Professors Dixie Ross-Neill and Bill Neill


Tosca by way of Texas

BRONWYN CHESTER | It would seem that McGill's opera program is an affair for couples. For the program's first 33 years, from 1956 to 1989, the McGill Opera Studio was inseparable from the name Della Pergolla, Luciano and Edith, the studio's founders and longtime directors.

Now the name Neill is what one associates with the program: Dixie Ross-Neill, director of opera studies for the Faculty of Music and Bill Neill, chair of the vocal area.

Technically speaking, he has no official role in the opera program, but given that so many of the students performing in the program's operas are his students -- not to mention his close association with Dixie -- opera students tend to talk about "the Neills" as opposed to one or the other.

In an interview, they are certainly a team, one frequently finishing the sentence for the other. But then, given how closely the two have worked together since they met 36 years ago as university students, it's hardly surprising.

Dixie, who got her start at age eight playing piano for her North Carolina Sunday school, was doing a master's in solo piano when she first encountered Bill. But as fate would have it, she took up part-time work accompanying voice students and grew to love that work more than solo performance.

"She's a solo pianist who became interested in vocal coaching," says Bill, sitting beside Dixie in his studio in the Strathcona Music Building. "She needs language," he adds. Both Neills are fluent in German, Dutch and Italian, while their French "is getting better."

Bill Neill has also sung in Czech, Russian and Polish, while Dixie has coached singers in a Philip Glass opera written in Sanskrit. Listening to them speak, there are times when their southern accents all but disappear.

Bill, who spent his childhood singing in the "womb-to-tomb choirs of the southern church," met Dixie when both were studying at the University of Texas. You might guess the rest: young Texan singer falls in love with his accompanist and she with him and the rest is, well, music and teaching.

Dixie accompanied Bill, first to Essen, Germany, then to New York and Amsterdam and a host of other cities as the tenor built his career (playing such important roles as Tamino and Hoffman and later Lohengrin, Samson and Otello). While Bill sang, Dixie continued working as an accompanist and coach, eventually serving as musical director of the Dutch De Nederlandse Operastichting Studio and director of musical studies for Toronto's Canadian Opera Company Ensemble, before coming to McGill in 1993.

What does a vocal coach and managing director of opera do? She "is not a singer," says Dixie emphatically, explaining, that a vocal coach "can help a singer improve vowels, pronunciation, vibrato, breath flow and the phrasing and tradition of song." That last aspect is something only a coach may know.

A word in an aria, for instance, may be changed -- and kept changed due to the fame of the singer -- without it ever being changed in the score.

A voice teacher, on the other hand, teaches "physical technique," continues Bill, such as projection of the voice. "Being a singer is a very physical thing, like being a gymnast or ballerina."

Neill, for instance, will teach the natural mechanism of making a sound -- such as hailing a taxi or crying "watch out," so that a student may learn how to project and, especially, sustain sound.

Neill began to teach 15 years ago -- 10 years ago at McGill -- and now considers himself more a teacher than a performer. He believes that singing is a "very natural thing," and that "the operatic voice is simply an extension of the projected classical speaking voice, as used by a Shakespearean actor."

In other words, no microphones should be necessary in opera, despite a trend in the past 10 years to attach mikes to certain popular singers made famous through their recordings, but who lack the projection of an opera-trained voice.

While there's a difference in their expertise, the Neills frequently work together, whether on songs that Bill is preparing for performance, in the master classes they offer both to students (in groups) and to professionals all over North America, in the training of McGill singers or, indeed of their professional clientele.

Professional singers who turn to the Neills include recent McGill graduate Julie Nesrallah, a mezzo soprano now based in Ottawa, but continuing the Montreal commute for lessons with the couple, internationally famous Canadian tenor Ben Heppner and the Neills' 27-year-old son, Ross, who recently sang in the musical, Show Boat.

The fact of being related isn't a problem for the three Neills when it comes to coaching, say Bill and Dixie. Once the studio door is closed, "we work."

That degree of concentration is something that baritone Joseph Kaiser greatly appreciates even if Dixie "intimidates" him, just a little.

"When you work with her, it's 60 minutes of hard work," says Kaiser who plays the role of Eisenstein in Opera McGill's current production of Die Fledermaus. Kaiser, who graduates this year and will go on to the Glimmerglass Opera in New York, is grateful for the degree of professionalism the Neills have imparted to him.

"They cultivate the idea of music as a career in a mature and responsible way, making sure that you don't go too big too quick," says the 21-year-old.

Then there are the nuts and bolts of performance etiquette, such as wearing the right jacket and shoes. Bill, chuckling in his studio, a photograph of him in performance with Joel Grey in Kurt Weil's Silver Lake, hanging on the wall, recounts the time when Heppner stopped in at the house needing a jacket for the audition he was rushing off to. Dixie too, has been known to take off her shoes to lend them to "girls in Doc Martens."

Kaiser calls the Neills "not just good teachers; they're good people too. You can talk to them about anything -- outside of lesson time that is -- and Bill gives his home number to everyone." Julie Nesrallah goes as far as thanking the Neills for "her life," which is soon to include singing in Ariadne, next month in Victoria for the Pacific Opera Company.

Conscious of the parental role they could easily assume, Bill and Dixie Neill strive for a balance between supporting young singers and preparing them for the cold reality of the highly competitive and occasionally cut-throat world of opera singing. Dixie, in fact, wears a button bearing "I am not your mother."

"It's our job to help them become responsible adult professionals," she says. In that vein, she has tried to create as many possibilities for the 50-plus opera students, at their various levels of development, by preparing at least two operas per year and offering other singing opportunities through Black Box Productions, specializing in smaller operas, which Dixie initiated three years ago.

"This place abounds with opportunities," says Kaiser, adding that beyond what they do at McGill, the Neills encourage students to pursue opportunities elsewhere in the faculty and in the city.

Their dedication has not gone unnoticed. Dean of Music Richard Lawton notes that "the opera program has got good reviews over the last decade," and that "Robert Hallan, director of the Vancouver Opera, calls it 'the best program in Canada.'"

But what goes on in the Neills' studios, either here or in New York, where they continue to teach and coach a bevy of professional singers, is only part of their job. Both, for instance, like to maintain a strong link to the professional world so that they can offer these connections to their young students. Some of their students, for instance, will begin studying next year in the Netherlands, thanks to Dixie Neill's work in that country.

"We are training singers for the outside world, so we can't cloister ourselves," says Bill. "We have to know how our singers are measuring up."