New notes on an old friend
Donal Lynch finds out a few secrets when talking to his long-time mate, the opera singer Niall Morris
THE beauty of interviewing an old friend is that you can arrive pretty much whenever you want. By the time I'm buzzed into Niall Morris's swanky city-centre penthouse it's already after eight. There's wine and 12 types of tea and nibbles and as usual he's immaculately attired. Maria Callas stares down at us from the wall, as she always does. It could be any other evening, except, of course, that there's a little dictaphone whirring away between us.
The other beauty of interviewing an old friend is that you already know all the scandal surrounding them. Unconsciously, you've been doing your homework for years. All those boozy evenings when you've sat around chatting into the wee hours? Research.
But it turns out there are some things that I never knew about Niall. Like he'd never let slip that he used to have a girlfriend with a hairy chest ("that should have been my first clue," he giggles) and he'd also never told me that the negotiations for his first record deal involved getting personal approval from the late, great Luciano Pavarotti.
And somehow, he'd forgotten to mention that he was the first tenor to perform in the first major modern opera to feature oral sex -- the Grammy-nominated Powder Her Face. "It was at the Almeida Theatre in London in the early Nineties -- I used to pass Kevin Spacey and Nicole Kidman in the hall -- and it featured a doddery old duchess giving me a You Know What." Shocking, and a far cry from You Raise Me Up at the National Concert Hall.
Just to show we're not complete strangers to each other, however, he does confirm some of what I already know. He grew up in Dundrum, "before it was posh". His father was an RTE soundman specialising in rock music, simultaneously doing a degree in archaeology and sociology in UCD. He graduated with such flying colours that he had his pick of postgraduate work and decided to spend time in Mexico studying the native Americans. "He was an incredible academic, winning an Ivy League Fellowship, but the trip was as much to get away from an unhappy marriage as anything," Niall says. "It was just me and my mum and my sister growing up. We didn't have much money but I was sent to this school where the parents of the kids were all incredibly wealthy."
When his father returned to Ireland, he had what Niall playfully calls "hippie tendencies". His parents separated and his mother remarried. "I was about 12 at that point," he tells me. "And I was already fairly musical. I used music as a way of getting past the stress."
While still a teenager, Niall won a music scholarship to King's College London. "It was great to just get away from Ireland. I was supporting myself so that was hard in a way but I led a bit of a hedonistic life back then. It was very Brideshead Revisited." While in London Niall decided to come out. "I was in the Albert Hall and all of the music schools in UK were doing Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand and I was sitting next to this Scottish guy and I remember thinking 'he's beautiful' and I did what people did in the old days and wrote him a letter. And he replied by letter. And we had a three-year love affair. It was the first time I really fell in love."
Niall had something of a meteoric rise in the London opera but after a few years decided to return to Dublin and became part of the group that would become the Celtic Tenors. They were an instant success -- their first record was number two in the UK classical charts and number one in the German classical charts -- and the three tenors received a five-figure signing fee. The group embarked on a relentless schedule of touring. "Anything the record company paid for was recoupable so we had to sell a lot of records simply to go into the black and we simply weren't selling that amount of records."
The grim realisation dawned on them that they would have to get into a minibus and go to every one-horse town in America.
The stress of the travel took its toll on Niall. He developed what he calls "a type of eating disorder" and his weight dropped right down. He would wake every morning and open his eyes to a full-blown panic attack. His doctor prescribed medication but ultimately advised him that unless he quit the group he was "headed for a nervous breakdown".
He's able to laugh about it now -- "I was a bit like Rufus Wainwright, I was so skinny I could wear anything and anyone" -- but at the time he found the option to leave the group terrifying. "I realised I had no choice, though. The tenors are really talented and I wish them all the best. I left the group with an option to return. I went on a month backpacking in Eastern Europe. I went to therapy and talked through a lot things. I realised the whole corporate identity had swallowed me up."
His qualms about not finding work ultimately proved unfounded as he slipped easily in to performing and directorial roles with Opera Ireland, where he is now company manager. He's currently singing the lead tenor in the Barber of Seville with Opera Theatre Company and has been "re-studying" his voice in the apartment.
It's already nearly midnight in Melrose Place, as Niall calls his docklands apartment building, and we've munched our way through stacks of nibbles and almost managed to forget that we're both 'on'. I even feel like I've gotten to know him a little better. "I hope people won't read this and think I'm grinding an axe or something," he simpers, like some starlet who's just spilled the beans. "I'm lovely really." And he really is.
For bookings contact, Mark Downing (01-2841223; www.audionetworks.ie). The Barber of Seville tour is at the Millennium Forum Theatre, Derry, Tuesday; An Táin Theatre, Dundalk, Thursday; Civic Theatre, Tallaght, Saturday, March 1; Millennium Theatre, Limerick, Tuesday, March 4; Siamsa Tire, Tralee, Thursday March 6; Cork Opera House, Saturday March 8