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Returning to his roots: Internationally-renowned Wagnerian tenor Simon O'Neill, who'll perform in Arrowtown next month

By TRACEY ROXBURGH

Berlin’s loss is Arrowtown’s gain.

Right now Simon O’Neill — known as the ‘‘best Wagnerian tenor of his generation’’ — should be in Germany getting ready to perform the lead role in Tristan and Isolde at the Berlin Philharmonie concert hall (capacity 2440).

Instead, in a Covid coup, the Ashburton-born opera singer will lend his pipes to Arrowtown’s Athenaeum Hall (capacity 260 at a pinch).

It’s the biggest Lakes District opera event since Dame Kiri Te Kanawa performed outdoors at Millbrook in 1996 and a massive feat for the Arrowtown Creative Arts Society, which has organised the November 12 performance, the same date he was to have taken to the stage in Germany.

Globally, O’Neill’s booked out four years in advance, but when Covid closed the world’s biggest concert halls he decided to bring his wife and three kids back to New Zealand to weather the storm.

When ACAS’s Bob Berry heard O’Neill was in the country, he managed to track him down to see if he’d be keen to perform in Arrowtown.

‘‘When Simon said, ‘yes, I’d love to do Arrowtown’, I was astonished.

‘‘Then it turned out he has strong Arrowtown connections.’’

O’Neill had holidays in the town as a child — his mum was part of the Feehly family, one of the oldest families in the town.

‘‘We used to come down from Ashburton and stay with Cuth Feehly, the brother of my Pap, Jack Feehly.

‘‘There was a Feehly farm where Millbrook is now.’’

He says he recently visited family graves on Feehly Hill, which overlooks the town, and can’t wait to perform at the town hall, which he says is ‘‘a marvellous historic venue’’.

O’Neill hit the operatic big-time in 2009 when London discovered him — with just 24 hours’ notice he filled in for the title role in Verdi’s Otello and brought the house down.

The BBC described that performance as ‘‘the most complete since Domingo’’ — ironically, he’d been the understudy for the legendary Placido Domingo at the New York Met, so Domingo, his opera idol, taught him the role.

His opera voice is classified as ‘‘heldentenor’’, which translates as ‘‘heroic tenor’’, a rare vocal classification given to a voice with the weight and sonority needed for the great Wagner roles.

While he’ll do Wagner in Arrowtown, he’s also got a few other tricks up his sleeve, including Danny Boy.

He’ll jet out a fortnight after his Arrowtown performance to return to Berlin where he’ll rehearse Siegfried for a newly-designed Deutsche Opera staging of The Ring Cycle, opening next year.

While tickets for his now-canned performance at the Berlin Philharmonie were about $240, the Arrowtown audience will get to hear him for $80 — or $75 for ACAS members.

Berry notes, though, he’ll be accompanied here by pianist professor Terence Dennis, not the 100-piece Deutcshe Symphonie which had been scheduled.

Tickets for the concert, which starts at 6.30pm, are available from eventfinda and Arrowtown Pharmacy.

tracey.roxburgh@scene.co.nz