MAJELLA Cullagh has been called one of the great bel canto divas of our time. Performing across the world, in opera houses from London to Verona, New York to Auckland, she is undoubtedly one of Ireland’s foremost musical ambassadors.
Yet, though her international schedule is ever-demanding, Cullagh will never miss the opportunity to give something back to her homeland and especially Cork. She finds time to teach in the Singing Academy at the Montfort College of Performing Arts; and whenever a good cause pleads for her assistance, she does what she can to adjust dates, give of her services.
That’s the case with the Gala Fundraising Concert at Cork Opera House next Sunday, April 3, in aid of St Mary’s Restoration Fund. This venerable church, familiar to Cullagh from childhood, is now in its 800th year and badly in need of repairs. The concert is one way of raising the monies needed, and so Cullagh instantly agreed to appear, supported by the Band of the 1st Brigade, St Mary’s Choir, the Cork School of Dance, Caroline Fraher, and others. A similar concert last year was a sold-out success and the Friends of St Mary’s are hoping to achieve the same next week.
“It feels good to give something back to your own community,” says Cullagh. “After all, I had to work pretty hard starting out, and there are so many people here who helped me to get up those first few rungs of the ladder.”
She hasn’t stopped working hard since then, of course. “You won’t get very far if you sit and think you’ve made it!” Virtually every penny she earns is poured back into looking after that magnificent voice — lessons, masterclasses, training, treatment. “If you want to keep ahead you simply must give it all you’ve got and then more.”
Losing her mother in her early singing days was an appalling blow, she reveals. “For a while I thought I couldn’t do anything, but in fact it was the demands of the opera school I was at in London at the time that helped me come through.”
More recently she suffered the loss of her beloved father, and that grief too intruded sharply on her life and career for some time.
“The strange thing though was that when I went back into some really demanding roles [Maria Stuarda in Barcelona’s Liceu Theatre in 2015, sharing the role with Joyce DiDonato, and later the same year, Verdi’s I Due Foscari at the St Gallen Festival in Switzerland], I found I’d lost all the pre-performance nerves I used to have. I think I sang better than ever before. Perhaps these dreadful events in our lives do make us stronger.”
Currently she’s also looking forward to singing Ginevra in Handel’s Ariodante at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin in early April.
But at the moment, the big fundraising concert for St Mary’s is occupying her time, and apparently there are some surprises in store. “Oh I’ll be doing the big pieces with all the power of the Band of the 1st Brigade, certainly, but we might just be having some fun in the second half. There are a couple of great comic duets which Ciarán Bermingham and I have been trying out and I think the audience will love them!”
Cullagh is off again, gathering her things and speeding to another masterclass, another training session for that wonderful soprano voice.
“Never stops! One of these days I’m really going to stay home and dig the garden!”
A peal of laughter and she is gone.