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As a child Simon O’Neill played rugby and would not have been caught dead singing. But his doctor’s advice to improve his lung capacity set him on a new path. Susan Sandys reports.
Opera star Simon O’Neill was back where it all began this week, at his home in Ashburton.
The 47-year-old tenor had an almost sell-out crowd in awe at the Ashburton Trust Event Centre on Thursday night, as the venue reverberated with his powerful voice, bringing classics to life such as selections from Pearl Fishers, Madama Butterfly, Don Carlo, Otello and Tosca, and one of the best-known arias of all time, Nessun Dorma.
O’Neill was in his element, doing something he wishes he had of done more of in recent times – performing in front of a home crowd, including his old school friends, family and many acquaintances from his years growing up.
Simon O’Neill in Concert is on tour throughout New Zealand and Ashburton was the premier event, representing the first time he has performed in the town for about four years.
O’Neill’s path to becoming an opera star started when he was just nine, when he visited the doctor for asthma.
Dr Munns told his mother Gabrielle that her son should swim and take up a wind instrument.
He soon joined the Ashburton Silver Band, learning the baritone and euphonium.
It instilled in him a love of music and he also took up piano. His parents always thought he had a good boy soprano voice, but he generally shied away from performances.
“I played rugby, I wouldn’t have been caught dead singing,” he said.
He started to get over that as he got into high school at Ashburton College. While in the First XV and a cricketer and basketball player, he became a keen participant in musicals written and directed by music teacher Gordon McGee and English teacher Roderick Lonsdale.
Teacher Robert Aburn soon came on board to lead the music department.
Aburn had a great influence on O’Neill, inspiring him in his singing. At the age of about 15 he joined the Phoenix Choir and an acapella group called Steve and the Fat Boys.
In 1989 he auditioned for the New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir and got in, all of a sudden finding himself among the best young singers from high schools throughout New Zealand.
“It put me into a new echelon of music making, particularly singing.”
Music was always going to be his career path, but he had intended to follow in his mother’s footsteps, and those of his “heroes” Aburn and McGee, and become a teacher.
“I had no idea I would be travelling the world singing in all these places, my dream was to be a high school music teacher.”
He aimed to study classical singing at the University of Otago or the University of Canterbury, but he did not get in on auditions.
One of the panel he was auditioning in front of at Otago was renowned pianist Terrence Dennis, who is now accompanying O’Neill for the Kiwi concert tour, alongside fellow famous opera star Ian Paterson.
“Now we perform all around the world together,” O’Neill said of Dennis.
“And I always remind him how he didn’t take me into singing in 1990, and he laughs.”
But O’Neill has no hard feelings on the matter.
“I’m sure I did a very, very poor audition,” he said.
He decided to study music instead, but was able to change to singing as his major in the second year.
He worked his way through Otago with holiday jobs in Ashburton at the local freezing works, where he would sing along as he worked on the chain.
Developing his opera voice became his main goal, as he revelled in compositions from the greats such as Handel and Mozart.
O’Neill went on to complete an honours degree at Victoria University in Wellington, where he worked as a singing waiter at a restaurant in the capital.
He would get $50 extra each night for adding his vocals to the hospitality role.
In 1995 he was invited to sing at Auckland Opera in the Park, a performance which put him on the opera industry radar.
Before tens of thousands of people he stunned crowds alongside Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and his parents were there.
“It was magic,” recalls Gabrielle today.
The same year New Zealand Post featured him on the $1 stamp and O’Neill’s proud dad Brian bought 100 of them and had them framed.
Shortly after O’Neill won a Fullbright scholarship and went to New York to train at the Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard School of Music.
He grew to love the city and was devastated on 9/11, when he watched from a nearby high-rise building as the twin towers crumbled to the ground.
Classes were cancelled that day, but the next day he went to a singing lesson with a Juilliard teacher, despite the smell of burning drifting up throughout Manhattan.
“We couldn’t really concentrate, but we did it anyway.”
He was in young artists’ programmes and performed in small opera companies, before getting his big break in 2004.
After an audition at the Metropolitan Opera in New York he became the understudy to Placido Domingo.
“From then my life just took off, I have been so grateful for my whole life with music.”
O’Neill is now based in Auckland and tours around the world, entertaining audiences of thousands, including royalty and celebrities, in some of the most magnificent opera houses and theatres.
