Not Just Whistling Dixie

Beloved coach and teacher Dixie Ross Neill passed away from ovarian cancer at Montreal General Hospital on May 28, 2007, her 67th birthday.

She was born in Lincolnton, N.C., to Louise “Sally” and William “Rusty” Ross on May 28, 1940. Sally, who was a young widow when she married Rusty, had a young son by her first marriage. Rusty worked in a cotton mill.

The Ross family was not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but they wanted the best for their children. To afford music lessons and other educational benefits, the family ate meat on Sundays only. Besides his regular job, Rusty sang and played the banjo professionally. When the children were old enough, he often brought them along to performances, so Dixie was used to the stage from an early age.

By the time she was 8 years old, Dixie was playing piano for her Sunday school, and as a teenager she played first violin with the local symphony orchestra. She graduated from high school as valedictorian at 16 and received a college scholarship. After enrolling in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she paid her expenses by playing music and working as a dishwasher in the school cafeteria when necessary.

During Dixie’s junior year at the university she played for retired concert pianist Patty-Jo Higgins, who became her patron and paid for the rest of her undergraduate education. Higgins wanted Dixie to become a concert pianist, and after she got her bachelor’s degree—cum laude, in 1961—Dixie went to study with Edwin Hughes, a prominent New York teacher. Higgins expected that her protégé would make her Town Hall debut shortly thereafter and begin a serious career as a concert pianist.

Dixie, however, had other ideas. She wanted very much to attend graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. Patty-Jo was terribly disappointed and dropped her as a protégé, but it was the best decision for Dixie. She wanted to study with Dalies Erhardt Frantz, a pupil of both Artur Schnabel and Vladimir Horowitz who was teaching at UT. Dixie did that on full scholarship and worked part time as an accompanist for university vocal students. At UT she met the love of her life, tenor William Neill, when she accompanied his voice lessons.

Dixie was beginning to realize that she enjoyed collaborating with singers and she started to think of adjusting her career path.

After receiving her master’s degree, Dixie taught at San Antonio College for three years before moving to Essen, Germany, where Bill Neill, now her husband, was employed. Dixie worked as a coach and rehearsal pianist there, and in July of 1969, gave birth to their son, Ross. The following year the family moved to New York City. Bill traveled to engagements in Europe and the United States while Dixie coached and accompanied in the city until 1981 when the trio moved to Amsterdam, where Dixie became director of the Nederlandse Operastichting Studio.

On a 10-day visit to Toronto, she first encountered tenor Ben Heppner, a member of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble. Five years later, he chose Dixie as his coach. A year after that, he won the Birgit Nilsson Prize at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

Heppner writes that his sessions with Dixie were incredibly intense. He found them physically and emotionally draining because she would not let him get away with anything less than his best. As a result, he often had to spend a few minutes collecting his thoughts before driving home.

In 1987, Dixie became director of musical studies for the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble in Toronto, a position she would keep until 1993, when she moved to McGill University in Montreal, where her husband was director of vocal studies. In 2003, Bill and Dixie received Opera Canada’s Ruby Award in recognition of their professional excellence and outstanding lifetime achievement in the fields of opera, vocal training, and education.

Two years later, when Dixie went for a routine medical checkup, her doctor discovered that she had ovarian cancer. Surgery and aggressive chemotherapy did not prevent her from continuing to teach and coach.

During the summer of 2007 Dixie was scheduled to coach young singers at the Victoria, British Columbia Summer Vocal Academy. Each summer, The Victoria Conservatory, directed by Joanne Hounsell, a former pupil of the Neills, presents a program for advanced singers and collaborative pianists aged 19-32, covering art song and opera. It offers participants the opportunity to work with top Canadian artists and learn innovative approaches to musical preparation, interpretation, and performance. Since Dixie passed away before last summer’s program began, the faculty and participants dedicated the culmination of their work, the gala concert that ends the season, to Dixie.

Over the past few years, Bill and Dixie presented masterclasses both as a team and individually. They worked with students in both Canadian and U.S. summer programs, such as the Seagle Colony at Schroon Lake N.Y. and Ash Lawn in Charlottesville Va. During the summer of 2007, Bill fulfilled the commitments that both he and Dixie had made.

Maria Nockin

Born in New York City to a British mother and a German father, Maria Nockin studied piano, violin, and voice. She worked at the Metropolitan Opera Guild while studying for her BM and MM degrees at Fordham University. She now lives in southern Arizona where she paints desert landscapes, translates from German for musical groups, and writes on classical singing for various publications.