Opera singer Tara Erraught: 'You've got to surround yourself with people who will be brutal'
It takes selflessness, a sense of humour, people-watching skills and an elephant's hide to make it as a top opera singer, according to mezzo soprano Tara Erraught. Here, the diva from Dundalk tells Maggie Armstrong why she loves nothing more than having an audience full of critics to win over
Tara Erraught is much watched around the world. Since she won the Rising Star award at the National Concert Hall in 2010, the mezzo soprano has been pursued and whispered about by opera aficionados across Europe to Mexico and Japan and most recently, the US, when she made a double debut in the Met Opera in New York.
She was much scrutinised, too, when at 27 she was savaged by critics at the Glyndebourne Opera Festival for her body shape. But what you might not know about Erraught is that she also likes to watch people. She is a compulsive watcher, in fact, with a gimlet eye for finding the drama in the everyday.
She looks around the apparently bland hotel we are sitting in. This is after a day of rehearsals with the newly formed Irish National Opera in their first big show, Mozart's opera buffa, The Marriage of Figaro. In the show, which had its debut performance at the Wexford Opera House last night, she sings the starring role of Susanna. "Here's a business man coming - he's gonna do something real powerful, you can see by the walk. Here's another business man, he's exhausted, it's a tough week.
"You can sit in IKEA, and watch incredible domestic fights. People murdering each other out there. Couples are perfectly happy when they're upstairs looking at the designs for rooms. Then they go downstairs to where they keep the supplies - and they really row."
When she is on the move she sits in airports, watching families, business people, hen and stag parties, "and they're all things that you can bring to the stage." On holidays, she gets coffee and cake and sits in café windows, watching people - "it's interesting, it's interesting" - two words she says a number of times.
The diva from Dundalk is intense and talkative company, with an answer for everything at the tip of her tongue. She has not lost her accent and has a big strong voice, speaking sometimes in capital letters: "I. DROVE. THEM. CRAZY" (her parents, when she used to sing in the car). Her laugh is powerful, starting on a top note and coming down like a piano scale. She flashes her eyes a lot and clutches handfuls of air, expanding on her passion for the music, particularly the "absolute genius and impy-ness of Mozart".
"I know it is a big undertaking," says Erraught, when I suggest to her that opera is a spendy affair and people who don't get it find it intimidating. "Money doesn't grow on trees. What I think is really important for opera and for the new audience [of the new national opera company] is to trust us now, and come and see that opera is theatre. It is soul-achingly attractive music. The music and the libretto make this spellbinding thing, this ageless thing. It's like when you hear Riverdance. You can't stop the skin from crawling off you."
If you wanted an ad for Irish opera, look no further. Actually, if you wanted an ad for Ireland, maybe one of those posters that hang in the airport as you're walking through the arrivals gate, Ms Erraught would be perfect.
Her voice is mega-watt, her career is meteoric, but she talks most fondly of coming home. "It's lush. The air is lovely, the people are lovely, the food is lovely. There's nothing better than getting on an airplane and ordering a cup 'a Barry's tea."
She has been living in Munich for the past 10 years, contracted as a principle soloist with the Bavarian State Opera - which will come to an end this summer. Arriving at Dublin airport recently, she saw herself on the side of a bus. "It was my Sex and the City moment," she proclaims.
She can sound by turns like a high art cognoscente and like a country car dealer, telling me how "four, five times a year I'll bring the machine back to the mechanics. Back to the singin' lessons. To make sure everything's clean and tickin' over as it should be. No different than a Formula One driver."
What else might surprise you about Erraught? She suffers from FOMO (the fear of missing out), has a 6ft 6in German boyfriend, an orchestra manager, who she "looks ridiculous" with. She has a passion for comedy, and reads a lot of books by female comedians. Opera is "not any more this boring fat lady singing at the front of the stage", and making people laugh is a big part of that. She is a "huge Dawn French fan" and has just finished Dear Fatty.
"It helped me a lot to watch old French & Saunders skits when I was starting out. Their pure honesty is amazing. To see how they had no inhibitions. French - she didn't care what she looked like, that her body was awkward. I thought, I need to get to the point where I can do that, where I'm not embarrassed about how I look."
When she was in the opera studio in Munich she found herself in drama classes with a famous filmmaker in the corner watching. Her teacher, Sigrid, is the sister of Werner Herzog, who would sit through six-hour lessons. "He's so interested to see how the voice works," says Erraught.
They did improvisations, when Sigrid would call out "Be a washing machine," or "Be a newspaper", and this stands to her when it comes to forgetting who she is on stage. "I will do literally anything. And maybe that's from Herzog that I learned that, I don't know. But if they need me to look like Shrek and lie on the floor? No problem."
By the way, she has just finished the comic debut novel by Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght that everyone has been talking about, Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling. "There's an opera, ready to be written. And I want to be in that." Her great dream is to play the title role in Joan of Arc.
She grew up playing the violin and singing Moore's melodies, a "feis addict" who couldn't understand, at 13, why she had to go to school. All she wanted to do was sing. Her parents were both heads of culinary arts schools, and it was her "poor mother" that drove her to feises and singing lessons all week, with Geraldine McGee and with the "queen of Irish opera", Veronica 'Ronnie' Dunne.
