A love story in two acts
'If you had told me this time last year that by now, I would be where I am and happier than I have ever been - more myself than I have ever been, freer than I've ever been - I wouldn't have believed you at all!" So says soprano Maire Flavin, with the kind of glow that suggests she is not exaggerating one bit.
In mid January, she got married to Donald Thomson, also an opera singer (he's a baritone). It was just the two of them, in a treehouse overlooking Loch Goil in Scotland, and the snow-covered mountains beyond.
"We eloped," she says with a laugh. "To what is literally a treehouse; part of an old shooting lodge that is now a hotel. It was completely isolated, and we brought nobody with us. Just the two of us, and two witnesses, who were the hotel events manager and her partner. I did my own hair and make-up. We just really wanted it to be about us getting married and nothing else, and it was perfect. It was so amazing. So relaxed, so romantic, so intimate. We had a candle ceremony, and a hand-fasting ceremony, using Irish linen a friend had given me that I had embroidered."
Three days later, the couple had a blessing in Edinburgh with family and friends, "but even that," Maire says, "we kept it really casual: an afternoon tea, no big speeches. Just very relaxed, about our love, our moment. I had this idea in my head, we wanted it to be about us and not about the big rigmarole. I know we're both performers, but maybe for that very reason…"
I see what she means. For many of us, our wedding day is a chance to be centre-stage, to play out the drama of a love story writ large, in front of an audience. For Maire - who has performed as pretty much all of opera's leading ladies, including Mimi, Fiordiligi and Violetta, as well as representing Ireland at BBC Cardiff Singer of the World - there is no such urge.
"Even the dress," Maire continues, "on stage, you're constantly wearing big, heavy gowns. I wanted to wear something that made me feel the way Donald makes me feel - really free, romantic, and relaxed. Not trussed up or stiff or contained, or anything like that."
That she is still so clearly giddy with joy one-and-a-half months later is obvious, and very endearing. Partly, this has to do with the day itself, and with the fact that, as she says, she is "madly in love", but also, there is the delight of contrast.
This time last year, Maire's first marriage had just ended. "He kept trying to leave me," she says now of her ex-husband. "In December, in January, and finally in February, the day after Valentine's Day, he left for, I think, the fifth time, and then I thought, 'OK, I will take you at your word', and I stopped fighting for the marriage.
"I was broken into pieces when he left. Completely floored. We were together for eight years, and married for four. The person who is supposed to know you best is rejecting you. Now that I've come out the other side, I realise - he didn't know me. He didn't appreciate the parts that Donald has completely fed, and set free."
"I'm an extremely loyal person," she continues, "and I would have continued to work on that marriage, and been in that marriage, had it not been for his decision. Thank god I'm not," she adds, with a smile.
And yet, meeting Donald barely a month later was hard in its own way. "It was not convenient," she laughs. "It was completely unplanned. And completely amazing." They met, literally, on stage. "We were doing La Traviata in Aberdeenshire. I was playing Violetta, a courtesan who is dying of tuberculosis, and Donald was playing the Dottore trying to save her life. Neither of us was looking for anything, and it was... tough. It was almost love at first sight, in that we saw each other and knew pretty much straight away."
Even so, Maire tried to tell herself it was nothing. "I could see that we were flirting, and I was practically patting myself on the back saying, 'Good girl Maire, look, you're having a little flirt, that's great, and maybe in a year you might actually go on a date…' and then I remember at one point locking eyes with Donald and going, 'Oh... this is not a little flirt. I'm in trouble. He's in trouble'. That was scary."
She reminded herself of all the reasons why this was not a good idea; "I'm very listy," she laughs. "My happy place is stationary shops. So in my head, with bullet points, were all the nos: I am literally just out of a relationship; I am going through a divorce; I've been completely bashed and bruised, metaphorically speaking. Also, you're younger than me, by five years. I want babies, I'm older, this is not a good idea...'"
