Doreen O’Neill: A Musical Journey

28th June, 2016

After 30 distinguished years in artist management, Doreen O'Neill retires from her position as Managing Director of Harlequin Agency. Doreen founded Harlequin from her kitchen table in 1986 with the aim to nurture and develop young Welsh talent. Since then, Doreen has given a guiding hand to many talented singers, conductors and instrumentalists and established Harlequin as a highly respected agency in Wales and beyond. Here is her remarkable story.

Doreen O'Neill was born in 1953 and was brought up in a family of singers, just one number short of the Von Trapp family: Dennis (tenor), Elizabeth (soprano), Patricia (soprano), Doreen (mezzo-soprano), Andrew (chorister at Cambridge) and Sean (baritone). In fact, that's what the three brothers and three sisters used to be called on their home patch in Pontarddulais, where their father William was the local doctor.

Dennis suffered from asthma and my father thought that singing lessons would improve his breath control. It was easier for my mother to take all of us, so we all had lessons. We started competing at the local Eisteddfod – I was around five years old when I won my first solo competition. I can’t remember much about it, but I remember singing Mary’s Boy Child in a fish and chip shop in Carmarthen on the way back - I was given a box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray for my performance.

It was a gradual turn towards opera. We learnt all the Eisteddfod test pieces – welsh songs, hymns – but as we got older and started competing in the National Eisteddfod we were introduced to operatic arias. Shortly after winning the under 25 Blue Riband competition I was offered a place to study law at Aberystwyth University, but after much deliberation I decided to go to the Royal College of Music in London, where Patricia was already enrolled on the opera course. I was awarded a scholarship and this gave me the confidence to pursue a career in music. I spent three years studying for my undergraduate degree before auditioning for the Glyndebourne Chorus. At 20 years old, I was the youngest person to join their chorus.

Doreen quickly established herself as a successful and popular artist, performing with most of the major UK opera companies, Scottish Opera, Opera North, Welsh National Opera and Wexford Festival Opera.

My first operas at Glyndebourne were Eugene Onegin and The Marriage of Figaro. My most enjoyable performance? It would have to be Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro for Welsh National Opera. It was unusual to cast someone really short – they used to get someone really tall and slim, which I obviously wasn’t. I suppose you could say that I interpreted the role in a different way to everyone else; I modelled it on my brothers!

At the age of 33 I realised I wasn't going to be a big international star, so it was time to move on.  My first marriage had broken up and I needed a new challenge.

Choir secretaries used to ring my mother to see if any of us were available for concerts. We all (the O’Neill children) had agents in London at the time and I remember wondering why there wasn’t an agency in Wales, the land of song. A few people had tried and failed. I saw the gap and went for it.