This article was originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of Dalhousie magazine.
At 19, Iain MacNeil (BMus’13) came to Dalhousie intending to train as a music teacher. Instead, opera found him and set him on an exciting new trajectory.
“I grew up around music,” says the Brockville, Ontario native, who started piano at age five and quickly moved on to musical theatre, capturing the lead role in a community production of Oliver! when he was 12 years old. “Everyone in my family—even my grandparents—is into music, be it listening to old favourites like John Denver, or making music themselves, singing and playing piano or guitar.”
Encouraged by his high school music teacher and mentor, Judy Quick, MacNeil set his sights on Dalhousie, imagining that he would fit right into the local music scene at this cool, seaside university. “Judy was such a great influence,” he says. “I wanted to be a music teacher just like her. And she thought I’d like Halifax.”
But it didn’t take long for MacNeil’s career plans to change direction, thanks to the attentions of accomplished mezzo-soprano and Dalhousie voice professor Marcia Swanston. “Until I came to Dal, I had no idea that I could sing classical music, or that I had any aptitude for it,” says MacNeil. “Suddenly, I was exploring this whole world of layered and textured music.”
A natural bass-baritone, MacNeil cut his operatic teeth on Mozart, whose music he describes as “both the easiest and most difficult to sing.” Within months, the teenager was singing opera in Italy, an experience that cemented his future career aspirations.
Now 23, MacNeil has emerged as one of the rising starts of the international opera scene. “In the last year, Iain has enjoyed unprecedented success,” says Dal’s Swanston. “It’s all rather amazing for a young singer just emerging from undergraduate studies.”
Highlights of that success include being one of only two Canadians invited to take part in the Young Singers Project at the Salzburg Festival in Austria; being invited to join the prestigious University of Toronto Opera program (he hadn’t even applied); and touring with Carmen on Tap through the United States with Julie Nesrallah. He is currently proceeding through the rounds of the New York Metropolitan Opera competition in the United States and has just been named to the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio, Canada’s premier training program for young opera professionals.
“Iain actually came third in the Canadian Opera Ensemble Competition,” says Swanston. “He is the second of only two Dal students who have placed in that competition the fall after graduation, so it’s almost unprecedented.”
For all his successes, MacNeil is surprisingly grounded. “It’s dangerous to let the music business dictate your life,” he says. “Music and performing demand a lot of emotional energy, so I’m trying to enjoy it; to take the highs and the lows and stay balanced.”
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