Cara O'Sullivan overcame the most frightening moment of her life

When Cara O’Sullivan was diagnosed with nodes on her vocal cords, she knew that the slightest slip during the operation would end her singing career, writes Jo Kerrigan


WHEN you have been singing from the cradle, have made your career in operatic and concert performance, you cannot imagine doing anything else. That is how it has always been for Cara O’Sullivan, constantly in demand both here and abroad. Yet, she reveals, a few years ago she became aware that all was not as it should be with her hitherto totally reliable and amazing voice.

“I was getting unexplained hoarseness and couldn’t understand it. It was after my mother died, and we were clearing everything out of the old family home, which was desperately stressful, and I thought that might have something to do with it. As a singer, of course, you often get a reaction to a very busy period of work, and you tend to take it easy for a while, do exercises, relax, but none of that was really working.”

Things came to a head when she was singing at Glyndebourne, England. “They were very kind and helped me so much, but I knew something wasn’t right. I just wasn’t up to my usual standard.”

When she returned home, she went to see an old friend, Gerard O’Leary, specialist in head and neck surgery at Cork’s South Infirmary. “He was very helpful. He said there was definitely something there, but he himself wouldn’t operate on a gifted singer when it came to vocal cords.”

Cara O'Sullivan overcame the most frightening moment of her life

Neither would any of the Dublin specialists she tried. In fact it took two years for the vitally needed operation to take place, when she was finally directed to Tom Harris at London’s Blackheath Hospital, who specialised in surgery on the vocal cords.

Harris explained to O’Sullivan that she was developing nodes or polyps on these cords, and when this happens you end up vocally painting yourself into a corner. “Which was what I was doing. I’d got to the stage when I could only do five or six songs at absolute best. So I went for the operation, although I realised it could be the end of my singing career.”

Wasn’t she terrified? “Of course I was! Singing has been part of my life since I was born. But it all went wonderfully. And afterwards my voice felt like silk.”

Not immediately, though. Silence was enjoined upon the singing star for at least a full week. “Which totally ruled out being at home in Cork, as you can imagine. So guess what — I went to Glenstal. They looked after me so beautifully, and in complete quietude.”

While there, she had time to think, and consider alternatives if she could not return to her operatic career. “I decided I would take the MA in music at CIT, so I had another string to my bow.” Which she duly did. But as it happened, it wasn’t needed. “14 weeks to the day after the operation, I made my debut in Verdi’s Ernani and it was wonderful.” And she feels her voice has gained enormously in colour and tone.

Just back from a demanding series of concerts in Northern Ireland, O’Sullivan is currently busy rehearsing with that brilliantly unpredictable musical maestro John O’Brien for three performances at Cork’s Everyman Theatre Jan 28-30. “At times John does push me well beyond my comfort zone, but I trust him completely. He has a great idea of what works, and it has to be vocally, as well as visually right. He will never, ever, jeopardise the musical aspects of what we do just to get an effect.”

Cara O'Sullivan overcame the most frightening moment of her life

She is excited that they have got Maria Gaynor on violin for the concert, as well as bass baritone John Molloy. “We’re hoping to reprise the Jewel Song from Faust, and an aria or two from Pagliacci, as well as other opera pieces — oh, and some Handel airs.”

A more relaxed second half will see fun tunes like ‘Bless This House’ and ‘Bess, You Is My Woman Now’.

And Cara O’Sullivan, who not long ago had to face the possibility of never singing again, will be unforgettable.

An Evening With Cara O’Sullivan, Everyman, Cork, Jan 28-30

When Cara O’Sullivan was diagnosed with nodes on her vocal cords, she knew that the slightest slip during the operation would end her singing career, writes Jo Kerrigan


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