Monday 22 January 2018

Breaking the pain barrier

Swedish opera singer Camilla Griehsel believes that you have to endure some suffering in order to evolve as a person.

Camilla Griehsel pictured in the Cork Opera House. Daragh Mc Sweeney
Camilla Griehsel pictured in the Cork Opera House. Daragh Mc Sweeney
Camilla Griehsel as Maria in Maria De Buenos Aires at Cork Opera House. Clare Keogh.

Ciara Dwyer

'Life can be painful, but sometimes you have to go through pain to evolve," says Camilla Griehsel. "If you're not learning, what's the point in living?" The Swedish-born singer smiles after she utters these words. Her green eyes are vibrant with life and she sits with such an upright posture that she looks like she is ready to take on the world.

Days after we meet she will celebrate her 48th birthday, but she has many reasons to celebrate – and not just on that specific day. Camilla Griehsel has never stopped learning about life and how to live it. She has reinvented herself several times over and she shows no sign of stopping. This dynamic woman has been a pop singer, an opera singer, a wife and a mother, and now she plays the title role in the Irish premiere of Piazzolla's tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires, which has its final performance tonight in Cork Opera House as part of Cork Midsummer Festival.

"In the show, the spirit of the Duende tells my character that this is her time. And that's exactly what my mom said to me – 'This is your time now'," Camilla says. "I've got my resurrection by doing this show. It really feels like my part. It's all about being a woman and falling in love with your own strength and creativity. It's about being reborn, taking your power and saying, 'OK, this is what I'm about'."

We are sitting in the cafe of Cork Opera House on a sunny morning just days before the show opens. Camilla tells me that she has pinched herself ever since she got the role because she sings and dances in it and it feels like she has come back to her opera-singing roots in the theatre. For the past decade, she had been singing in a baroque ensemble and, more recently, recording South American songs with the musician Maurice Seezer. But also, after a bleak period following her marriage break-up four years ago, Camilla is happy with her life again. She has worked hard at achieving this new-found contentment.

"I've learned so much about who I am," she says. "I'm not scared of what people think of me because I'm not pretending any more. There was a time when I was too nice and too accommodating, but now I know my boundaries. I'm truthful and I go with my gut."

In 2003, Camilla came to live in Schull, West Cork, with her husband Colin Vearncombe – a singer from Liverpool known as Black, who was famous for his hit song in the Eighties Wonderful Life – and their three young sons, Max, Marius and Milan. Up until then, they had been living in London, but Camilla wanted to rear her children in a place where they could see the horizon and the sea and have nature around them.

Also, she found that life in London was too frantic and everywhere was so crowded that she felt as if she couldn't breathe. The way of life in West Cork was just what she needed. "What I like about it is that there are no airs and graces. Everyone is just a person," she says.

They had been told that West Cork was beautiful and they weren't disappointed when they arrived. Camilla felt rooted to the magnificent surroundings, but also it was important that her sons experienced the natural world just as she had when growing up in Sweden.

The youngest of three girls, Camilla had an idyllic childhood in Stockholm. They lived a 10-minute drive away from the city.

"I was always outside and our house was beside a lake. It was a beautiful spot. I was a real tomboy and I spent all my time with boys, climbing trees, and swimming and skating and getting up to mischief.

"My parents built our house with their own hands. They both worked hard and they gave everything to us. My mother was a teacher and she later became a speech therapist. My father was a social worker and he later set up his own business selling everything to restaurants, apart from food."

Gustav and Martha Griehsel are still alive and Camilla is thrilled that they are making the journey from Sweden to see her in the show in Cork. This means a lot to her, especially as her father suffered a stroke a few years ago which prevents him from speaking properly. He can still sing songs – music comes from another part of the brain – but the only word he utters is "auf" which is German for "up". This word played a significant role in his youth.

It wasn't until Camilla was a teenager that she learned about her father's past. "My father is from Sudetenland, which was the German part of Czechoslovakia before the war. As a young boy at 17 he joined the war – probably because he had nothing better to do. He was a soldier for a few months but, one night, he left his post to find some cigarettes and he was captured and given to the Russians. They took him to Siberia and he was in captivity there for five years," Camilla explains.

"He didn't talk to me about it until I was much older. He explained that the Russians used to throw food on the ground for them but, if they went for it, they would be shot. They were so hungry in a very cold climate and it was torture the way they had to be still and wait for their food. If any of them did go to the ground, the Russians used to say, 'Auf! auf!' – the German for 'up'. That is the only word that my dad says now. Ask him how he is and he says, 'Auf, auf'. My sisters and I presume that he uses those words because the trauma is still within him.

"I think the only reason that he survived was because he became a chef and he had to boil soups made from goats' sh*t for the people who were there. My father always had this anger about it and I think it shaped him a lot. Our upbringing was very strict and quite frugal. If you took something, you finished it. But I'm quite happy that I've grown up that way. We didn't have that much, but we worked all the time."

