WAO Ghost Spotlight with Paul O'Neill
The hustle and bustle of life in centre stage has quietened, but there is an exciting murmur of innovation and development in the wings. Whilst we’re away from the theatre, we will be shining a spotlight on our artists working in the Ghost Light to bring the magic of opera from our homes to yours. Engage with your state opera company on an intimate level and learn what techniques, challenges and reprieves exist in this ever-changing environment.
Join us with tenor Paul O’Neill as he shares his experience performing Ghost Light Opera in an eerily empty theatre, the chaos of production screeching to a halt, and his silver linings to slowing down.
1. Tell us about your experience performing Ghost Light Opera – what was the atmosphere like on the day of filming? Have you worked on digital opera recordings before?
When I was asked to perform for Ghost Light Opera everything was chaotic to say the least. I had flown back the previous weekend from Sydney to see my family after about two months of concerts and rehearsals. We were supposed to be going onsite the following week in Sydney for technical rehearsals when the show was cancelled. I had my good friend and colleague, Andy Moran, pack up my apartment and send my things to Perth, which I paid him handsomely for with a few rolls of white gold (a rare commodity at the time). Originally, the recording was scheduled for the evening but due to the ever-changing nature of chaos it had to be rescheduled to 9:30am. Not ideal, but necessary due to the theatre being closed that day by noon! Not to be dismayed I arrived, ready and able. I walked into the theatre, greeted everyone, had a quick warm up and was invited onto the stage. It was then that I came to a sudden realisation. A stage that was so familiar, so much like home, had become uncertain and almost foreign. An eerie atmosphere was radiating from the stage, the auditorium and the Ghost Light. Everyone there felt it, and no one could appease it. No one really knew what to say. Something was different.
I decided to start with ‘La donna e mobile’. This is an aria I have sung thousands of times over the last twenty years – if not in a production of Rigoletto itself, then in every second concert I have ever performed in. It took three takes because I forgot the words halfway through. That has NEVER happened before. I mention this because as opera singers we are used to singing under pressure, but that first aria took me by surprise. The rest of the recording was all in one take. I have performed with cameras many times before, so you just get back on the horse and go.
2. How important do you think it is to continue bringing musical moments to audiences whilst the theatres are dark? What do you think is the benefit?
I think it is imperative to create these musical moments and make them accessible to everyone. My experience in these last few months is that people have all been affected differently. Everyone has had to come to terms with things in their own way and have had different struggles and challenges to deal with. The arts are and always will be a conduit to transcend the present, and to find courage, wisdom, sympathy, love and especially peace in life. We all are looking for different things at different times and they can always be found in this one place, the arts.
3. What does working in the “ghost light” mean for you? What does your day look like now?
Working in the “ghost light” to me means working behind the scenes with the emphasis on working. Having been momentarily sidelined I have been able to focus on revisiting technique and studying pieces I’ve been wanting to sing but keep putting off for one reason or another. This will mean that when we all reopen (hopefully very soon) I’ll be singing better than ever and with a few new ‘party pieces’ to boot. This has also been a good time to ‘rest the chords’, which is very important but not always as possible as one may like.
4. What’s been the easiest adjustment during this time? And the hardest?
The easiest adjustment for me is being at home. It has also in a way been the hardest.
When this first started, as I said before, I was rehearsing in Sydney and was about to begin technical rehearsals and a thirteen-show season which would have taken me through to the end of April. I would have gotten on a plane and started rehearsals the next day for WAO’s Elijah, whilst preparing to sing Cav and Pag for WAO as well. This kind of constant learning and performing requires a tremendous amount of energy and headspace, whilst being totally invigorating at the same time. It’s why we do what we do. When it all stopped, it took a while to come down. I kept thinking, “I should be in Sydney now…I should be learning now” etc. When Chris van Tuinen posted “Tonight would have been opening night of Elijah…” on Facebook, I thought, “Wow, this was not the best Lent to give up wine.” On the other hand, it has been great just to slow down and be with my family and do simple things and spend time with one another. Always a silver lining.
5. What have you learned about yourself during this period?
I’ve learned that it is a good thing to stop and take heed of things and realise what is really important in life. Often, in the hustle and bustle of life, one might think that you are slowing down and taking stock until you are actually forced to. I will remember this crazy time and try to apply that in the future.
6. What are you watching, reading, playing, singing or listening to as a reprieve?
I must say I am not watching anything at all. I have been reading a bit but mostly singing and being domestic. After running around all day after the kids, shopping, cooking and cleaning, there is little time left for anything other than sleeping.
I am cooking though. I do most of the cooking when I’m at home, so I have been enjoying taking more time with that.
7. What’s on top of your to-do list when this is all over?
ABOUT PAUL O'NEILL
Australian tenor Paul O’Neill has forged a compelling international career singing in opera houses and concert halls throughout Europe and Australasia.
O’Neill was an ensemble member of the Berlin Staatsoper for many years before becoming a freelance artist. He has sung numerous roles including Italian tenor in Der Rosenkavalier, Duca di Mantoa in Rigoletto, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Turridu in Cavalleria Rusticana, Canio in I Pagliacci, Cavaradossi in Tosca, Carlo VII in Giovanna d’Arco, Jason in Médée, Faust in Faust, Don José in Carmen, Laca in Jenufa, Rodolfo in La Bohème, Alfredo in La Traviata, Elvino in La Sonnambula, Prince in Rusalka, Macduff in Macbeth, Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos and Radames in Aida.
O’Neill’s concert appearances include Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle and Stabat Mater; Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Verdi’s Requiem, Haydn’s Orlando Paladino, Orff’s Carmina Burana and Mendelssohn’s Elias and Lobgesang.
Upcoming roles include Macduff in Macbeth and Barny in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll for State Opera South Australia.