Cara O’Sullivan and Majella Cullagh have joined forces for a touring show of favourite tunes, writes Jo Kerrigan.
There is going to be quite an evening at Cork’s Everyman Theatre on Saturday. That’s when Cara O’Sullivan and Majella Cullagh, two of Ireland’s greatest sopranos, both with enviable international reputations, come together onstage. Arias from great operas, classic duets, and modern hits will be blended with anecdotes and chat.
It does sound wonderful: but how much of a risk is involved? After all, these are two rather well-known divas, at the top of their profession, used to taking solo honours, solo encores, solo bouquets on operatic and concert stages all over the world. Is it a recipe for the most amazing evening ever or the biggest bust-up of all time? Diva delight or diva disaster?
Given their hectic schedules both at home and abroad, it’s not easy to pin them down together in one place. Recently, though, we captured them doing some preliminary planning and humming along to each other’s ideas in Cara’s living room and seized the opportunity to ask a few incisive questions. How, for example, can two stars bear to occupy the same stage at the same time? How did they agree to such a thing?
“Cara and I had actually talked about it several times over the past few years,” says Majella. “We’re good friends, and it was a natural thing to discuss; but it never happened because in jobs like ours, it’s impossible to organise. There is so much to arrange and pre-plan for something like that. So when Pat Talbot offered to look after the whole thing, we found that was the ideal solution. We could focus on the music which is what you want.”
Pat has been a great supporter of both singers throughout their careers, she adds. “Bless him, you couldn’t have a better producer!”
“As the promoter of the concert I deal with the theatre, manage the business and financial side of things,” explains Talbot. “I organise and co-ordinate the marketing and publicity, and basically get the show on the stage.”
Working with Cara and Majella is a labour of love, he insists. “They are consummate performers with exceptional technique and stage presence. And they are both great characters, funny and very down to earth. Yes, sometimes I might have to step in very tactfully as referee, as you would expect with two top singers, but that really hardly ever happens.”
Talbot produced and directed Majella’s show, Love Really, at the Cork Arts Theatre (later transferred to the Everyman), and when he was director of Everyman himself, he hosted Cara’s first solo show, An Evening with Cara. In both cases, he explains, the stars wanted to do their own thing rather than follow the dictates of either an operatic production or a formal recital, and thus both had the chance to express their abilities in a far wider range of pieces.
Cara was able to sing old fashioned numbers from venerable albums of sheet music that she had been given, blending them with childhood reminiscences; and Majella enjoyed herself thoroughly in songs which took her audience entirely by surprise — or those of them who didn’t know her roguish sense of humour. (‘The Masochism Tango’ anyone?) Sharing the stage with each other, however, has surely got to be a different kettle of fish.
How, for example, do you decide on the programme? “Well, our voices are different,” explains Cara. “More importantly, our personalities are different. We each have our own style, and are attracted to a different repertoire, so there aren’t any clashes over programme choice.”
How about duets, though: all those classics that audiences love? These are very often written for soprano and mezzo, so how is that sorted out. “Well,” says Majella, “once we were singing the Flower Duet from Lakmé, and out of pure madness I took the lower line and found I was quite comfortable with it, so that’s the way we’ve played it since. I can take either soprano or mezzo now, which is good for this concert.”
To demonstrate, she seizes a bound copy of duets from Cara’s table and starts to sing the mezzo role. Cara leans over her shoulder and chimes in with the soprano line. Soon both are singing at full volume. In one small room the powerful beauty of the two voices is riveting.
Hang on, though. They seem so relaxed and at ease with each other, joking, pushing and pulling at different sheets of music, humming snatches of this and that. Don’t they ever disagree? Instant wide-eyed innocence from both faces. “Us? I don’t think we ever have,” says Majella, all sweetness and light.
But suddenly Cara’s eyes narrow. “Oh wait a minute. We did argue over one number.” “We did?” “Oh you know well we did. The Cat Duet!” [Duetto buffo di due gatti, typically attributed to Rossini but in all probability written by Berthold].
“Oh that one,” says Majella in a faraway tone. “I remember now, you wanted to do it.” “I did, I did,” exclaims Cara in a broken-hearted voice. “Because it’s so funny, and I know exactly how to sing it — completely puss-plain-faced with your paws folded in front of you... ” “But I think it’s funny for about the first page and then it isn’t,” cuts in Majella. “It goes on too long.”
“But I wanted us to sing it.”
“And I said ‘Over my dead body!’” finishes Majella triumphantly.
Worked both ways, though. Cullagh suddenly remembers that she was really eager to do the witty Sisters duet from White Christmas.
“I thought it would have been fun to swan and sway around during that with some huge feather fans. I even knew where we could get the fans — they have them in the Montfort wardrobe department!”
O’Sullivan hesitates fractionally, clearly tempted by the thought of those fans, but then shakes her head firmly. Cullagh goes on the attack. “I know what it is, you probably didn’t want to even pretend to be my sister. That was it, wasn’t it?”
They collapse in laughter. O’Sullivan strikes a chord on the piano and Cullagh launches into ‘The Banks Of My Own Lovely Lee’. And you laugh with them. You can’t do otherwise. Their seamless double act is infectious.
Accompanist for the concert will be Tom Doyle. “Oh he’s a sweetheart,” cries Cara, and Majella agrees. “He’s so energetic and so gifted. He can play the piano all day and not seem even remotely tired. And he can keep in time with you, watch and listen while he’s playing, which is vital.”
“‘It is, when you go wrong,” retorts Cara. Majella, quite rightly, pushes her off the piano stool.
Does the gifted Mr Doyle not find it threatening to work with two such strong-minded divas? “Strong-minded? Me?” they chorus simultaneously. Then, “Yes, I’m probably a tiny bit bossy,” says Majella, with the air of one discovering a great truth. “I realise it now.” “Yes you are,” says Cara. “And me, I’m more of a shrinking violet really.”
“The heck you are!”
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