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Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, June 22, 2000

www.stuartneill .com
His first voice lesson made Stuart Neill laugh: "This
sound was coming out of me! I thought it was very
funny. My friends would make fun of me because
I was making these weird noises."

Tenor has
no patience for

By Cynthia Oi


There's Bordeaux, then there's Kool-Aid. One is excellent, the other OK.

The problem, according to Stuart Neill, is appreciating the difference.

The Grammy Award-winning tenor will make his Honolulu debut Wednesday as part of the weeklong Hawaii International Choral Festival.

The articulate 35-year-old singer broke away from a game of computer solitaire -- he was losing anyway --at his Philadelphia home last week to talk about opera, his career, mediocrity and the difference between hot dogs and steak.

Neill came to opera by way of a Sherwin-Williams paint store in his native Georgia, where he worked as a credit manager. He was singing away in a warehouse one day when an official for the Metropolitan Opera competition walked into the store and heard him.

"He thought it was the radio, but someone said, "Oh, no. That's just Stuart Neill back there.' "

The man recognized the voice and the name because Neill had won the national competition three years before in 1988 but had returned to Georgia to help his family financially. The official urged him to find a way to sing again.

On his 26th birthday, Neill made the decision.

"I remember waking up that morning and very clearly looked in the mirror and said "Either you have to do it now or forget it.' "

With the help of his community and friends, he raised money and went to study at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. In 1992, he won first prize in the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition.

He made his professional debut in 1993 in Paris, singing Verdi's "Requiem." In 1999, his performance of "Persephone" with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas won Best Classical Album and Best Orchestral Performance Grammy Awards.

Neill's gentle Southern accent wraps around a firm, no-nonsense attitude.

He doesn't get nervous before performances.

"Why should I?" he said. "If you've done your homework, what else is there to do? You just go out and do it."

He finds pleasure in performing, but hasn't escaped the frustrations that infiltrate more ordinary occupations.

"Sometimes, circumstances make it just a job. If you have had a difficult rehearsal period, if your colleagues haven't been congenial, you don't get along with the conductor, it almost takes the joy away from it."

What riles him the more, however, is mediocrity, and the "I'm OK, you're OK, we're all OK mentality."

"When you see Shaquille O'Neal, he stands out, doesn't he?" What would happen to the Los Angeles Lakers, he asked, if there were no superstars like Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant, if no one was allowed to be outstanding?

"That's what's happening in opera today. Mediocrity is becoming acceptable."

Opera companies "are trying to do away with the star system," he said.

"They don't want the Pavarottis, the Domingos, the Joan Sutherlands, the Maria Callases, the great names."

Star performers can often be demanding; they have big egos that go along with their big talent, he said.

"They want everybody to be good and nice and let's all get along, let's be friends, let's go get coffee with each other," he said.

But eliminating conflict can also eliminate creativity.

"Everyone has different skills," he said. The differences are what make the world exciting and should be celebrated.

Instead, he said, "We want people to feel good about themselves. And if you elevate this person above another, then the other doesn't feel good about himself any more."

This leads to mediocrity.

"They don't want a superstar soprano with a superstar tenor because there will be a battle of egos. So they say, 'We'll just hire this person who's OK and this other person who's sort of OK and it will all balance out.' "

Neill also has a problem with "crossover" artists who he feels are diluting the essence of operatic singing.

It's the Kool-Aid and Bordeaux thing, he said.

"Michael Bolton, who is a rock 'n' roll singer, decides one day that he wants to sing opera. The audience goes to hear him and they think that's good, that's opera.

"Well, that lowers the standard of 'good' for the rest of us.

"The standard of quality has been lowered, so that now we can all just drink Kool-Aid and call it wine. We don't appreciate the French Bordeaux because we don't have an understanding of the differences anymore."

Still, he believes people will see through this.

"You can give someone a hot dog and tell him it's a steak, but eventually they will realize it doesn't look like a steak, it doesn't smell like a steak and it doesn't taste like a steak.

"They will eventually realize it must not be steak."

Hawaii International
Choral Festival

The Oahu Choral Society event runs from Sunday through July 1:

Bullet International Choral Concert: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, 1184 Bishop St. Features Sol Oriens Korus of Hungary, Chattanooga Boy Choir, Hawaii Vocal Arts Ensemble. Tickets, $10 general, $6 seniors, students, military, available at the door. Free parking at Century Square Center. Call 595-0327.
Bullet 'Arias and Songs': 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Orvis Auditorium, University of Hawai'i-Manoa. Performances by Stuart Neill, tenor; Milagro Vargas, mezzo soprano; Zofia Kilanowicz, soprano; Claudio Danuser, bass-baritone. With pianist Mario Beretta. Tickets, $20 at the door or by phone at 792-2000.
Bullet Festival concert: 7:30 p.m. July 1, Blaisdell Concert Hall. American premiere of 'Le Laudi di San Francesco d' Assisi,' by Swiss composer Hermann Suter. Performances by Neill, Kilanowicz and baritone Leslie "Buz" Tennent, the Festival Chorus and Orchestra, Children's Chorus. Tickets, $12.50 to $45, $75 VIP package, at the Blaisdell box office, Honolulu Symphony box office, at the door, or by phone at 792-2000.


All sessions cost $5 at the door. Call 595-0327:

Bullet Hawaiian language and music: 9 a.m. Monday through Friday, with kumu hula Vicky Holt Takamine, Orvis Auditorium
Bullet Vocal workshop, female voice: 10 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, with Vicki Gorman, Orvis Auditorium
Bullet Vocal workshop, male voice: 10 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, with Joseph Pettit, UH Music Building, Room 9
Bullet Vocal master class: 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, with Kilanowicz and Tennent, UH Music Building Room 36 (spectators only)
Bullet Vocal master class: 1 p.m. June 29, with Vargas and Neill, UH Music Building Room 36 (spectators only)
Bullet Lecture on Hermann Suter's 'Le Laudi di San Francesco d' Assisi': 10 a.m. June 30, by Danuser UH Music Building Room 36

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