Opera 'chose me' says student

Iain MacNeil loves to sing opera even though it's a lot of work.


Iain MacNeil practicing at Dalhousie University.

As a third-year opera student at Dalhousie University, Iain MacNeil leads a busy life.

Along with a full schedule at school, MacNeil, 21, sings in the choir at St. Paul's Church on Argyle Street and gives voice lessons at Long & McQuade, a music store on Cunard Street.

"Teaching voice is great," MacNeil says.

"If I were playing in a bar band, then my teacher wouldn't like...the time spent doing that. I could be practicing or resting my voice. It sounds so prima donna, but the voice is so fragile," he said.

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Iain MacNeil standing on the steps of the Dalhousie Arts Centre.

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Iain MacNeil singing a piece from Mozart's Don Giovanni (956 KB clip)

MacNeil is currently rehearsing for his lead role in Sweeney Todd, which the Dal opera workshop will be performing in February 2012. MacNeil, who sings bass-baritone, says his low voice is well-suited to the dark theme of the opera. The roles of Don Giovanni and Figaro are often sung by bass-baritones, as well, he says.

"It kind of chose me"

MacNeil says he knew he wanted to study music since Grade 11. He says he could have studied classical piano, jazz drums, or maybe bass or trombone but he loved singing the most.

"The first time I sang a classical piece was auditioning for Dal," MacNeil said. "A lot of people don't sing opera outside of university. They get here and then [they learn] this is a type of music that's written to train you to sing healthily and to sing well and to use your full instrument," he says.

MacNeil chose Dal because he wanted to study with Marcia Swanston, a teacher and opera singer. He said a friend from his hometown Brockville, Ont. was already studying opera under Swanston's direction.

To help with his studies in opera, MacNeil is also learning new languages such as Italian and German. He already speaks French.

"You carry your instrument with you everywhere"

MacNeil says as his voice is his instrument, he has to take care of himself and make sure his voice is at its best. Sometimes, he says, it means making a decision between having a good time and taking care of his instrument.

"If you're drinking, make sure you hydrate as well, if you drink a lot, then that swells your vocal folds and you just can't practice the next day," MacNeil says.

"I often do stretches and push-ups before I practice to get myself energized because if you're exhausted and you're trying to sing then, whether you know it or not, you're not going to be able to breathe to the same capacity because you're tired and not energized," he says.

Once he finishes his undergraduate degree in music, MacNeil says he is considering auditioning for the master's program at the University of Toronto or at some schools in the United States.

"You get the tools in your undergrad, you do the fine-tuning in your master's," MacNeil says.

MacNeil's voice won't fully mature until he is about 40, he says. He says that's why there is often a long education process associated with opera, before the voice reaches it's peak maturity.

"I've always pictured myself having a family and settling down at some point, so it's a catch-22," MacNeil says. "A lot of singers will have a career for 15, 20 years and then settle. I don't really see myself settling or stopping singing but I can see myself trying to figure out a way to balance being at home and traveling."

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