Monday 23 April 2018

Waking hours with: coloratura soprano Cara O'Sullivan

Cara O'Sullivan is a coloratura soprano. She is renowned for her dazzling voice, dramatic performances and powerful connection with her audiences. Born in Cork, she lives close to the city, with her daughter, Christine

Cara O'Sullivan: If I start rehearsals at 10.30am, I have to be up at 6am, otherwise I sound like a pig stuck in a gate. Photo: David Conachy.
Cara O'Sullivan: If I start rehearsals at 10.30am, I have to be up at 6am, otherwise I sound like a pig stuck in a gate. Photo: David Conachy.

Ciara Dwyer

I live in Frankfield, close to Cork Airport. You see planes, but you never hear them, which is interesting. I wouldn't be a morning person, because I don't need to be, but when I'm rehearsing all that is different. At the moment, I'm rehearsing for Gounod's Faust, so I'm very organised about my morning time. If I start rehearsals at 10.30am, I have to be up at 6am, otherwise I sound like a pig stuck in a gate. My daughter, Christine, lives with me. She's an accountant, so she's usually up very early in the morning to go to work.

My mornings consist of alarm, shower and then coffee. A friend gave me a hoodie which says, 'Give me coffee and no one gets hurt'. The baristas think I'm joking, but coffee is a big deal in my early morning set-up. I don't have a lot for breakfast. If I'm not busy, I'll have a bit of fruit and yoghurt, and I love poached eggs. I listen to local radio if I need to know about the traffic, otherwise I love listening to Marty Whelan on lyric fm, because it's good news and nothing too serious. You'd be worn out listening to all the bad news. Then I sit down at the piano and do a warm-up for about 20 minutes. This is a very important aspect of what we do, and it just wakes everything up. Because I live in a flat, I'm very conscious of not singing before 9.30am and after 6pm, out of respect to the neighbours. But when I do sing, I'd wake the dead.

Rehearsals usually start at 10am and go on until 6pm. In Faust, I play Marguerite, and she falls in love with Faust, who sold his soul to the devil. After they make love, she gets into this very difficult cycle of madness, and her life collapses. She tries to find redemption, but Mephistopheles tells her that she is damned to hell.

It's the usual sort of story for an opera. In tragic operas, somebody always dies at the end. I love rehearsing, especially with our director, John O'Brien, because when you work with him, you can expect the unexpected. There are so many beautiful arias in Faust.

My character in this opera is very complex. To tempt her, the devil gives her a box of jewellery, and her head is turned. He wants as many souls as he can get, and he has no scruples. It may seem dated, but I think it's real. When we were young, we were told that if we weren't good, we'd go to hell.

When I'm doing an opera, I'm always a bit edgy. That's probably because I started out doing oratorios and recitals, so this was a whole new world. I have this urge to get things right. I'm constantly writing things down in a notebook. The soprano Joan Sutherland did the same. I love singing as much as ever, and I love that an audience can come to a concert or an opera and forget about life. We want to enrapture them.

When I'm not working, I might go down to my mobile home in Ardmore, Waterford, with my partner, Peter. We've been together for five years. He has nothing to do with the music world, but he has been a huge support to me. We've gone on trips together and, very often, he calms me down when things get difficult. Years ago, I said that I didn't want diamonds, and all I wanted was a man to butter me toast. Well, I think I have found the man. He is an absolute star. We get on really well, and life is good.

Sometimes I take time out and go to Glenstal Abbey. A friend of mine - who was a monk, and later became a priest - invited me down and asked me to sing there. Then he encouraged me to come and have a bit of a rest there. It's really out of necessity. Usually, I wouldn't stay for more than two or three nights, but it has made such a difference to my life.

Years ago, I had nodules removed from my vocal cords, and I had to go somewhere afterwards and be silent. The Benedictine monks welcomed me with open arms and gave me the space that I needed. I was at a low ebb, and very worried about my voice. I did a lot of crying, and I was silent for a week. I loved listening to the monks' chant, especially the vespers and the compline. Then I went back and started retraining myself. Just over three months after the operation, I made my debut singing Ernani in the English National Opera. That week in Glenstal saved my life.

On the day of a performance, I'm usually at the theatre two or three hours before the opera starts. When I get hair and make-up done, that's when I calm down. Then I like to have half an hour to myself before I sing. I don't want anybody around me. I use that time to focus. Then you hear the audience stop, the orchestra starts and then the magic commences. I walk out on stage as my character, Marguerite, and the opera begins.

By the time I take my bow, I'm usually relieved that I didn't forget anything or fall over anything. Then, when it's all over, the theatre goes from really loud to total silence in a short space of time. I love that. I have no energy to go partying afterwards. My energy is spent; everything has been left on the stage.

Then I go home, and it's into the shower. After that, I might have a bowl of soup or some toast. I'll read the papers and watch the news. There have been times in my life when I felt tortured doing what I was doing, and I wasn't happy. This was simply because of circumstances. I might not have been in a very good place, spiritually and emotionally, and I worried about things. Now I feel blessed that I've been asked to perform with all these fantastic musicians. I'm enjoying it. I feel privileged. I wasn't expecting to be singing opera anymore, so I'm surprising myself.

Cara O'Sullivan stars in the Everyman Theatre/Cork Operatic Society production of Gounod's 'Faust' at the Everyman theatre, Cork, for five performances, the first of which is on Friday, February 20 at 7.30pm. Directed and conducted by John O'Brien. Tickets from €20, tel: (021) 450-1673, or see

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