Cara diva: Ireland's great soprano celebrated
Last year Cara O'Sullivan, 57, one of Ireland's greatest sopranos, was diagnosed with a life-changing illness that means she will no longer perform professionally. Ahead of a gala concert to celebrate her career, Barry Egan hears her story from family and friends
Cara O'Sullivan enraptured audiences globally as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and Fiordiligi in Così Fan Tutte. She also delivered many other heart-shredding arias in everything from La Traviata, Handel's Messiah, and Faust, to Mendelssohn's Elijah and Verdi's Requiem, to name but a few.
Cara has brought the house down on famous stages across the world - from the Palau de la Musica Catalana in Barcelona to the Paris Opera, Sydney Opera House and London's Royal Albert Hall. She has sung outside the White House and was indeed, as one paper dubbed her, "the Irish superstar of her generation".
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The young girl who remembered her mother Anne as "singing when she was sad and singing when she was happy" literally sang all over the world. (The price to pay for her relentless touring was perhaps a personal one. As she said in 2010, "very few opera singers have long-term relationships. The only constant in my life is Mister Puccini and Mister Verdi".)
Tragically, Cara cannot perform professionally any more. Last October she was diagnosed with what her daughter Christine describes as "a life-changing illness".
This is why on September 25 at the National Concert Hall, a galaxy of stars will come together with the RTE Concert Orchestra to honour and celebrate Cara.
"My mum was lucky in that she was able to work at what she loved and did this up to the end of last year," says Christine. "And there is still so much more that she has to give, and so much more for her to do. I don't want to focus on what she can't do, but on what she can. She still loves to sing, although not professionally anymore."
This is not the first such event (there have been two in Cork), and, Christine says, "the response from her friends and colleagues has been truly overwhelming in wanting to give back and celebrate her 30-year music career while at the same time raising funds for her future care.
"We are all adjusting to life now dealing with mum's illness," she continues. "Every day is a new day and we are trying to make the most of each day. During the planning of the celebration concert in Cork earlier this year, I was overwhelmed by the generosity and goodwill that was there towards mum, that was shown in the number of people who volunteered their time to be part of the event.
"This extends to a concert in Dublin when there were more volunteers. We also received some lovely messages from people sharing wonderful stories about mum and how she in some small way had helped them over the years."
Born in 1962, the third of four children (Aoife, Nuala, and Jim), Cara attended Cork School of Music. The head prophetically told Cara's parents when she was 17: "She can go anywhere in the world, she can be anything she wants to be, she can go to the very top."
That said, the woman who would go on to become one of the most internationally acclaimed sopranos ever to emerge out of Ireland gave it all up in her early 20s when daughter Christine came along, unplanned.
Being a single parent was not ideal but Cara had the support of her family, whom she lived with on the Old Blackrock Road in Cork.
"Obviously, it was a difficult time, but we got on with it and we got over it," Cara said in 2004.
"When I look at the old pictures," she continued, "I see again how much my parents worshipped Christine. They worshipped all their grandchildren, but she was special to them because I wasn't married and because we lived with them and they got so much from her."
When Christine was two years old Cara returned to her artistic passion.
"She gave up singing for a few years when she had me," says Christine now. "I was born in 1986 and I had gone to school before she took up singing on a more full-time basis."
"And when I went back [to singing]," Cara later said, "I had a greater appreciation, and a hunger I didn't have before. There's nothing like a baby to make you grow up or to understand the need to make a living.
"I was ready then, and I was very lucky, because I didn't have to chase after a music career, it was more like we found each other. And while I put my show on the road, my mother kept the show on the road."
Fellow Cork soprano Majella Cullagh told me that her friend Cara "hated being separated from her adored daughter Christine and she carried a lot of working mother's guilt".
"She is kind and very giving as a mother," says Christine. "When I was growing up, I had the space to do whatever I wanted and she was there to make cups of tea and lunches and dinners when I was going through college exams and my professional exams to become an accountant - it was a long number of years. And it was more of a 'we' than 'I' when I passed my final exam and qualified. We celebrated that night with pink Moet. All big life events are celebrated with pink Moet. Mum sang at my wedding last year."
Christine also recalls that in 2000 or 2001 "mum was singing in an opera in Paris which included a Christmas Day afternoon performance".
When Christine, who was 15 at the time, finished school at Ashton in Blackrock for the Christmas holidays she flew to meet her mum in Paris.
"We got to spend Christmas Eve in Euro Disney. On Christmas Eve we were heading to M&S to do the Christmas shop, but it was closed, so we had Christmas Day dinner in Pizza Hut because that was the only thing open! We came home to Ireland on Stephen's Day for the family Christmas dinner."
Family Crimbo dinners notwithststanding, back in 1990, when Majella Cullagh and Cara decided to audition for the Irish opera companies' panel, they munched homemade sandwiches on the bus to Dublin and spoke of "the arias we would sing and how we were determined to do a good job and strut our stuff".
Majella listened outside the door as Cara sang Musetta's Waltz (from Puccini's La Boheme). She told Majella that, at the end of the aria she kicked off both her shoes, as she knew Musetta's character did that in the opera. Majella was very impressed and thought it "a mighty piece of stage craft".
Years later when Majella sang the role of Musetta she "laughingly enlightened Cara that the kicking off the shoes bit came about much later in the scene. The panel must have been scratching their heads, but Cara still secured a position in the Wexford Festival Opera professional chorus".
