AT THE heart of the fourth Lismore Music Festival is a dedication to Ireland’s native talent. The festival has been developed by opera production team, Jennifer O’Connell and Dieter Kaegi, both formerly of Opera Ireland. The jewel in the crown of an expanded programme is a two-night run of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, directed by Kaegi in the setting of Lismore Castle stables and gardens on the June Bank Holiday.
The Lismore production features an entirely Irish cast of key singers who will be gathered back from opera houses worldwide. Sharing the stage with them will be a chorus of local choral singers and students from the Cork School of Music. Some of the members of the chorus will also perform a lunchtime recital of arias at Cappoquin House.
For Mary MacSweeney, vocal coach at Cork School of Music of many of these young singers, this is a dream come true. Having been one of the first opera singers to break out of Ireland to an illustrious 25-year career in Germany, she returned in 2005 to nurture the next generation.
“I came from a West Cork farming background and at the time I left Ireland opera was regarded as something for fur coats,” MacSweeney says. “But it’s a natural talent that has nothing to do with a person’s background or caste. It’s about having a brain, vocal chords, and most of all a longing to express.” MacSweeney has built up numerous singers to a high standard.
“It takes quite a few years to build a voice from scratch. Now we have all these singers from Kerry, Donegal, Tipperary, all over. They’re not yet ready for the Met but they’re singing beautifully.”
MacSweeney was thrilled to get the call from Jennifer O’Connell about Lismore. “It was like manna from heaven for me to hear that, the chance to bring our work out into Irish society. Jen and I are co-operating to build a platform for those singers who are emerging.”
MacSweeney is passionate about building a bridge to opera for the Irish public. “I can’t understand what I see. I follow rugby and I go into the stadium and there are 26,000 people listening absolutely thrilled to hear Cara O’Sullivan, and I can’t understand why they don’t come to hear all our little Caras, why they don’t come and listen to our sport of the soul.”
She believes many people have a misunderstanding of singing. “Basically, you have our entire human condition there and a classical training works on all of it. A classical singer has to have the fitness of a rugby player and what I run is a singing gym. It’s so physical, you need fierce strength for it. It’s also incredibly uplifting for the spirit of the soul. The minute you work with breath and sound you’re listening to the soul. That’s why the audience can hear subliminally if a singer is singing with heart, even if they don’t know why.
“It really works your mind as well, from the music theory to the languages. And then as an actor you have to interpret the characters too. The greatest tool it gives you is something we don’t have in Ireland, and that’s belief in the self and a feeling of self-worth. I’m a believer in the holistic value of singing and I believe it’s for everybody.”
What does MacSweeney think of TV talent shows? “The phenomenon of quick success can be very alluring,” she says. “But imagine Declan Kidney makes a rugby team from picking people up in the streets and puts them against Munster. At the end there’d just be a heap of bones. I think it’s wrong to take kids who might be very talented and expose them to TV, to microphones and bands without the actual training they would need to be safe and to guarantee them a long career. I think it’s wonderful that singing is brought into the media but it would be more fair if they were given more enablement.”
While often seen as a uncertain career path, MacSweeney urges people to choose singing. “You can balance the performance aspect with all kinds of teaching. We have lots of graduates teaching to choirs or individuals or classes. And for anyone starting a family it’s a wonderful thing. When I had my son I stopped the stage work and I started a teaching studio. Within weeks I was fully booked, teaching with my baby under the piano.”
“One of last year’s graduates got a top job in London as cultural producer in a school where she’ll be paid a lovely salary, and another earned €18,000 through competitions last year.”
This year’s graduates are equally promising, she says. “We have a beautiful group emerging, they’re like crocuses popping up in spring. There’s a blossoming of singing in Cork School of Music at the moment. One of my basses is an electrical engineer in an oil refinery but I think he could sing anywhere.”
Along with the Cappoquin House recital during the festival, O’Connell and MacSweeney are developing a podium circuit for singers in Dublin, Cork and Waterford. “It’s such a support. You couldn’t pay Jen in millions what it’s worth, what she does from her love of the art of singing. What you’re hearing is so human, all the different stages of development of different aspects of the talent, whether it’s vocal or acting. You’re looking at the full spectrum of the human condition and you’re not expecting perfection, but it’s beautiful to watch the journey.”
*Lismore Music Festival, May 25-Jun 9. lismoremusicfestival.com