Thursday 21 November 2019

A Real Opera Moment for Anne Marie Gibbons

A random phone call on a Monday morning changed Anne Marie Gibbons's life. The Mayo-born mezzo-soprano tells how she recently made her Covent Garden debut

Mezzo-soprano Anne Marie Gibbons. Photo: Keith Heneghan.
Mezzo-soprano Anne Marie Gibbons. Photo: Keith Heneghan.
Both Anne Marie Gibbons and her Australian husband Hugh came from farming backgrounds. Photo: Keith Heneghan.

Ciara Dwyer

The first time Anne Marie Gibbons went to The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, she was mesmerised by its magnificence.

"I remember looking up at the vast stage and thinking that I'd be petrified to get up there," says the Mayo-born mezzo-soprano.

Little did she realise that 15 years later, she would make her debut there. The plots of operas are full of high drama, but real life is rarely the same; except for one Monday morning last March when she received a phone call.She was in the car with her husband, Hugh Francis, an Australian-born tenor, and their two-year-old, Emma. Their elder child, Tom, 4, was in Montessori school. They were on the way from their home in Castlebar to Knock Airport. Hugh often sings abroad. This time, he was flying to London where he was resuming his role in The Royal Opera House's production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Having already opened, the cast had a week off in the middle of it.

The Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter was playing the lead part of Begbick, a criminal who is on the run from the police. Anne Marie had sung the same role in Dublin in June 2014. Shortly after that, she had been asked to understudy it for this Covent Garden production. She agreed to do so. But beyond that, she didn't think too much about it. Besides, she had enough going on in her life, what with raising their children and running The Mayo Vocal Academy, which she set up with her husband in 2010. When they are not away working, they teach there. Then the call came. Hugh was driving the car, when Anne Marie was told that Anne Sofie had the flu. They needed her to perform the next night. Could she come over? She dropped Hugh at the airport, and then went into overdrive.

"You haven't time to react because you think, how do I get around this? You just have to do it."

When she got home, she put Emma to bed for an afternoon nap. Then she booked a flight from Knock for that evening. The next call was to her childminder, asking if she could move in because she had to be out of the house at 5.45pm. Then she heard a banging noise from her daughter upstairs who had managed to pull three slats out of the cot.

"I don't know how she did it, but she must have sensed that something was going on," says Anne Marie.

Someone came to repair the cot and then once the childminder arrived, Anne Marie headed off. She joined her husband in London later that night. The next morning she was in Covent Garden at 10am for a costume fitting and a rehearsal. She had a couple of hours to herself in the afternoon, so she rested in her dressing room. The curtain would go up at 7.30pm.

Was she nervous?

"I had too much to think about to be nervous," she says. "I had never been on the set before and I'd never been on the Covent Garden stage before. It was huge and fabulous. I had a lot to think about in terms of being in the right place at the right time. But there was a lot of goodwill there. Everybody was very supportive."

At one stage in the opera, her character sings an ensemble piece and she could recognise her husband's voice among them.

"When it was over, there was a huge sense of relief. Hugh had organised a few bottles of champagne in the dressing-room. I was very pleased that it had gone so well. But there was almost a sense of disbelief that it had actually happened at all."

And no wonder. The next morning, she was on the train to the airport and was back in Knock around noon. She picked up her son from Montessori and life was back to normal; normal, except that she had just made her debut in Covent Garden and had received a great reaction. When an understudy shines like that, opportunities often follow.

"Who knows what will happen?" says Anne Marie.

But she is not holding her breath by the phone. She is busy getting on with her life. It was ever thus. This is probably down to her background. Anne Marie grew up on a farm in Louisburgh, Mayo. It was a dairy farm back then but now they have sheep. The eldest of four, she and her siblings were no strangers to hard work, be it bringing in the cows from the fields for milking or doing the hay. There were singsongs at home which her parents, Michael and Bernie both enjoyed. She tells me that her father, who died six months ago, was a great singer. He taught Anne Marie her childhood party piece The Coastline of Mayo. It wasn't long before her teachers noticed that she had a good singing voice and they'd get her to sing at concerts. On leaving school, she headed to Dublin to study Psychology at UCD. At the same time, she enrolled for classical music singing classes in the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama. Her singing teacher Mary Brennan was instrumental in helping her blossom. Then she was offered work in concerts.

On graduating from university, she got a job in the bank. It was in the area of human resources, so she used her psychology skills there. But all the while, she was juggling. One time, she finished work in Ballsbridge, took off her uniform and changed into something more elegant. Then she crossed the road to the RDS and competed in the Feis Ceoil. Eventually, she had to ask herself if, a decade later, she would regret not giving the music a serious shot. The answer was clear. She took a career break, sold her car and began a post-graduate course in the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. While there, she met Hugh and sang opposite him.

A past pupil of the college, he had been called back to sing in The Queen of Spades, where his character causes her death. A friendship formed but it remained platonic until years later when they met up again in London. By then, both careers were in the ascent.

"I never had a relationship with a singer before," she says. "Hugh was fairly level-headed and calm. His family has a farm too and we were like-minded."

Almost a year after they got together, she went to Australia to meet his family. On the way back to London, he proposed. They married in Mayo in 2005. Then they started to talk about having a family.

"Moving back to Ireland was the obvious choice," she says. "It got to the stage where Hugh was working less in London and doing more international work. I didn't want to be cooped up in an apartment in central London with a baby, trundling up and down steps with a buggy and negotiating the Tube. Besides, we had a great support network in Mayo, so it made sense to move home."

"We're quite practical and the kids come first, irrespective of careers. We made a decision that if either of us is offered something, we see what's in the diary and if it suits, we go. But one of us always has to be home with the kids; unless it's the unusual situation of what happened in Covent Garden recently."

Anne Marie takes it all in her stride. She sang through both her pregnancies. With 10 days to go to Tom's due date, and the blessing of her German-born music-loving obstetrician, she performed in Handel's Messiah. She enjoyed her baby kicking hard to the high notes of the tenors and sopranos. When she was six months pregnant with her daughter, she sang as a male character - a breeches role - in Versailles.

Motherhood has not blunted her singing ambitions, but it has redefined her priorities. Days after she made her Covent Garden debut, she was making time for family life. The children were with their granny on the farm. It was the middle of the lambing season and Anne Marie's mother was bottle-feeding 11 lambs. Tom and Emma were fascinated.

"From Covent Garden to bottle-feeding 11 lambs, that's the real world," she says.

It's clear that she thrives on the richness of their lives.

Anne Marie Gibbons sings Lola in a concert performance of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra on Saturday 30 May, 8pm at the National Concert Hall. Tickets: €15 - €45 (conc. €13.50 - €40.50). Tel: 01-4170000 or

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