Saturday 23 February 2019

Music is thicker than water

Singer Rachel Kelly has just won a €5,000 bursary and is thrilled with the recognition. But her parents, including her mum, pianist Una Hunt, have been an even bigger support

When mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly was a baby, a gypsy woman called to her parents' house and told the fortune of her mother, the renowned pianist Una Hunt. She was very accurate in what she said about Una, and told her that Rachel would grow up to be a famous musician on the international stage. Una occasionally reflected on this prediction as her daughter grew up, noting that while she was good at playing piano and flute, she wasn't outstanding, but what she didn't realise at the time was that her little girl's talent lay in another instrument – her voice.

"Rachel was always a huge personality," says Una.

"She used to chat away the whole time and would sing at the top of her voice. I remember her singing Disney songs as we went around the supermarket one day, when she was less than two years old.

"The late singing teacher Eithne Barror came over to me and said that she had never heard a child that small singing like that."

Una grew up in Belfast during the Troubles, as the second-youngest of her late parents' six children. Her dad Patrick was a businessman and her mum Patricia was an opera singer and piano teacher. Una and her younger sister went on to become professional musicians. Her sister is renowned violinist Fionnuala Hunt, and the pair came to Dublin by train every Saturday for their music lessons at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.

Una completed her music degree at Queen's in Belfast, and then lived in Vienna for six years, where she studied piano at the Vienna State Academy. She came back to teach piano at Cork School of Music for nine years, while performing as a pianist in her own right.

She met her husband, Paul Kelly, in Cork, through his brother and sister-in-law, who also taught at the music school. They married and have three daughters, Rachel, 25, Rebecca, 20, who is studying architecture, and Hannah, 19, who is a graphic design student.

"It was a culture shock becoming a mother, but it was the most amazing experience of my life," says Una."Rachel is outgoing, loyal, bubbly, and highly strung.We both love style, so music and fashion are our shared passions."

The family moved to Dublin in 1991, where Una continued teaching and performing. She did a lot of work making music radio programmes for RTE, and also completed her PhD. She has just edited and brought out her first book, The 1854 Music Album by William Vincent Wallace, a magnificent high-quality reproduction album and CD on the Irish opera composer that is available from RTE's online shop.

Growing up, Rachel entered and won lots of singing competitions, and started her training with teacher Mary Brennan when she was 14. She completed her music degree and went to London, where she was accepted onto the prestigious opera course at the Royal Academy of Music in 2009, studying under Janice Chapman. She is currently attending the National Opera Studio, a one-year master course for young professional opera singers.

"I missed my family hugely when I moved to London and was manically depressed for about six months," says Rachel.

"My mum is the biggest support in my life. I remember always wanting to impress her growing up as she had very high expectations – which she has for herself as well – but I think that was the making of me as people always remark that I work very hard.

"She was an amazing dress-maker as well, and always made fantastic dress-up costumes for me and my friend Nicole."

Rachel says that her dad's advice to picture him and her mum in the audience at every performance is a comfort when she's nervous, and the fact that her boyfriend Shane Hegarty is in London with her is a great help. Shane works in book publishing, and they first met in a secondary school production of Guys and Dolls.

They dated briefly, remained friends, and ended up moving to London at the same time. Their friendship turned to romance, and Rachel says that having the support of Shane and her singing teacher Janice is crucial for her self-confidence.

"It's vital, because as a performer, if you don't feel confident you can't go on stage," she explains.

Rachel recently reached the final and semi-final rounds respectively of the International Handel Competition in London and the Hans Gabor Belvedere Competition in Vienna, and in 2011 she attended the prestigious Solti Te Kanawa Accademia di Bel Canto in Italy. Recent roles include Fanny in the London premiere of Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park, Beatrice in Beatrice et Benedict, Wu in the world premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies' Kommilitonen!, and Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte.

She was recently announced by the National Concert Hall as the winner of The Bernadette Greevy Bursary Award 2012, which was established in honour of the late Irish mezzo-soprano and opera festival director, Dr Bernadette Greevy, to support and provide opportunities to young Irish singers.

Rachel received a bursary of €5,000, and will give a recital at the National Concert Hall in November, where a new piece will have been specially commissioned for her to perform. Her proud mum and dad will be in the audience that night, and Rachel says that she is thrilled with the recognition.

She is also keen to pay tribute to Una, saying that having a professional musician as a mother has been an amazing influence, as her mum intrinsically understands the pressures and competitive nature of the industry. "Mum has always known where I was going, and she believed in me and was always very honest with me," she says."She gives fantastic advice and I think I've got better at taking it!"

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