Thursday 23 May 2019

Irish opera on song as home-grown stars make themselves heard on a world stage

Baritone Gavan Ring at the Royal Albert Hall for his Proms debut
Baritone Gavan Ring at the Royal Albert Hall for his Proms debut

Gavin Duffy

What a week for Irish opera! It was announced that Gavan Ring will make his debut at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, London this August.

The honour is all the more remarkable when we see the company he will be in and the challenging repertoire the BBC has selected for him. In what is an almost "tri-coloured" affair, Ring will front the London Symphony Orchestra alongside Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon under the baton of the undisputed greatest conductor on the planet, Sir Simon Rattle. The Kerryman will perform the principal baritone roles in Maurice Ravel's hugely idiomatic L'enfant et les sortileges.

And the first Irish National Opera (INO) production finished its sell-out run last night at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin. Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, directed by Patrick Mason, was a joy, in particular for the mesmerising performances from Maire Flavin, Ben McAteer and Ireland's newest international opera star, Tara Erraught.

Tara, from Dundalk, Co Louth, who made her debut to critical acclaim at New York's Metropolitan Opera last autumn, appears set for international diva status. Erraught, Flavin, and Ring are part of a golden generation of Irish opera singers in big demand by the premier opera companies.

This raises the question: why, all of a sudden, is Ireland producing so many great opera singers? There have always been historical sensations like Count John McCormack and Margaret Burke Sheridan, however, much like our success in international rugby, our nation is now punching above its weight in the opera world and the difference now, just as in rugby, is the quality of the coaching for our classically trained singers. The remarkable Dr Veronica Dunne, still working in her 91st year, our most renowned voice coach, has set a high bar for all to follow but follow they have.

The Royal Irish Academy of Music, headed by Deborah Kelleher and her team of luminaries such as Kathleen Tynan, Mary Brennan and Dearbhla Collins, has been augmented by singers who now coach like Virginia Kerr, Suzanne Murphy and Anne Murray.

Mezzo soprano Tara Erraught is wowing audiences everywhere
Mezzo soprano Tara Erraught is wowing audiences everywhere

Over at the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama, Mairead Hurley, Aoife O'Sullivan and Colette McGahon-Tosh maintain the high standards set by the former head of vocal, opera and drama studies, Anne Marie O'Sullivan. Furthermore, McGahon-Tosh also runs the hugely successful Opera Collective Ireland, a marvellous platform for showcasing of young Irish operatic talent. CIT Cork School of Music has also been to the fore with brilliant coaches like Mary Hegarty and Mary MacSweeney. Despite being poorly resourced when compared with the facilities of our UK and European counterparts, the nurturing of our best singers relies on a remarkable community of dedicated teachers all across the island of Ireland.

The news about Gavan Ring's BBC Proms debut and Patricia Bardon's return to the Royal Albert Hall confirms, yet again, that our singers are world class and are very much in demand overseas. However, until recently, Irish audiences have been denied the opportunity to see our best perform in operas here. The triumph of this week's first production from our new opera company, Irish National Opera, augurs well for the home front.

The Arts Council should take a bow for the bold move to fund a new opera company but the person who deserves most praise is INO's artistic director, Fergus Shiel. His years of graft at Opera Theatre Company and Wide Open Opera ensured he was the perfect choice to deliver a successful and sustainable national opera company in Ireland. Fergus is one of those dynamos who, on top of his work as the new Artistic Director of Irish National Opera, still finds time to be in his home village of Julianstown, Co Meath, every Friday to teach more than 100 teenagers in the local youth orchestra.

Irish operatic talent is in rude good health and the future looks bright. We have world-class coaches, an abundance of talent and now we have the makings of an exciting and sustainable national opera company.

All this is happening when, across the water, English National Opera struggles to recover from its funding controversies. Operatic endeavour in Ireland continues to confound expectation because everyone involved works hard to deliver a top-class product on modest budgets yet still, like Fergus Shiel, finds the time to nurture the musical talent in their communities at the weekend.

Sunday Independent

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