Renowned internationally as the Wagnerian tenor of his generation, he is a vehicle for the magic of opera, an art form which has the power to move hearts and souls, if not heaven and earth.
But it is not applause or plaudits which inspire O’Neill, rather it is getting his performance right every time.
“It’s just about the music for me.
“It moves me and I love it to move the listener as well,” he said.
© The Ashburton Guardian - 6 July 2019
AshHutt girls’ rugby coach Grant Elvines had just one word to sum up his side’s latest loss in the Aoraki secondary schools girls’ rugby competition, and that was frustration.
It was the most appropriate word to sum up his side’s 49-24 loss to Timaru Girls’ High School (TGHS) at Celtic on Wednesday evening, Elvines said.
TGHS came to town as the competition’s top-of-the-table side, and they showed why they are where they are, pouncing every time the AshHutt girls made a mistake and scoring.
The combination Ashburton College and Mount Hutt College side simply gave away too much ball, and every time they did it cost them both when it came to focus, and points on the board.
Elvines said that in defence AshHutt produced a number of periods of play where he thought they might have been able to produce a comeback, but TGHS were quick to snuff out any opportunities that AshHutt might have created.
“The forwards ran with a lot of endeavour and the backs threw it about a bit, but we were guilty of too many basic errors, and of missing far too many tackles,” Elvines said.
But, the AshHutt girls did manage to put together four pretty good tries to Emma Rollinson, Tara Mellish, and two to Madison Trusler-Clark.
“Ultimately though, we got outplayed, and the final score of 49-24 was a fair indication of the game,” Elvines said.
The girls’ competition will now be taking a break for two weeks for the school holidays.
© The Ashburton Guardian - 6 July 2019
When it returns on July 24 AshHutt will be off to Timaru for a clash with Waitaki Girls’ High School, the team currently bottom of the table without a win to their names.
Meanwhile, that’s the position the Mid Canterbury Combined boys’ first XV find themselves in today, still bottom of the table in the Crusaders region secondary schools’ rugby competition, the UC Championship.
They are heading off to Christchurch today looking to change that, but their opposition this week – Shirley Boys’ High School – are likely to pose another tough challenge.
The Shirley boys are currently sitting in 10th spot on the table with three wins from their nine games.
The UC Championship will also take a break over the holidays, and return on July 27 when Mid Canterbury Combined will again be on the road, this time to Rangiora High School, a team sixth on the table heading into this round.
The Ashburton College A basketball side have bounced back from a difficult loss last week to record a strong victory against Burnside High School 92-69 on Tuesday night.
Playing in the Oxford Street Stadium, AshColl started off with a man-to-man defence and whilst it was initially effective Burnside were able to counter well.
They were also able to get in too many second shots as College were guilty of not boxing out efficiently.
Offensively College were able to find the hoop as Burnside did not cover the outside shots, and the hosts were able to take a 22-19 lead.
In the second quarter, College went back to a 2-3 zone which allowed them to initiate their fast break.
The home-side defence began working well as a unit, pressuring the ball and making the Burnside players force either the shot or the pass.
When Burnside changed up their defence, firstly to a zone press, it initially worked, however College were able to break it with ease.
When they matched up, College were able to utilise the pick and roll aspect of their offence and scored some easy points.
Burnside kept working hard but College continued to extend their lead to 48-39 at the break.
The third quarter of the game saw College again being able to drive to the basket through the pick and roll and getting to the foul line.
Their zone defence effectively shut down the Burnside offence as they struggled to get any momentum.
There were plenty of turnovers for the College boys to convert into easy layups as they stretched their lead to 72-55.
The fourth quarter was more of the same as College’s momentum continued as once again they were able to outscore the Burnside team running out 92-69 winners.
Coach Brian Kerr was able to play his entire bench throughout the game, which proved a profitable move.
William Joyce got some good minutes in and highlighted his undoubted ability by dropping four 3-pointers in his 16 point display.
Quinn Ritchie top scoring with 31 points (six 3-pointers) leading the way with another good all round performance.
Fotu Hala with 12 points was strong on the defensive boards and was able to initiate a lot of the fast breaks that were damaging to Burnside.
Riley Sa also added 10 points in a tidy display.
Kerr said it was a good result after the disappointment of last week’s loss.
© The Ashburton Guardian - 4 July 2019