WHEN Celine Byrne was a little girl, she used to scamper through the fields with her arms outstretched pretending to be a plane, just like her heroine Laura Ingalls. Her Little House on the Prairie dream was dashed when she developed an allergy to the meadow grass. But that didn't stop her soaring later on in life, not to mention playing far more exotic roles. Having discovered her love of singing in a school musical (My Fair Lady) and then later with Naas Musical Society, she has gone on to become a spellbinding lyric soprano. "I was always very determined," says the 33-year-old Kildare woman.
It shows. You don't get to the top of your profession without fighting spirit. This girl has it in spades.
In 2007, she won the prestigious Maria Callas Grand Prix in Athens and went on to win the Margaret Burke-Sheridan gold medal. Her solo album For Eternity, which was released by Lyric FM last year, is a showcase of her fine talent too. Next year, she will be singing in Austria and she will also be understudying for two roles in Covent Garden. "That means I've twice the chance of getting on," she says. "That's how most singers get their big break."
Many people will recognise Celine from her recent performance of Danny Boy for President Obama. After that day, she believes a new audience has discovered her. She also thinks there should be a concert like that every year on the evening of St Patrick's Day to show Irish talent. Celine is full of bright ideas and she's not shy about sharing them. One of her ambitions is to sing the National Anthem in Croke Park. And there's no reason why she won't.
In the meantime, you can catch her at the National Concert Hall on Friday, when she performs a concert of popular Italian arias and some Spanish zarzuela with tenor Jesus Leon and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra.
Watching Celine perform is a sight to behold. She imbues each aria with such emotional intensity that the result is mesmerising. It is no wonder that world-class tenors, such as Roberto Alagna and Jose Carreras, have requested that she perform with them.
"If Jose Carreras asked me to sing on my hands and knees, I would," she tells me. I believe her.
Celine's story is full of drama, grit and sheer determination. They say that character is plot, and so it is with this soprano. When she was doing her first solo show in the National Concert Hall, after the Callas prize, she took a calculated risk. Unless she got a full house, she wouldn't be able to pay the people she was hiring. So, cousins, aunts and half of Naas came up in buses and packed the place. "My aunt Catherine, who owns Dolly's Skip Hire and Dolly's Sand and Gravel, gave me a couple of quid to help towards the concert," she adds. There have been endless hours of study, huge sacrifices, a lot of travel and tough choices. And before all that, there were some lost years where she was trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life.
Celine is now happily married to Thomas Deans. They were childhood sweethearts. When she tells people that he was her first kiss at 14, he says that she wasn't his first.
"My husband is the best thing since sliced bread," she tells me. "He's very calming and he'll never say a cross word when I get stressed. I still have my insecurities but he talks me out of them. He's great for advice."
It also helps he loves music and appreciates that world. They were in several shows together in Naas Musical Society. They live in Caragh, a village five miles outside Naas. "We built in the back of my mother's house in a field," she says. "It was the old-fashioned way of doing things."
They have three children -- Noel, 14, Ciana, 9, and Cillian, 5. But the big question is how does she manage to do it all? Work and motherhood is difficult at the best of times, but when you're a soprano who performs worldwide, in places such as Carnegie Hall, or even on Onassis' yacht -- when an American movie star, whom she can't name, hired her for a private birthday performance for his wife -- that's a different sphere of juggling altogether. How the hell does she do it? "With help," she tells me. Celine has an au pair to mind her kids and in a way she has come full circle. It was her initial job as an au pair in Milan which introduced her to opera. Going there was about getting away from the stresses of exam life. After a bad patch, something good often follows.
When Celine was going to school, she was the loud, funny one, but beneath that she suffered from depression. The louder she laughed, the more she despaired. "Negativity took over and I doubted myself," she says. "I had anxiety attacks to such a degree that I was giving myself fits. My body would shake involuntarily and I got tested for epilepsy."
In the end, she was diagnosed with depression. A lot of the anxiety and bad spells would surge when it came to exam time. "I suffered from depression for 10 years and I was on Prozac."
