Alumnus Singer Offers Online Porch Performances

by | Feb 17, 2021 | Alumni Profiles, Culture

One afternoon during quarantine, Dennis McNeil ’83 decided to connect to others through the best way he knew how: through music. With a karaoke microphone in one hand and his favorite drink in the other, the singer walked out to his front porch and performed a series of songs for his neighbors. These “Quarantunes” sessions continue to be live streamed online and available on YouTube almost weekly.

These sessions aren’t the first time McNeil has performed for big audiences. In his 35-year career, the former leading tenor at the New York City Opera has performed for five United States presidents, foreign dignitaries, and in 2019, gave a personal command performance for Queen Elizabeth II in London. It’s a path that started at UC Davis.

“Music found me and I found music at UC Davis,” McNeil said. Though he didn’t have a background in music, he took an introductory class that led to a music major, along with an economics major. To join the University Chorus, he sang “Happy Birthday” to former chorus director Albert McNeil (no relation), and landed a part in the bass section.

Dennis McNeil, right, met Queen Elizabeth II in 2019, when he gave a command performance in London. (Courtesy)

“There was a spiritual awakening that I just knew that this is what I had to do for the rest of my life. Within 11 years of singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in [Albert McNeil’s] office, I was standing on a stage of the Metropolitan Opera singing to a packed house,” said McNeil.

After UC Davis, McNeil went on to perform across the globe. He fondly recalled escorting late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg on his arm before performing for the Supreme Court justices. “[Prior to] that performance, I looked at her and said, ‘Justice Ginsburg, I’ve sung for royalty, but you’re my first rock star,’” said McNeil.

In March 2019, by invitation of United States Ambassador Woody Johnson, McNeil gave a personal command performance for Queen Elizabeth II at Winfield House in London’s Regent’s Park. Preparing for the performance, he said, was nerve wracking.

“My first thought was, ‘How can I reach her? How can I make this meaningful to her? How can I possibly do that with someone that’s lived this long and met everyone?’” To calm his nerves, he said he concentrated on being himself. “That at least allowed me to focus on my performance and relax into being my goofball self,” said McNeil, noting when he looked into the audience, he noticed the queen singing along with him.

Whether he is performing for royalty or his neighbors, McNeil said he always has the same goal in mind: connection. “I want to move and touch people. I just try to be the vessel and allow the music to do its job and try to stay out of the way as much as I can. It’s all about connection. I live for that,” said McNeil.