Wow, what a year 2016 was! I made my US debut at the world-famous Carnegie Hall in New York, I performed in two world premieres and I worked for a new opera company, Buxton Opera Festival, for the first time.
I was given the exciting opportunity of singing in America when I was offered the title role in Hazel: Made in Belfast, a musical work about Lady Hazel Lavery, wife of the Belfast painter Sir John Lavery. The piece was written for solo soprano, violin, piano and narrator and told the story of Hazel, an inspirational Irish-American woman who tried to create peace between opposing sides in the Irish/UK conflict of the early twentieth century through the medium of art.
We brought quite an entourage with us. My husband and parents weren’t going to miss the opportunity to hear me sing in one of the most famous recital venues in the world. The fact that it was in New York was an added bonus; while we (the performers) rehearsed they saw the sights. I saw a few highlights myself but spent much of my time rehearsing or performing; apart from the Carnegie Hall recital we also gave a performance at the American Irish Historical Society, which is located directly across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park.
What was it like to enter the Carnegie Hall through the artists’ entrance? Exciting, intimidating, unreal. The security was unbelievable – you weren’t getting in unless you were on a pre-approved list so there was no changing of plans at the last minute. The staff members were professional and helpful but strict. When our two-hour rehearsal slot was up we were politely ushered out of the door.
The audience at the concert was an eclectic bunch. Many were members of the New York art world who had never been to a classical concert and seemed quite bowled over by the whole experience. One very interesting character told me afterwards that he was so surprised and excited by the concert that he wanted to run onstage and hug the s**t out of me. How do you respond to that! Other audience members had come from Northern Ireland, prominent politicians involved in the Northern Irish peace process with an interest in the subject matter of our show.
In the autumn of 2016 I performed the lead role in the world premiere of a new work entitled Mary Gordon with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. The piece was commissioned by the Wicklow County Council as part of the events marking the anniversary of the 1916 Rising in Ireland and focused on the doomed love affair of Mary Gordon and Joshua Burns. There was great publicity around this event and lots of local interest, as the show featured five choirs from Wicklow and a Wicklow soprano (me!)
I was also involved in the premiere of a new opera, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, written especially for Scottish Opera Connect. The opera was set in a lunatic asylum and the old Woodside Halls in which we performed felt like a very suitable (and slightly creepy) setting. The chorus and orchestra were made up of incredible young performers between the ages of 14 and 21 and boy did they do a good job. I was lucky enough to perform again with these talented youngsters more recently in their production of Dido and Aeneas and yet again they pulled it out of the bag. I had wanted to sing the role of Belinda since I was fifteen years old and my first singing teacher, Patricia McCarry, gave me the score, so this was a bit of a dream come true. The show was a triumph apart from one dramatic incident where the smoke that was being pumped onstage before the show set the fire alarm off and we were all evacuated, audience and performers alike, some of us not wearing very much at all!
Working for the Buxton Opera Festival for the first time was a lovely experience. We rehearsed in London so I stayed with friends and enjoyed being back in the city of my student days. After a month we moved to the lovely spa town of Buxton, complete with idyllic opera house and quaint little tea houses and boutiques. We spent a further month in Buxton performing – I covered the role of Giulietta in Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues) – and the music was a joy to sing. The people really made the experience though. I shared a house with six of the other singers and although it was a bit like being a student again they were such a lovely bunch that the time just flew by and before I knew it I was back with my husband in Glasgow.
Of course I also got to take part in many concerts, galas, recitals and oratorio performances. I was privileged to sing in the Bray Choral Society’s 30th Anniversary concert and also the 40th Anniversary of the Bray One Act Drama Festival. Most of the audience members at the drama festival hadn’t heard me sing before so it was great to get to sing for a new crowd and broaden my audience. I was also delighted to be part of a number of charity concerts with the Holy Redeemer Singers and the Big Saturday Sing in aid of Alzheimer Scotland.
I got to sink my teeth into some of my favourite oratorios by Handel, Haydn, Purcell, Schubert and Rossini and have a few adventures along the way. I had to rush to Barnes at the last minute to perform hastily-learned Handel with the English Chamber Choir. Luckily it went really well! I sang with new choral societies such as the Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir and Cumbria Rural Choirs and old friends the Harrogate Choral Society, the Leith Hill Musical Festival, the Dundee Choral Union and the Exeter Philharmonic Choir. The sun shone in Exeter and I had such fun performing Handel’s Messiah, especially as I had friends from Ireland in the audience. After the concert we enjoyed a glass of wine in England’s oldest hotel, the Royal Clarence, just beside the cathedral. Little did we know that this lovely establishment would burn down less than a week later!
And so it was an exciting year, and a demanding one. As well as the usual demands singers face while working (avoiding coughs, colds, general illness, unsuitable food, loud venues etc.) I had a new one to face, but a welcome one. I’m expecting a baby in two weeks’ time so all of my performances from September 2016 onwards had the added challenges that come with pregnancy. It’s quite something to sing with an orchestra and to feel an actual physical reaction to the music from your baby. I’ll talk a little bit more about the joys and challenges of singing while expecting in my next blog but for now I’ll just look back on a fascinating, eclectic and unforgettable year. Here’s hoping there are more like that one to come!