Mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly hitting the right note ahead of Waterford return

International opera star Rachel Kelly is coming home to sing at the Blackwater Valley Opera Festival. She talks to Cathy Desmond.

MEZZO-SOPRANO Rachel Kelly is one of stars of the international opera scene. The young Dubliner is coming home to sing at the Blackwater Valley Opera Festival.

It is five years since Kelly last appeared in Lismore where she got her first big break playing Cherubino in the festival production of Marriage of Figaro. In the intervening years she has been busy making a name for herself on premier stages in Europe. In the same year as her Lismore debut, Kelly won a place on the prestigious young artist programme at ROH Covent Garden.

She spent two years honing her craft in London, made her mark in many roles and rubbed shoulders with major stars. The veteran superstar Placido Domingo was so impressed that he invited her to share a stage with him at his Dublin concert.

“Placido is lovely,” she enthuses. “When he hears a voice he loves, he does anything he can to help you on your way.”

And indeed, well on her way to an established career this singer certainly is. It has been non-stop since she emerged as a fully-fledged freelance singer with engagements all over the UK and Europe filling her diary: “It has been mad but great and lots of lovely things have happened.” Two major roles in Glyndebourne being among the highlights, she says. “Those and any of my Idamantes,” she adds. She has pretty much owned this demanding trouser role in Mozart’s Idomeneo in recent European productions including one for Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2016.

Now she returns to Waterford as a fêted performer to play the feisty heroine in Rossini’s light-hearted opera L’Italiana in Algeri at Lismore Castle. But be it a grand opera house or a more intimate courtyard theatre, she says the challenge is the same: “You sing the same way with the same technique to convey the beauty of the music. Wherever you are, you want above all to do justice to the role.”

The rigours of making it in the music world will have come as no surprise to her. Kelly comes from a musical dynasty. Her grandfather TC Kelly was a composer and arranger who was a mainstay of Raidió Éireann’s 20th century output. Her mother Una Hunt is a concert pianist.

When we speak on the phone from her London home, she is buzzing from notching up another debut as Marguerite in Damnation of Faust in Leeds with Opera North.

“It couldn’t have gone better. Berlioz is not done so often. It is such a change. Marguerite is so high and the orchestration is so big. It’s the other range of the spectrum from Rossini which is so jovial, neo-classical more Mozartian almost.”

Although singing minor Rossini roles were part of her apprenticeship at ROH, this will be her first main role. Pressed to nominate her dream role, she says she is dying to sing Rossini’s Cenerentola.

The Lismore opera, she adds, is not a million miles away from that. 

“Isabella is a very modern heroine. She is a Mimi — she is not dying. It is great fun.”

In this production, Isabella is cast as a 21st century model which should suit Kelly perfectly who has the figure to match the role. Frequently cast as a male character she has often been obliged to wear what she refers to as “unfortunate boy costumes” and “it is just lovely to play a girl”.

Living in SW London, in her time off stage, she likes to hit the West End for some straight theatre or a musical.

Meanwhile, Lismore’s new director Gemma Tipton has rebranded the festival with the Blackwater tag.

“We realised that alongside the opera, there are wonderful recitals in the historic houses and the series is expanding so we changed the name to reflect the full wealth of what’s on offer during the festival,” says Tipton.

- Blackwater Valley Opera Festival takes place between May 30 to June 3.

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