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Friday 24 January 2020

Classical: From Balfe to Burke Sheridan - Irish music abroad

Irish prima donna: Catherine Hayes.
Irish prima donna: Catherine Hayes.

George Hamilton

Rossini's favourite in the role of Figaro, his Barber of Seville, was an Irishman, Michael Balfe. Margaret Burke Sheridan - "Maggie from Mayo" as she styled herself - was Puccini's soprano of choice as his Madame Butterfly. And then there was Catherine Hayes, maybe not as well remembered as the other two for she came earlier, but described nonetheless on a website in her honour as Ireland's first great international prima donna.

Catherine, or Kate Hayes, blazed the trail. Born in Limerick in 1818, she was a direct contemporary of Balfe, who made a name for himself as a composer as well as an opera singer.

Hayes was discovered by the local Anglican bishop, Dr Edmund Knox, who'd heard her sing in a garden next door to his palace. He was instrumental in getting her started.

A move to Dublin to have her voice trained, an appearance on the same stage as Franz Liszt at the age of only 15, and she was on her way.

Liszt rated her highly, and wrote to the Bishop's daughter-in-law predicting a bright future for Hayes.

It was on to London, then a debut in the Italian Opera House in Marseille, before a call to La Scala in Milan where she got 12 curtain calls after her performance as the prima donna in Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix.

She built her reputation across Europe. At Covent Garden, the queues for her performances stretched for over a mile. She sang for Britain's Queen Victoria at a private concert in Buckingham Palace.

Hayes took the United States by storm, superseding the great contemporary Swedish soprano Jenny Lind with stellar performances bringing coast-to-coast success. She even ended up marrying the Swedish singer's former manager.

Sadly, there was to be no enduring happiness. Within three years, her husband had died, and not long after she fell victim to a stroke, aged just 36.

Hayes was undoubtedly a major star, but one who shone in an era that pre-dated the gramophone, so there is none of her to be heard. The wonderful voice of Margaret Burke Sheridan is easier to find.

She was, indeed, Maggie from Mayo, born in Castlebar in 1889. Orphaned at the age of 11, she moved to Dublin and spent the remainder of her adolescence at the Dominican convent in Eccles Street.

In Rome, as a student, she lived in a flat just across the street from the Opera House, which proved a stroke of amazing good fortune. La Bohème was just days away from opening there, when the singer due to play Mimi fell ill. The director, at her wit's end in the search for a replacement, came out on to the front steps for some air.

On a balcony directly opposite, Maggie from Mayo was indulging in a little practice. The impresario was stunned by peerless soprano sweeping across the Via del Viminale and invited the singer in for a trial.

Long story short, Margaret Burke Sheridan got the gig, and another illustrious Irish singing career was launched. She performed for five years at Covent Garden, and had eight seasons at La Scala.

Which brings us back to Balfe. Sheridan is well remembered for her interpretation of one of his much loved songs, 'I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls'.

You'll find it, and a host of other delights, on an RTÉ Lyric fm CD Un Bel Di (RTÉ lyric CD118). Sheridan died on this day, April 16, in 1958, at the age of 68.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday morning from 10am

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