The medication helped her to a certain extent, but, in the end, she found great solace in her church. "I embraced the Catholic religion," she says. "It was just one of those scenarios where you find yourself on the ground, going, please God,
I don't want to feel like this anymore. I was at a low ebb, so I prayed. Then I knew that every morning when I got up there was someone on my side and gradually I came out of it. I haven't looked back since."
While working as an au pair in Milan, the family gave her tickets for an opera at La Scala. She was smitten. "The boobs, the bustiers and the singing -- I was transfixed," she says. "I thought I'd love to do that, but it was just one of those dreams, like a boy wanting to be an astronaut. I thought it was too far fetched."
Celine came back to Dublin, started part-time singing lessons in the DIT College of Music and got a job in a bakery. In her second year of studying, she became pregnant with Thomas's child. She was 19. "But I still wanted to keep up the singing, because I loved it," she says. "In the last stages of the pregnancy, my mother used to drive me up to Dublin for the lessons. Before that, I was getting the bus."
This surprise pregnancy was the catalyst for the decision to live as full a life as possible and to fulfil herself professionally as well as personally. And so, with much help from her family, she managed to do both. She did a Masters, too, and credits singing teacher Veronica Dunne with giving her a well-needed "kick up the arse".
Plus, far from quelling her ambition, motherhood has made her calmer, extremely organised and highly driven. "I'm still hungry and ambitious," she says. "I always have a goal."
On the one hand, Celine is an utterly ordinary mother, bringing her children on cultural visits at the weekends, such as the free Sunday concerts in the Hugh Lane Gallery. The other week, she was like any young mother sitting by her son in St James's Hospital, as he waited to get his cast removed. But if you looked a little closer, you would see that she had a music score on her lap, and was singing quietly, making the most of every minute.
Her life is both exotic and utterly ordinary, and that's the way she likes it. One day, she is singing at a ball in Catherine's Palace in St Petersburg, and the next she is telling her children that Disney, especially the programme Hannah Montana, is barred in their house. "For a while, I thought I had an American child," she says of Ciana, who had come out with some of Hannah's catchphrases.
When I ask her what her life is like, she says: "Mad." But at the same time, she doesn't want to live a life of regret. "Noel was my inspiration. It was like -- a baby? What will I do? It made me really reflect on what I really wanted to do. Because I had him, I couldn't go off on a whim. I said, I need to be a mom, but I need to do something for myself, so the ideal thing was to take singing lessons. It worked out perfectly.
"When I'm at home I give so much to the children, and when I'm away I get an awful lot of work done. I miss my babies but I don't want to be 60 and look back saying, 'What a fabulous career I've had, I've done everything but I've never had time to have children.' I made my family. OK, the first one came out of nowhere but everything worked out fine. After I won the Maria Callas competition, I was offered a two-year artistic programme with Covent Garden, but I had to decline it because my babies were so small. It just wasn't the right time, but I don't regret it because if I was there for two years, I wouldn't have got to play Mimi in La Boheme in the Grand Canal Theatre and that was a dream come true. In this world, it's give and take.
"I wouldn't say I have it all, but I'm content with what I have. I'm young and I'm still only starting out. I have a huge drive to make it bigger and better. I need sponsorship to make it work -- flights and accommodation can be expensive. I'm studying with Christa Ludwig, a singing teacher in Vienna, and she's not cheap, but it's worth it because I need to step forward if I want to move up a notch."
And listening to her, I know she will. There's that steely determination again. I can see it in her eyes.
Soprano Celine Byrne and guest tenor Jesus Leon perform this Friday at the National Concert Hall, from 8pm, in a Summer Gala with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra. Tickets are priced €10, €18, €24, €30, €35 (concessions €9, €16, €22, €27, €32). There is a range of dinner and concert deals available, too. To book, call (01) 417 0000 or visit www.nch.ie or www.rte.ie/ nationalsymphonyorchestra
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