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Volume 24, Number 6 — June 2017

Thomas O'Neill lives for opera

Thomas O'Neill (photo by Sam O'Neill)
Thomas O'Neill (photo by Sam O'Neill)

January 26, 2015

Florence Foster Jenkins, who died in 1944, is infamous in opera circles for her lack of pitch, rhythm, poor singing tone, inability to pronounce foreign words and general lack of singing ability. However she had a profound effect on 15-year-old Thomas O'Neill. She inspired him to make opera his life's passion.

Thomas explains, "It all started with a recording of the infamous Florence Foster Jenkins. Florence was a woman in the '20s who made a recording of the famous 'Queen of the Night' aria and was so bad at singing that she sold out Carnegie Hall. It was then I thought 'I wonder what the real aria sounds like?' It expanded from there. I started only watching Mozart operas. Then I moved onto names such as Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Wagner and others. I now watch opera constantly. It is my greatest passion."

Thomas recently traveled to New York City to attend the opera. "It was a wonderful trip. We stayed in Brooklyn and went to The Metropolitan Opera. The first night my family went with me to see 'La Bohème,' and we had to ride the subway back at one in the morning. The next afternoon I went to see a Russian opera by Shostakovich called 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.' The second turned out to be hilarious. It was especially entertaining because I was sitting between two older ladies who had heavy New York accents and the entire time they were screaming, 'oh, how fabulous.'"

Thomas's interest in music began in middle school when he started playing the trumpet, moved on to the French horn and then began to sing. He credits his band director, Bob Ballengee, with his interest in music.

"Before sixth grade band, I had no desire to have a career in music because I hadn't realized that a career in music was even a possibility. In fact, I didn't even like music that much. For a while, I was very serious about the French horn and was part of the Symphony of the Mountains youth orchestra and liked it very much. But I realized that it stressed me out a great deal, and I couldn't see myself doing it as a career."

Thomas's experience at a summer camp changed all of that. "I didn't realize I wanted to do opera as a career until I went to a summer vocal intensive at North Carolina School of the Arts. After going through many master classes and vocal lessons with them, they told me that I could have a successful career if I so chose.

"Opera is a beautiful form of expression; it is emotion on the grandest scale possible. The music is beautiful, and it features the most glorious of all instruments, the human voice," Thomas says.

Thomas is studying technique and arts songs with his voice teacher, Rachel Milligan. "She has and still is bettering my singing and is the person who made me realize I wanted to sing opera as a career. I am only 15 years old, and a 15-year-old should never sing anything from an opera or be in an opera. For right now, I am working on technique and art songs, which are like opera arias that don't belong to an opera. I am, of course, a classical singer, but the style of singing I am training for is called bel canto which means 'beautiful singing.' The tenor voice doesn't usually fully mature until the tenor is well into his 30s, and until then it's a big waiting game of training and later graduate work," he says.

His desire for graduate work also has led him to begin studying the piano "because I was told that one has to be able to play the piano to a certain degree in order to graduate with a masters in music. I went through a period where I was studying many instruments and buying them and usually not playing them for very long. I occasionally, however, pick them up when needed. I do play mainly the French horn and study Baroque and Renaissance music. I own a whole family of Baroque style recorders that I use for concertos and ensembles," he says.

Thomas finds inspiration in his favorite composers Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Massenet. His favorite opera is 'Maria Stuarda" about Mary Queen of Scots. His favorite opera singers are Juan Diego Florez, Joyce DiDonato, Natalie Dessay, up-and-coming coloratura soprano Martha Eason, and his voice teacher Rachel Milligan who is a mezzo-soprano.

When he isn't in school or working on his music, he says he's "a tea connoisseur" and loves to study architecture, particularly the rococo movement.

Thomas is in the ninth grade at Patrick Henry High School and is the son of Jennifer and Doc O'Neill of Abingdon, Virginia.