Christmas with Claudia
In advance of her Christmas special, soprano Claudia Boyle talks to Liadan Hynes about becoming a mum, and how she makes it work
Claudia Boyle didn't always know she wanted to be a singer. She was halfway through a degree in the Royal Academy of Music, studying as a cellist, when it hit her. "I was literally sitting in the pit looking up when I thought 'oh God, I think I want to be on the stage. That's better; that's what I want to do'," she recalls now with a smile.
She may have not known she wanted to be a singer, but the Dublin-born soprano always wanted to be a performer of some sorts. Now a hugely successful singer, Claudia is soon to front her own Christmas show at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre: The Magic of Christmas with Claudia Boyle and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra. But music was not her original passion. "Acting was my first love as a child," she explains, adding with a laugh, "as a really young child I was obsessed with Meryl Streep." She went to the Betty Ann Norton Theatre School, sat for all her Guildhall exams.
"I would have been an outgoing child - a bit of a class clown. Doing little impressions, that kind of thing," explains Claudia, who in person has a sort of larger-than-life beauty and instant warmth which no doubt come in handy when she is on stage and needs to project to an audience of thousands.
"If you have to step out in front of an opera house, the lights, the orchestra, the big spectacle of it, you do have to have something about yourself," she reflects on how her youthful inclination towards performance has stood to her. "That's why people have this impression that opera singers are maybe a bit full of themselves. European opera houses are generally about 2,000-2,500, some of the American ones are slightly bigger."
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"It was coming a long time," she says of having her own Christmas special, which will be presented by Marty Whelan, and includes Stephen Rea reading The Night Before Christmas. "I've worked away pretty much non-stop for the past ten years so it will be lovely to perform at home this December. Having started my own family, Christmas just means a lot more."
Claudia pitched the project to the theatre when she was eight months pregnant. "I like keeping busy," she smiles. She's not exaggerating. She had her first child, daughter Arabella, with her husband Dave, in May. Working during her pregnancy was tough. "I did a big job in Oslo. That was hard, because I was very sick." She was still sick on the morning of opening night, although the nausea tapered off.
"The rehearsal period was very difficult," she says. "I would say I had to run out during every rehearsal. I knew every bathroom in the opera house." All-day morning sickness aside, being a soprano as successful as Claudia is, with the near-constant travel this requires, is a challenging job with which to combine motherhood.
"I actually put it off for a while specifically because of that," she says of the prospect of managing the two. "And then when I had her, I was like 'why did I do that?'. Work definitely was a factor. But you know what, I did like my life. I did like being able to go off to have a nice meal, have a few drinks in town. I was working really hard, and in the back of my mind I was like 'hmm no, I think I can wait a couple more years'. And then the year before we decided to have her, it just started feeling organically like something was missing. I felt I'd like to extend the family."
Claudia met her husband Dave when she was 18. He's an accountant, nothing to do with the musical world, which she says is a relief. "Music is the last thing I want to talk about. I mean obviously if there has been something in a rehearsal you'll come in and you'll vent or whatever, but it just really works for me that he's not involved in music. I would find it too much. I have some friends in music, but generally a lot of my world is outside it. I like to switch off. We have a dog, we go out walking. It's normality."
They met on holiday. "It was myself and three guys in Ibiza," she says. "We had a mutual friend." They were friends for about a year, and then one night on the way home from the pub, Dave kissed her, "on the green of my estate," she says.
"It's so Irish, isn't it? To this day we're always joking about who kissed who - but he definitely kissed me first."
Growing up in Knocklyon, where the couple now live, Claudia was the third of four girls. "All girls, no boys allowed," she says. Having studied cello as a child, she attended the Royal Irish Academy of Music for her degree, taking singing lessons and performing with musical societies on the side. When it hit her that singing was what she really wanted to be studying, her teacher advised her to finish out the degree, something she says has really stood to her in her professional life, giving her a particularly developed level of musicality.
"When you're in a course and you feel suddenly you want to change, there is a feeling of 'oh God, have I messed up?'. It's a little bit daunting. But I just knew I had to do it. If you feel that strongly about something you just have to go with it."
Opera lends itself to this kind of thing. "Your voice matures a little later. So that was good; I certainly didn't feel like I'd missed the boat or anything." After completing the masters course in singing in the Royal Irish Academy, there was a placement at the prestigious Young Artists course linked to the Salzburg Opera festival. It was a highly promising start, and followed quickly by her first international job, at the Opera House in Rome.
Rehearsal periods are typically six weeks if it's a brand-new production (she will be looking at more revivals since having Arabella, as they tend to have shorter rehearsal periods).
"You mightn't be used all the time, if there's a scene that you're not in, but you're only told the day before. It doesn't really give you much leeway to plan anything. So it's not a very family-orientated career. I think it is getting better. I think opera houses are doing their best to try and make it easier."
Before having her daughter, she spoke with a few singers who had children. "They said 'it's tough but just get on with it'. Even taking my job out of it, there's no ideal time to have a baby. You'd be putting it off for your whole life, there'll always be something, but you just roll with it."
In a way, she reflects, becoming a mother has given her the confidence to pick and choose. More time-conscious, she will now only do the best jobs; after Christmas, she is making her main stage debut at Covent Garden, and working in France, and with the Minnesota Opera later in the year. "I'm just being really selective about what I do."
She did a concert six weeks after Arabella was born, a solo show with the National Symphony Orchestra. "I took three weeks off completely. And then for the three weeks building up to the concert I started doing an hour of practice a day. Sounding out the muscles." It went really well, and she points out that then she was able to take the rest of the summer fairly easy.
"I've just weaned off breastfeeding. I always had to do a bit of both, she was a very hungry baby, and I think with the caesarean your milk is a little slow to come. So I always had to top up. But I loved breastfeeding, I would have liked to have done it a bit longer, but it was naturally running its course." At eight months, her daughter did a massive flip in the womb one night, waking Claudia, she recounts, subsequently meaning a caesarean was necessary.
You get the impression she is delighting in the time at home with her baby, but determined to continue at the top of her game in her career.
"I know myself, I do like a quiet period at home, but I don't like it too long. I do get a bit cabin feverish, and I do want to get out and do stuff. It is adjusting. I'm not going to say it's a breeze, because it's not. It's huge. I think the responsibility does fall more on women, but I'm not giving out about that. Even if we could switch around, would I want that? No, I love the time with her. So that's the pay-off."
For now, she says, she is taking each job as it comes. "Everything's up for negotiation," she says. You get the sense of a woman whose determination will see those negotiations go her way.
'The Magic of Christmas with Claudia Boyle and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra', takes place at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on Sunday December 22. Tickets €21
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