At one stage, she even messaged Donald to say: 'This is a bad idea, we have to stop, I'm in no place for this." But Donald, she says happily, "was amazing. I was scared, but he wasn't. He cut through all the rubbish. Everything I said was a problem, he said, 'No, it isn't'." There were, she says, "No games".
Her parents, were initially understandably wary, but they very quickly came around. "I do have my head on my shoulders, so no one thought I was totally mad, but they were a bit, 'Our daughter is very vulnerable right now…'," Maire says. "My mother, who is the kindest, most wonderful woman, started calling Donald [once she got to know him] 'the answered blessing!' They absolutely adore him. They couldn't be happier."
And indeed, it is a beautiful story. It can't be opera, because opera is all about tragedy and loss, but certainly theatre of some sort. In fact, the only problem for Maire and Donald now is getting time together.
"We were married on a Tuesday, the blessing was Friday, and on the Sunday we went our separate ways - Donald is at the Zurich Opera House, and I'm touring with Scottish Opera - and it will be another six weeks before we see each other again. It's a very long time… I honestly don't think many people have what we have. I think we're really lucky, but we need to plan our performing lives better."
Easier said than done, however. "It's a hard profession for that. You have to have your head screwed on and know what your priorities are."
And is that difficult, sorting out what you want?
"No. My priority is Donald," Maire says firmly. "I love what I do - I don't think you could be in this business for long if it wasn't a vocation and a passion; it's too hard, too personal, too difficult - but we both are very aware that it isn't the be-all and end-all.
"I feel like the only regret I could have is getting to the end of my life and not having seen enough of Donald; not have been with him enough. Knowing that, I thought, if that's how I'm feeling now, why on earth would I ever let myself get to that stage? You always have to be open, and reassess what's actually making you happy. So many performers are so lonely. It can be a really lonely profession - you're away from all the people you want to be with the majority of the time."
This year, Maire will be away from 'home' (even knowing where exactly that is, is difficult; Donald has a house in France, where Maire moved from the UK, but she only lived there for a few weeks before going on tour) for all but 30 days of the year. By the time we meet, she has been living out of a suitcase for nearly a month, with several more weeks of the same to go. "One pair of knee boots, one pair of nude heels, one pair of hiking boots, and that's pretty much it," she laughs. "I'm a travelling minstrel."
Probably luckily, the endless moving is something Maire is used to. Her father, Jim Flavin, was a diplomat, and so the family moved every few years - "New York, then Dublin, then Belgium" - until Maire, the youngest of six, was sent to Alexandra College in Dublin for her final years of school.
"I did my Leaving; then, I had always wanted to work with kids, so I went to do music and psychology in Queen's, and that's where I got the singing bug and started to train my voice. There was always music in the family. I'd done piano, I'd sung in choirs - actually, it was my choir teacher who first said, 'Do you think you should get your voice trained?' But at that stage, I said, 'I love music, but I don't want to do performance…' So instead I went to Queen's, and there I got up the guts, and took some singing lessons."
While at Queen's, Maire studied autism-spectrum disorders and music therapy. Afterwards, she went to work in a solicitor's office while deepening her psychology training, "but I missed singing. Finally, I decided to give it a proper go. I did the diploma in the Royal Irish Academy of Music, then a master's. Then I got accepted to the Glyndebourne Opera chorus for a year, and then to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, and in March 2008, I moved to the UK."
Did the idea of pursuing such an uncertain career daunt her? "I never looked very far ahead," she says. "I never thought to myself, 'Oh, a singing career is so difficult…' I just kept succeeding in increments; first one thing, then the next. It's not until you're out working, that you think, 'Hang on, this is far from easy…'
"You realise the serious level of competition, and you realise that many of your peers, even the ones getting big accolades, have stopped singing because it's too hard, and they don't like not knowing where the next pay cheque is coming from. It isn't an easy job. You have to make things happen for yourself. If you're not in things, people assume you're gone. But touch wood, I've been very lucky; I've been working since I came out of college."
