‘Richard Wagner is the greatest thing one can enjoy musically’, says tenor Simon O’Neill

New Zealand tenor Simon O'Neill is hailed as one of the greatest Wagnerian tenors of his generation.

Simon O’Neill, centre, performs during the second act of Richard Wagner’s opera, Parsifal. Enrico Nawrath / EPA
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There are many words that might be used to describe Richard Wagner – masterful, momentous, zealous, controversial, bigoted and genius spring to mind.

One word not often associated with the 19th-century composer of high romantic opera, however, is “cool” – yet this is the adjective repeatedly invoked by Simon O’Neill. His opinion carries some weight – he is hailed as one of the greatest Wagnerian tenors of his generation, yet his down-to-earth, pretension-free drawl is a world away from the usual operatic clichés.

The native New Zealander will make his UAE debut on Thursday (October 6), opening the 2016/17 Abu Dhabi Classics season with – in his words – a “Wagner highlight reel”, alongside the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.

After attending New York’s Juilliard School – where he was tutored, briefly, by Luciano Pavarotti – he spent several years as Plácido Domingo’s understudy at the Metropolitan Opera.

His big break came in 2008, when he stepped up to make his lead debut at the career-making New York opera house as Die Walküre's Siegmund – a now-signature role that the 44-year-old has since performed at London's Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and Milan's Teatro alla Scala. The latter was released on DVD.

In 2010, O'Neill conquered the ultimate Wagnerian peak, debuting at Bayreuth Festival – the annual month-long celebration founded by the composer to present his epic Ring Cycle in 1876 – in the title role of Lohengrin. He returned a year later as Parsifal's hero – excerpts from both operas will be performed in Abu Dhabi.

Already, O’Neill has worked under the baton of legendary conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Colin Davis, James Levine, Antonio Pappano, Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle.

Much of Thursday's programme can be found on his 2010 solo debut release, Father and Son Wagner Scenes and Arias, which used the paternal pairings of Parsifal and Lohengrin, and Siegmund and Siegfried to explore the groundbreaking sweep of Wagner's mature career.

Did you choose Siegmund, or did Siegmund choose you?

That’s a really cool question. In my early thirties, just as I was finishing my studies, I discovered the big German repertoire of Wagner and Beethoven. It sort of found me, I guess, and I put the glove on and it fit – which was really cool. It’s like acting one of the great pieces of Shakespeare – how are you, on that particular night, going to play the part of Hamlet or Macbeth? [Siegmund] is one of the great roles. I just love him, he’s a great guy, he has a great death, everything about the role is cool – “cool” is my embarrassing word to describe how much I love the stuff.

“Cool”? Wagner is a little like musical Marmite...

There are very few people on this globe who grow up saying: “I love Wagner” – there are people, but they’re a wee bit peculiar, I would say. It’s like a virus, being bitten. For me, I don’t see anything else anymore. Wagner is the greatest thing one can enjoy musically – this [performance] might be a chance for someone in the city who has never heard Wagner before – and on this night, you never know, they might get bitten like I did.

Many would say Wagner’s work was the epoch of a form that has never progressed further.

Wagner would probably say that himself. He was an absolute megalomanic. He wrote not just music but the words, lighting direction, stage direction, every single thing – much like the Freddie Mercury of his day. Although I doubt Mercury would ever like to be put with Wagner, as he was a pretty nasty person. But he was a genius.

What, then, do you think is the biggest misconception about Wagner?

That Wagner was a friend of Hitler. Wagner died six years before Hitler was born. Hitler wrote all these things about [turning] Parsifal into a religion. He loved Wagner [but] there are some operas I find wouldn't have worked well for the Third Reich – the Ring Cycle was not a success story. You listen to 17 hours and by the end, everyone is dead.

Do we make too much of Wagner’s notoriously unpleasant views?

All those things are very easy to read. We live in a time now which is not much different – Donald Trump [might start] playing the overture to Rienzi when he walks into his next political rally – which was one of the great [Wagner] operas used as the Führer drove his Mercedes into rallies. It would not be too far from what we're hearing out of his mouth.