Lifestyle

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Diva? Moi? Four women who epitomise the changing face of opera

Tanya Sweeney meets four women who epitomise the changing face of opera

PITCH PERFECT: Clockwise from front, Imelda Drumm, Sharon Carty, Claudia Boyle and Doreen Curran. Photo: Dave Meehan.

Maria Callas probably put it best: "You are born an artist or you are not. And you stay an artist, dear, even if your voice is less of a firework. The artist is always there."

Being an operatic artist is one thing, but juggling a love of opera with parenthood, womanhood and the demands of 21st Century life is another. Opera is moving away from its age-old image of larger ladies who simply stand and deliver, resulting in a new wave of performers: athletic, ambitious, multi-disciplined and hungry for success. Here, we speak to four professional singers about how their love of opera impacts every aspect of their lives.

Originally from Laois but now living in Bray, Imelda Drumm is a mother of two who is currently finishing a PhD at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.

"Balancing teaching, performing, the PhD and being a mum of two on my own is very difficult. Without my mother, and a lovely friend who collects the kids from school, I would be totally lost.

"I got my voice trained as a teenager. My sister, Mary, suggested it by saying, 'Sure, maybe you could sing at weddings and make a few bob'. But once you start getting your voice trained you become obsessed by classical music, and once I saw my first opera, I was like, 'Wow! I could do this'.

"Not everyone who trains is able to carve out a career for themselves. Competition is fierce. The focus of my (PhD) research is about what happens to opera singers hormonally. Hormones affect your voice and your confidence as you go through your career: in your 30s the voice and technique settle, but then once you go into pre-menopause and early menopause things start to break down and it has an androgynous effect on your voice. Female opera singers are more affected by their hormones, and there is a shelf-life for singers because of it."

Doreen Curran is from Derry, and is a married mother of two. She met her husband via professional opera.

"Being married to a singer is useful because they understand what you do for a living. In our first year of marriage we spent seven months apart, touring. But then we wanted to settle and have children. I couldn't have imagined doing something else, but my husband is talented at a lot of things, so he thought he would work in computers for a while.

"When I bring my eldest child to school, I drop him off and people are like, 'Really? You sing opera?' They don't get it; it's like I live this other, secret life.

"The thing is, opera is the most physical job in the world, and people don't understand that. More and more is expected from you on stage now, so I go to the gym a few days a week. The days of 'stand and deliver' are no more. Besides, if you were to get sick during a job there are 100 people at the door waiting to take your place."

A Betty Ann Norton Theatre School alumnus, Dubliner Claudia Boyle went on to become an Opera Theatre Company Young Artist and a member of the Young Singers Project at the 2010 Salzburg Festival. She recently got engaged to her accountant boyfriend.

"A singer's worst nightmare is getting a cold. That's why I have smoothies in the morning: today I had a kale, berry and apple smoothie. I'm really mindful of looking after myself.

"When I was flying back and forth to Berlin every week for work, I became friendly with the air hostesses. I remember them being really surprised when I told them about what I do for a living. People have this idea of opera singers being these older, larger women with big hair.

"Things can sometimes go a bit awry on stage, but that's the nature of it. You hear of people getting sick mid-show and someone has to come on and save the day. I had to do that once in Salzburg as someone got sick – the good thing is that when it happens, the audience is really on your side and wishing you the best.

"When I come off stage I'm so adrenalised for two hours afterwards. Then you feel the slump. It can be pretty draining."

Kildare native Sharon Carty worked as a PE teacher before moving into opera full-time. She divides her time between Ireland and Germany.

"It took me a while to figure out what my calling in life was. I was always mad-sporty as a child, and I remember my music teacher telling me not to be screaming my head off on the sports pitch.

"When I became a teacher, there was a huge, gaping, music-shaped hole in my life. I taught full-time for two years before I auditioned for an opera course in Vienna. I decided to make a complete break and not be 'Sharon the teacher'. It could have been a very stupid move, but things worked out.

"I feel really privileged I get to make my money principally from singing. That said, a freelance career in the creative arts is utterly terrifying. I've been freelance for a year-and-a-half, and there's this existential angst there all the time."

The performers are part of the cast of 'Nixon In China', which is at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre in Dublin on May 11, 14 and 17; bordgaisenergytheatre.ie

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