She is also, now, making something interesting happen. Baby Mine: Classic Film Lullabies from Your Childhood is a gorgeous album of classic songs from the films of her - and most of our - childhood, sung by Maire, with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra. The cover art is by Maire's sister, Fiona. The tracklist includes When You Wish Upon a Star from Pinocchio; So This Is Love from Cinderella; Winnie The Pooh; and Candle On The Water from Pete's Dragon. "It is a lullaby album, but there are a few nice waltz-y ones and lighter ones too, to balance it out."
The idea, she says, "had been in the back of my head for a long time. I had this piano book of classic old film songs, and I would sit down and play them, and I realised I really loved singing them, and that it would be so lovely to have them all done by one singer, with a full symphony orchestra. Eventually I thought, 'OK, why don't I just ask for funding and see can I get help putting it together? The worst thing that can happen is someone says no'."
And so she did, and someone said yes, and even asked if she had a charity in mind to donate some of the proceeds. And so, the artist profits from Baby Mine will go to the Irish Society for Autism. "We all know what music can do," she says. "It brings you places; it can soothe the soul; it can get you high; it can be cathartic. For children with autism, it can be communication and it can be invaluable. My college dissertation was on the effects of music therapy as early intervention with children with autism, so I thought this would be a lovely testament to that."
The importance of music is something Maire feels very keenly. "At one point in my career, I lost my voice for a short time, and I remember thinking, 'It is a right for everyone to be able to sing, no matter how badly'. Sing in the shower, to your baby, to your mum, just for yourself. Look at what music can do. It touches your soul in a way that other things can't. Even if you can't sing as beautifully as someone who has trained to do it, I don't think it matters. Get out there and sing!"
And by the by, the possibility of losing her voice is indeed something terrifying. "Your career rests on this one thing," she says. "You get a cold, and you lose a job. There's always that pressure. But, you have to accept that music is a living thing; it's never the same twice. You put your emotion into it, you put your technique behind it, and you just go for it. You have to trust."
And, she adds: "You have to look after your body, and that can be really boring. I don't smoke; I can't go out drinking and sing the next day. Talking over loud noises is really bad, so going to the pub with friends, even if you're drinking water, isn't good. Flying is not great because the air is really dehydrating. I eat raw ginger every day; I drink loads of water; I eat healthily and do yoga, because your body is your instrument."
We talk, briefly, about #MeToo, and whether the world of opera is as bad as the other performing arts. Alas, yes. "It's a huge part of the opera industry, unfortunately. Especially it can happen when you're a young singer, maybe working in the chorus, and the conductors or directors think you're impressionable or easily led.
"It's a power thing and, unfortunately, a conductor or director can make or break your career. If they say they don't want to work with you, because you've said no to their inappropriate pass, then that's it. They can make up excuses, that you're difficult, or they can just veto you: 'I don't like her singing'. And that's that.
Now, I'm in a position where I would just say, 'That's inappropriate,' and go to management, but if you're young, or vulnerable, you're thinking, 'How do I get out of this situation without offending the person who is being inappropriate?' And that's just ridiculous. You come out of that situation still feeling sullied, because you feel you have degraded yourself by doing that instead of just saying, 'This is inappropriate'."
She confesses to being, like so many of us, "a people-pleaser," then says, "as I've got on longer in the profession, and especially since being with Donald, I can think, 'I'm me, and that's OK'. I don't have to be on all the time for everybody, or solve everything, or facilitate everything, or be concerned about someone else's mood. I'll be kind and generous and talk to them if they want, but I'm not going to make it my life's work to improve their mood. You have to own your own self and be OK with that.
"That's definitely something I've learned through this year, and from falling madly in love with the completely right man."
'Baby Mine: Classic Film Lullabies from Your Childhood' is available from March 2, €8.99, for download on iTunes, and available beautifully packaged as the perfect Mother's Day gift from Amazon and other select outlets
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Sunday Indo Life Magazine