"We were both excited that she would work there. When Cara's music and information came through the post from Wexford she noticed that there seemed to be a gap in the number of required sopranos. She rang me immediately and I duly contacted the Wexford Festival Opera office, and Cara was right, they needed one more soprano voice and I filled the gap. Cara was thrilled."
Feted mezzo-soprano Imelda Drumm - who met Cara for the first time in 1988 at the Feis Ceoil in Dublin - recalls that in 2000 at the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff they worked together on a new production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, adding that she can vividly recall herself and Cara arriving to the first day of rehearsals.
"A very famous and somewhat controversial director was in charge," she says, meaning radical Catalan director Calixto Bieito, "and we, the 'innocent' sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, were presented with stage props of pink fur-covered handcuffs, and a statue of a fertility Goddess for the opening scene.
"That day, getting to know us bit by bit, the director asked us to improvise." The results were tragi-comic.
"Him interjecting at intervals to us 'more sex', 'more sex', 'YES, YES, YESSSSSSS!' and us running around inventing stuff with our props," recalls Imelda. "Of course, that first day, Cara and I just had fun and went with it. We fell around the set laughing, getting louder and louder. Cara was undaunted; I was worried that if we went along with this from the opening duet, we'd end up simulating sex by the end of the opera and I'm there, morto, thinking, 'Me ma wouldn't like that!'
"Needless to say, the props swiftly got cut for use in that moment, although they did turn up for other characters in later scenes."
Imelda would listen to Cara at the side of the stage singing that role - "she was like a machine how she breathed those long Mozart legato phrases. Strength she displayed in abundance, and guts. You have to have guts to sing solo in the classical operatic world.
"A professional to her fingertips, another colleague I was with just today remembered her walking downstage during Don Giovanni and saying to a young and relatively inexperienced conductor. 'Feck the second violins, boy, you just follow me'.
"Singers have to manage their breath," Imelda explains. "If the tempo is too fast or too slow then the whole thing can fall apart. It takes a singer of confidence and professionalism to make sure that two-way communication really works between the stage and orchestra pit."
"This was Cara; she knew exactly what she was doing and what she was about on stage."
"Gay and I are big fans of Cara's," Kathleen Watkins told me. "What we love is that she gives it her all. She is a superwoman. I will never forget the fundraising dinner for the Children's Hospital in Cork. She was the star turn. Among her own people. A night to remember forever."
"She transcended the job of opera singer and became a singer of the people," says Majella. "She had the power to take the stage with a wonderful pianist and thrill and entertain and move an audience for two-and-a-half hours.
"She always brought the house down. I was in awe anew at the power of her voice and persona. I don't know where she found the energy to carry an evening by herself and make people howl with laughter one minute and be transported by the beauty of her singing the next. She found her niche, earned the respect of her colleagues and the love of her audience."
"Every performance she was part of had so much planning and preparation," says Christine. "Regardless of whether it was a big concert hall or a small venue, the same level of preparation went into them all.
"It was very important for mum that people left with a feel-good factor. Mum had a very good rapport with the audience, and it was important for her that people left with a smile on their faces. She was extremely hard-working and gave everything to her work."
And she refused to let anything come between her and that work.
In 1996, aged 34, Cara was diagnosed with cancer after a beauty therapist spotted something unusual on her thigh that Cara had previously dismissed as simply cellulite.
At the time, Cara was performing with the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff, and, once the tumour had been removed, she arranged to have radiation therapy there so she could continue to work, going for radiotherapy every morning before starting rehearsal at 10.30.
One of the performers on September 25 will be Claudia Boyle, who says that as a "student - and a fan - I always knew the name Cara O'Sullivan".
"She was something to aspire to. I remember one of my first professional engagements was to sing the small role of Clotilde in Bellini's Norma at the National Concert Hall with Cara singing the title role.
"Walking up to the rehearsal room with a mix of excitement and trepidation, I paused outside the door.
"Cara's beautiful Italianate bel canto echoed through the walls and I stood there mesmerised. Finally, I pressed down the handle and entered. I was immediately greeted with 'how-ya girl?' in that bubbly Cork brogue and I fell in love with Cara then and there."
Years later, Claudia had "the privilege of sharing the stage with Cara as part of the Three Sopranos.
"The enduring support and kindness she showed me as a younger singer, was not only testament to her generosity of spirit but also her self-assurance, strength and lack of ego. I like to take the Irish meaning of Cara when I think of her - 'Chara', a true friend."
Speaking of last October's diagnosis, a sorrowful Majella Cullagh told me: "Cara is in her prime and it feels wrong that a woman who has the ability to lift people up and fill the air with divine melody should be prevented from shining and warming the heart.
"Along with her family and legion of friends and fans, I have been left heartbroken and devastated. So much has been taken away from Cara - her voice, her career and her independence - but she still feels the closeness of a 30-year friendship and as ever, I am grateful to her for that."
As are all of us who ever heard Cara O'Sullivan sing.
The National Concert Hall hosts a concert celebrating the illustrious career of Cara O'Sullivan on September 25 with the RTE Concert Orchestra and singers including Claudia Boyle, Celine Byrne, Imelda Drumm and Anthony Kearns. Proceeds from the ticket sales will go towards Cara's care. Tickets from €40. www.nch.ie