Camilla tells me that her father was extremely loving and her mother was warm and gentle, and that they are both very much in love. They created a happy home and, every Sunday, the family would go for a sauna session where they would all be naked. Their nudity was a normal way of life, as was skinny dipping. It was natural and there was nothing to be embarrassed about.

Years later, when Camilla went to London, she was shocked when she realised that people regarded sex and nudity in such a smutty way. Naturally, she preferred the Swedish way of life, where it was all tied up with nature and was utterly normal. She has tried to raise her boys with that same healthy attitude.

When Camilla was growing up, music began to play an increasing role in her life. Her mother had a piano at home and she would play the few songs she knew. It wasn't long before Camilla was singing in her Lutheran church choir and going to a music school. Later on, she and three other girls set up a barbershop group, singing well-known American songs in straw hats and shorts and, eventually, after she finished school, she headed to Gran Canaria where she got a job in a Swedish hotel singing at night. Then her boyfriend secured a job in a ski resort in Switzerland. She joined him there, where she had a charmed life, skiing by day and singing for her living by night.

When I tell her that she doesn't sound like she had much direction and that she was drifting, Camilla happily agrees.

"I wanted to travel and I was doing that. I was just living my life," she says. "I wasn't ambitious about anything. I was just present and things kept happening."

Camilla was having a ball and life continued to be full of adventure when, one day, she was asked to audition for a pop band in Norway called One 2 Many. Her lucky streak continued, as she got the job, and soon she had to move to London, where she enjoyed success with this band. They had hits and played to big audiences, but she found it all overwhelming.

"There was so much business involved and I wasn't strong enough to say what I wanted to do. My confidence went because I didn't know who I was any more," Camilla recalls.

One day, the publishing company asked her to join singer Colin Vearncombe to go to a film premiere. They had already met on a boat on the Thames when they were doing promotion work for their mutual publishing company. The red-carpet date was supposed to be just for publicity, but they ended up becoming good friends. The relationship was purely platonic for nine months and then, after just two months as lovers, Colin proposed to Camilla. She was only 23.

"We were in my family home in Sweden and I was shocked when I saw him getting down on one knee and then producing a ring. I told him that I wasn't sure and asked him to give me an hour. I went up to my friends and my mom, and we chatted about it. After that, I returned and told him, 'Yes'. Then we all went skinny-dipping."

What was so special about him? "He was romantic, kind and gentle, and I'd never felt so loved by anyone," Camilla recalls. "There was great respect and he adored me."

They married in the same church in Stockholm where her parents had married and, two years later, she left their London home to give birth in a hospital in Sweden.

She wanted to be close to her mother at this special time and, Camilla tells me, she trusted the Swedish health system more than the English one. It was very advanced and, for example, it was possible to get an epidural which didn't numb the legs.

Motherhood brought Camilla great joy, but it didn't deter her musical ambitions. She decided to study opera in London – her training in Sweden had been in classical music – and, eventually, she got a part in an opera in Israel in which she had to sing in Yiddish.

By then she was pregnant with her second child – she felt that she sang better when she was with child – and then when the opera was on and her child newly-born, her sister, who had also become a mother, wet-nursed the newborn boy. "It was amazing to have such support," Camilla says.

After the birth of their third son, they decided to make West Cork their home. Camilla knew that the only way to get to know the people in the community was to contribute and to throw herself into activities, such as joining the parents' association at the school and doing charity concerts.

She has enjoyed her life there, but Camilla admits that it has been a challenge to generate your own work from such a quiet place. As the years went on, Camilla knew that she was changing and, as a result, her marriage was crumbling.

"We've had a wonderful life – together for 24 years and married for 23 – but when my dad had a stroke it put other things in perspective. I felt I needed to be on my own and so I left the family home. I live on my own and I don't want to be in a relationship.

"It was difficult for everyone," Camilla explains, "but it's hard not being with my children all the time – there is a real sadness to that – but we are very mature about it and we are all good friends. My foremost commitment is to make sure that my sons are OK and they are. It has worked out."

Colin will bring the boys to her show and they will meet up with her parents too.

"My wish is that we all live together soon, that we divide up the place. It's already in three parts – a guesthouse, a studio and house – so it is possible. Of course, it's not conventional, but why start being conventional now?" There is strength in her voice as she says this.

"All my life I feel like I have breathed in so much stuff and, finally, I feel that it can come out."

It sounds like it has already.

The final performance of Piazzolla's tango opera – 'Maria de Buenos Aires' – performed in Spanish with English subtitles – takes place at Cork Opera House today at 6pm as part of Cork Midsummer Festival. For bookings call 021-4270022 or visit the website at

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