Friday 24 February 2017

Superwoman soprano

Is it a mezzo, is it a contralto? No it's Sinead Mulhern -- taking the operatic globe by storm, while being the best Irish mammy in the world to her twins. Ciara Dwyer sees her juggle prior to La Boheme

Ciara Dwyer

FRENCH RESISTANCE: When Sinead Mulhern first arrived in Paris, a local man gave her his card, but she knew she'd never call. He then phoned her - and 'pretty soon after that, he was the one'
FRENCH RESISTANCE: When Sinead Mulhern first arrived in Paris, a local man gave her his card, but she knew she'd never call. He then phoned her - and 'pretty soon after that, he was the one'

Dublin-born soprano Sinead Mulhern's life story could be turned into a film. It has all the ingredients. It goes from a convent education to adventure, passion, fear and falling in love with a stranger in Paris -- all before she sets foot in an opera house, for the high drama on stage.

"Often, there's an opera behind the scenes," she says. "People say, 'How does your husband feel about you being in the opera world, with all that romantic singing?' But there's so much going on that romance is the last thing on your mind. A strap on a dress could have broken 30 seconds before you go on and they're trying to sew you back up again. Or you are standing in for someone else and wearing shoes four sizes too big for you -- with inserts stuffed in -- hoping that you won't trip as you dance across the stage and keep an eye on the conductor too.

"I have twin girls and they haven't seen me on stage romantically yet. They're only six. I can imagine them saying, 'I don't want mommy with another man,' or 'Mommy is dying.' In a lot of the roles, I have to die. I can just see psychiatrist appointments for my daughters in years to come, trying to come to terms with what they saw when they were three. Sometimes when I'm singing at home, they put their fingers in their ears."

Next week, once more, their mommy will be falling in love with another man who isn't her husband and then dying beautifully. It is all in the name of art. A concert performance of Puccini's La Boheme, with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra, in which she plays Mimi, will be on in the National Concert Hall on Friday. We're in for a real treat.

Sinead has been riding high and getting rave reviews for her performances. Having trained in the Juilliard in New York and then the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, she worked hard for years.

The story of her big break is about the old adage of preparation meets luck. In 2006, Sinead hit the big time with her debut at the world-renowned Vienna Staatsoper in the lead role in Jenufa. A soprano had taken ill, and Sinead had 24 hours' notice. After the performance, the audience rose to their feet to applaud her. She was invited back and since then her career has soared.

This debut was all the more spectacular for the story behind the scenes. Her husband's best friend, whom he hadn't seen in a decade, was coming to stay for the weekend. Being the Irish mammy who was worrying about no food in the house while she would be in Vienna, Sinead cooked a rack of lamb and made creme brulee for the guest. At the time, she was still breast-feeding her 18-month-old daughters -- Isabelle and Emilie. The night before she left their Berlin home, she stayed up late, making eight bottles of baby formula and then pumping her breasts for milk. She got to bed at two and was up at five. Then she took the plane to Vienna and wowed them.

If ever there was a superwoman soprano, who has it all and does it all, it is Sinead. "I may seem like I have it all," she says, "but like any working woman, there are always 25 balls in the air and you're hoping not to drop one.

"If you weren't organised before you had twins, you will be afterwards, because you have no choice. It was one thing when they were babies, making one safe upstairs, while you'd bring the other down the stairs, but when they were able to walk, it was like I was planning a war. I'm the sort of person who has got everything planned out miles in advance, but I had to learn to just organise the month. That's all I can control for the moment."

All those plans happily went haywire when the call came from Vienna.

It required micro- management then -- not that she's complaining. Sinead believes that motherhood has been good for her. "As singers, we're so selfish," she says. "We're constantly all about us and I'm probably less so than the majority of opera singers, but you still have to mind yourself. When you haven't slept the night and you're up all day, and you've got a performance that night, it's a whole new level and totally different to a time when you had the day to yourself and you were able to go for a rest."

Sinead has a babysitter, and her parents, who retired shortly after she had the girls, have played a huge part in child-minding too. Although it's a complicated life, with video calls on Skype with her daughters when she is away, it is a richer one, with personal as well as professional fulfilment.

But where did it all begin? If you'd asked her in her teenage years what she wanted to do with her life, she would have said that she wanted to be a solicitor. Her father was a detective in the Garda, so she was attracted to the drama of the courts.

Sinead grew up in Rathfarnham, Dublin, the eldest of three girls. She went to St Louis's in Rathmines, as her mother Deirdre had gone there too. The nuns in St Louis's had a great music tradition and Sinead was part of the Young Dublin Singers. When I ask her if she was particularly conscious of having to be well behaved, as her father was a detective, she tells me that she was always a good girl. And she was afraid of the nuns too. Her mother used to say that she didn't have her teenage years until she hit her 20s. By that stage, they were living in New York.

