half?"


Celebrating 2021, Dunedin  Symphony Orchestra
Saturday,  February 20 at 7.30pm
Dunedin Town  Hall

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