Hear, hear for John McCormack

A musical about our most famous tenor portrays him as talented and virtuous, says Colette Sheridan

A MUSICAL about the life of acclaimed tenor, Count John McCormack, returns to Cork’s Everyman Palace Theatre on May 13. It sold out there ten months ago. I Hear You Calling Me: The Story of Count John McCormack will feature songs popularised by the singer, such as ‘Macushla’, ‘Because’, ‘Roses of Picardy’ and ‘Somewhere a Voice is Calling’. The show will be narrated by radio presenter, Kevin Hough. It stars tenor, Frank Ryan, in the title role, with soprano, Linda Kenny, playing McCormack’s wife, Lily Foley.

Directed and written by a former head of music at RTÉ, Cathal McCabe, the show also features violinist, Daniel Lehane, and pianist John O’Brien.

McCormack (1884-1945) and Enrico Caruso were the leading tenors in their day. “McCormack was a huge figure in every possible sense. He sang at the1932 Eucharisitic Congress and did a huge amount of work for Catholic charities. Pope Pius X1 made him a hereditary papal count.”

McCormack seems virtuous as well as talented. McCabe says that in his research on the Athlone-born singer, he has been “unable to find any dirt or dalliances”. McCormack won the gold medal at the Dublin Feis Ceoil at 18 years of age and was the principal tenor at Covent Garden in London at the age of 22.

“He performed at Covent Garden for seven seasons and was then booked by Oscar Hammerstein, who put him in a show in New York, where he earned $1,200 a week for three operas. He later gave up opera altogether and became a concert artiste,” McCabe says.

In putting together the show about McCormack’s life, McCabe says it was made easy because Lily wrote a memoir about her husband after he died. The story is told from Lily’s point of view, with Hough relating it from the historical viewpoint.

“McCormack spent most of his life in America and also toured the Far East and Australia. In his day, he was a world-wide celebrity. The narrative in the show is interesting. There’s a touch of Mills & Boon about him meeting Lily. McCormack came to Dublin to work in the post office. Two friends had heard him sing in Athlone. They arranged for him to audition for Vincent O’Brien, the then conductor of the Pro Cathedral choir. O’Brien took him on at one pound a week, which was enough to allow McCormack to leave the post office. He had only been working there for two weeks.”

One evening, McCormack was walking to the Pro Cathedral while Lily, also a Feis Ceoil gold medal winner, was on her way to mass at White Friar’s Street with her sister, Molly. “As they passed, Molly asked Lily if she knew who the young man was. She explained that he was the new tenor at the Pro Cathedral. Lily looked back at him and she saw McCormack looking at her. That was the start of their romance. They started to sing at concerts together. When Lily was booked to sing at the Irish Village at the St Louis World Fair, she knew the organisers were looking for a tenor. So she suggested McCormack. They got unofficially engaged in St Louis. But Lily’s father was absolutely opposed to them getting married, as McCormack didn’t have a proper job,” he says.

O’Brien organised for McCormack to go to Italy, where he had his voice trained by Vincenzo Sabatini. Sabatini found McCormack’s voice to be naturally tuned and concentrated on perfecting his breath control, which was to become part of the basis of his fame as a vocalist.

“When Lily’s father died, her mother decided her daughter could marry McCormack. The couple went to Athlone to tell McCormack’s father. He nearly went berserk, saying that McCormack had no job. ‘I’m a singer’ said McCormack,” McCabe explains.

McCormack would command massive fees for appearing in films as well as singing. He married Lily in 1906 and they had two children, Gwen and Cyril. “I met Cyril socially and I knew his son, John. There’s a nice story around Frank Ryan. As the fellow who’s playing McCormack, he is the grandson of the Frank Ryan, of Waterford, who was a famous tenor after McCormack’s time. He went to America and was a bit of a sensation in New York and was booked to sing the American national anthem at baseball games. He made an awful lot of money. So you’ve got the grandson of a famous tenor playing McCormack in this show,” he says.

McCabe is from a musical family in Derry. His father attended a McCormack concert in London’s Albert Hall in 1927. “My father was a student at the time. He was only able to afford a sixpenny seat in the very top balcony. But he could hear everything. It made a lifelong impression on him. There were always John McCormack records in the family home,” says McCabe.

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