Sunday 25 February 2018

Hitting the high notes together

Soprano Sandra Oman and her husband Conor Farren share a passion for music and singing

Sandra Oman is married to her singing teacher Conor Farren. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Sandra Oman is married to her singing teacher Conor Farren. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

Singing teacher Conor Farren goes to the Feis Ceoil every year, but when he saw soprano Sandra Oman perform one year, he was particularly impressed with what he heard and saw. She was 22 and he was 26 when they met eventually at a mutual friend's birthday party.

"I didn't know Conor but he sat down and started talking to me," recalls Sandra. "I was unsure about my singing at that point, so I asked his opinion. He actually critiqued me and gave me feedback, which I thought was very interesting. He also happened to have two tickets to Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky's concert, so he invited me and we kind of started dating from there."

Sandra grew up in Blackpitts in the heart of the Liberties, as the elder of Dolores and Terry Oman's two children. She sang from an early age, and while at school at Presentation Secondary School, Warrenmount, her music teacher, Catherine Hamill, recommended that she should have her voice trained. She was accepted to what is now the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama when she was 15, and trained with Edith Forrest and Alison Young.

Sandra worked as a librarian assistant and then clerical officer with Dublin City Council, and took singing lessons first thing in the morning before work. She entered a lot of competitions and did well in them, and after she met Conor her career path took a different route.

"I thought he was very handsome, charming and articulate, and he knew a lot about music and singing," she says. "We're opposites though, because I'm chatty and outgoing, whereas Conor is very quiet and a good listener. I think that most performers would say that they're attracted to stability, so we like people who are calm and cool as they can keep us on an even keel when all the madness is going on."

Conor grew up in Blackrock and is the youngest of Patrick and the late Nuala's three sons. He began piano lessons at eight, but got more into athletics for a time - he was the all-Ireland discus champion at one point. He got his voice trained in his late teenage years as he was always singing, but eventually found that his talents lay more in the direction of teaching. Conor also worked at servicing and repairing musical equipment, and then began teaching at the Abbey School of Music & Drama in 2002. He has now taught a lot of very high-profile people, including Damien Dempsey, Anthony Kearns and John Molloy.

"Someone once said that I'm a great mender of voices, and my gift is to teach them," he says. "Some students get so caught up in technique that they actually make it harder for themselves, so I try to simplify it all and make it more naturalistic. When I met Sandra, I was extremely attracted to her as a person, and I loved that she was a great performer because that wasn't my forte. Sandra is bubbly and bright, whereas I'm more laid-back and easygoing, but as they say, opposites attract."

As well as dating, Sandra also began studying singing with Conor, and he completely changed the way she sings. "He helped me access parts of my voice that were previously sleeping," she says. "I completely trusted him and Conor is a very relaxed individual so he explains things terribly well. I began getting professional contracts and had to take an awful lot of time off work, but it got to the point where I couldn't sustain both careers so I gave up the day job."

Sandra was the 2004 recipient of the Margaret Burke Sheridan Memorial Award for her contribution to opera in Ireland. Having won major awards at all the national festivals, she has performed extensively in opera and concert all over the world. She is very much looking forward to her forthcoming roles in Nessun Dorma, The Life & Music of Luciano Pavarotti, and Mario Lanza, The Loveliest Night of the Year.

Sandra and Conor got married in the Newman University Church, St Stephen's Green, and held their reception at the Conrad Hotel. They now live in Clonskeagh and have a seven-year-old daughter, Emily, whom they say is the best thing that ever happened to them. Emily loves opera, and also plays the violin and sings.

Conor was very heavily involved in the production of Sandra's successful debut album, Liberty, and also in her forthcoming Christmas album, Noel. She and Conor say that the challenges in their relationship include when Sandra was away touring for up to eight weeks at a time, as they found those periods of time spent apart lonely. Since Emily came along, Sandra has confined her career to Ireland.

Outside of music, Conor and Sandra recently started ballroom dancing classes, and they both enjoy classic movies. It all sounds perfect, but there must be something that drives them mad about one another? Well Sandra worries too much about things for Conor's liking, he admits, while the calmness that Sandra likes about her husband can also have a flip side. "Conor can be so laid-back, he may as well be dead," she laughs.

Sandra Oman will star in Nessun Dorma, The Life & Music of Luciano Pavarotti with tenor Alexander James Edwards at the National Concert Hall, Dublin on September 24. She will also star in Mario Lanza, The Loveliest Night of the Year, with tenor Sean Costello in Cork Opera House on October 20, UCH, Limerick on October 22, and NCH on October 23.

Sunday Independent

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