She could sing Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Celine Dion was the first CD she bought, but she couldn't sing Mariah Carey. She could reach the high notes, and once she saw Verdi's Aida in Verona aged 13, "that changed my life".
Her grandmother used to sing in the kitchen, and singing for her grandparents was also a bit of a turning point. "It did something for them, something I didn't understand but I could see it happen. It touched them. I knew that was something I had to explore. It made sad people happy, it brought older people memories."
Erraught is so altogether upbeat, without giving any glimpse of sorrow, tiredness, self-doubt or prickliness. She mentions how it was "painful" sometimes having to sing all the time; how she was often reduced to "tears of frustration".
"By no means is singing an easy thing. I'm rehearsing The Marriage of Figaro. In the car the whole way home I'm going to listen to texts for these songs I have to learn. You're on the go all the time. Your mind is busy, busy, busy."
But she says it all so cheerfully.
Where did she find all this enthusiasm (and can we have some too)? "That's the way I was brought up. My parents always said, 'If you want something, go and get it. But you're going to have to do the work for it.' So that's grand. A bit of hard work never hurt anyone."
Her two teachers, Geraldine and Ronnie, gave her some advice which she lives by. "I was so young, I kept forgetting my words and I'd get all flustered. Geraldine would say, 'You're being selfish. Your job is to tell a story.' I now remember, I'm not singing for me, I'm singing for the public. They have to hear the story for the first time."
Ronnie, as well as drilling her with Italianate vocal technique, taught her something that would certainly stand to her: "never read a review, good bad or indifferent, during the run of a show." Ronnie also told her that by the time she was finished with her pupil, she would have an elephant's hide. That also came in handy that time at Glyndebourne Festival Opera.
Erraught is known for playing comic "trouser roles" the boy roles castrated men originally played. "You can knock great craic out of it," she says. "In Hansel and Gretel [at the Met] I play Hansel. I just play my younger brother when he was six."
But it wasn't great craic in May 2014 when she made her British debut as Count Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. After the first performance came a spate of four reviews in the broadsheet papers, all by middle-aged men focusing not on her singing but on her body shape. She was described by one as "dumpy of stature", by another as "chubby bundle of puppy fat".
These words provoked a livid response from the public, but not from Erraught. Having taken Ronnie's advice, she hadn't read the reviews. "When I went back for the second show, people were all saying: 'How are you doing?' I thought: 'Oh Jesus what is it?' But I didn't ask.
"Octavian is a huge role. The whole show is sitting on your shoulders. I knew I couldn't get distracted. But by the end of that second show, when I had an ovation like I'd never had, and people throwing flowers, and my dressing room was coming down in gifts, I thought, 'You know, you're better off not knowing. Say nothing. Muscle through.'"
That was in May: she finished the run at Glynebourne and went home. She still hadn't read anything about herself, though her Facebook page had grown from 600 to 5,000 friends. She declined interviews - "everything from the newspapers to Loose Women". Back in Munich, she did another trousers role. "I could have sung it in Swahili, the audiences couldn't have cared. They went buck mad.
"What's really sad is I was so excited that people were talking about opera," she reflects. "But I was so worried, when people had said 'there are all these reviews', that people would say I couldn't sing. Even now if you said to me, 'I don't like what you're wearing, you look like a gypsy'. I'd be like, 'Right, yeah, but the singing? Do anything for you?' If ever comes the day where I sing and it doesn't do something to you, I'm doing something wrong. And I'm doing that selfish thing that Geraldine warned me about when I was 10."
August came: she read the reviews, about which she has precisely nothing to say. Did she not find the words infuriating, or hurtful? "Hurtful? No. Not at all." She leans in with a little conspiratorial smile. "It was the best thing that's ever happened me. I didn't lose any contracts. In fact, I got quite an amount of nice work afterwards. It was a good advertisement. Divil the bit of harm it did me.
"I'm disappointed if there aren't critics in the audience. I need people to be honest. So many people are terrified to be honest. So you've gotta surround yourself then with people who will be brutal. I mean, I was at school with 600 girls. I believe that set me up for life."
Her manager recently compared the body-shaming aimed at her to the misogyny faced by women in the #MeToo movement. Erraught believes that indeed, what happened to her might have been the "straw that broke the camel's back". "I think that day, something changed in the industry. And it's quite a wonderful thing."
The insights she gained make Figaro topical for Erraught. "It's so old and yet it's so relevant to what we're really talking about all the time now. Women's rights and sexual harassment and #MeToo."
Susanna is the servant to the countess and her fiancé is valet to the count. There are infidelities and lies, disguises, people hiding in wardrobes. But there is also a scene which makes Erraught uneasy. "The count has tried to seduce Susanna, and then she has to go back into the room with this man she is terrified of. That's very much the type of thing we're hearing now, where women are put in situations that make them terribly vulnerable."
But in the end the women put their class and personal differences aside in order to confront the Count. "There's quite a girl power feeling to the whole thing," says Erraught. "It takes a whole community to bring one person to justice - nobody can fight the fight alone.
"The women win through." And more than that, she adds, "the men are forgiven."
'The Marriage of Figaro' runs at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre from April 17 to 21, see irishnationalopera.ie