Sinead's mother owned and ran a restaurant, The Concorde, in Rathmines, but when the recession hit in the Eighties, the business took a nosedive and they decided to pull out. Sinead's father had taken a sabbatical from his job to help with the business, so they had to decide if he would go back to the gardai or try something else. The family had a discussion and within a week they arrived in New York. The plan, for the beginning, was to stay with Sinead's aunt in Long Island. They just had holiday visas but they planned to make a life there. They left with five suitcases and big dreams.

"New York was the land of possibilities," says Sinead. "I remember that the cars were so huge, they looked like boats. We arrived the day before Thanksgiving and I was confused that we were eating turkey. The following Monday, I started school in New York with 2,000 students. Lots of the 16-year-olds drove BMWs to school. It was like being on a movie set. It was

fairly shocking but I was 14 and I took it in my stride. Later on, I gave Christmas cards to everyone. I didn't realise that it was a Jewish area and I'd offended all these people in one fell swoop."

Her parents took all the jobs they could get but these were limited as they were illegal. Sinead's father got a job bar-tending and her mother cleaned houses. Their first car was a banjaxed Volkswagen with a hole in the floor. During the day, they would see furniture that people had left out on the sidewalk for dumping, and at night, they would drive around and pick it up. By this stage, they had got a house. A friend of their aunt's was in real estate and needed someone to stay in a house that had been vandalised. It sounds like a set for La Boheme.

"The walls were broken down," says Sinead. "Life wasn't easy but my parents turned everything into an adventure. We had been a middle-class family in Dublin with a very comfortable life, and now my mother was coming home from garage sales showing us cups and forks she had bought. The first Christmas was a bit of a shock, as we didn't have the things we'd had before. My mother usually went overboard in Dublin and I was old enough to see that this had changed. For five years, we had no health insurance, so we were warned don't get sick or injured, and for the most part we didn't.

"It made the family an incredibly strong unit. We were a team against the world. All of our accomplishments as kids, like student of the month, became a celebration for all of us."

Sinead's younger sister got involved in a musical. It wasn't long before Sinead was going the same way too. Soon she was playing small roles with musical societies. There was a background of music in the family. Her father had played instruments and they would always be singing in the car. "I fell in love with the stage and I thought this is what I want to do," she says.

All the time when Sinead played roles in small, local musicals, the directors would tell her that her voice was too big. Perhaps she should think about opera. As she was about to leave school, she planned on combining law and music but she decided to apply for the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. She learnt some arias by heart, having borrowed a few CDs in her local library, and performed them at the audition. Much to her amazement, she was accepted and awarded a scholarship. While at Juilliard, she had masterclasses by Marilyn Horne and Leontyne Price, and she was lucky enough to get tickets to the Met, to see Placido Domingo, still in his prime, and Mirella Freni, in La Boheme.

But all the while, her illegal status was causing anxiety. The foreign-student-visa adviser at Juilliard was chasing her, looking for a social security number and her parents' address. Eventually, she got her papers sorted and her family got green cards, but it was not an easy route and, looking back, she wonders how they did all the ducking and diving.

Sinead went on to study in Paris. She had only just arrived and got set up in an apartment when she and her sister were in an internet cafe. They had just had an argument and Sinead was scowling. A Frenchman started to talk to her and asked her, "How do you spell thieves?" He had met some Irish girls while travelling and they were going to Bali and he wanted to warn them by email about the thieves there. He gave Sinead his card and said that if she wanted to be shown around the city she should call.

"I knew that I'd never call him, so I gave him my number and address," she says. "I was thinking that he spoke French and knew the city. It was very practical. My sister couldn't believe that I gave him my number. She said he could have been Jack the Ripper and when he called one day, when I was out, she didn't pass on the message for ages."

Sinead returned his call and they met for a date. "I knew pretty soon after that, he was the one."

They married in 2002. David is an engineer and Sinead shows me his photo on her phone. He is tall and has dark, Mediterranean good looks. She tells me she wouldn't normally go for Frenchmen but he is not a typical Frenchman -- that he's very open. "He's very romantic," she says. "He gives me flowers all the time. And every Valentine's Day, he goes overboard. He always buys me something special." She stretches her finger to show me an exquisite antique ring. "He has impeccable taste," she says. Impeccable taste in his choice of wife, too.

Sinead Mulhern, soprano, sings Mimi in the RTE National Symphony Orchestra's concert performance of Puccini's 'La Boheme' on Friday, at the National Concert Hall, at 8pm. Rory Macdonald conducts. Tickets are priced €15 to €45.

For more details, go to either www.rte.ie/nationalsymphony orchestra or www.nch.ie or else telephone (01) 4170000

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