Sonya Keogh is relishing the chance to share her passion for singing, says Nicki ffrench Davis.
CORK-BORN opera singer Sonya Keogh is sought across the world for her talents with children. Now the international youth arts specialist and her team at ARTlifeCULTURE are preparing a significant and exciting event for children at home in Cork. Summer Sing! is part of the Music Generation Cork City Summer Programme and runs from Mon, July 29 — Thurs, August 1.
“I spend a lot of time designing, developing and running programmes for young people engaging with the arts,” says Keogh. “The past 10 years I’ve been travelling so much, and coming home I’m always so optimistic about the young people coming up I feel I don’t have to worry about the world.”
Keogh’s most recent project was in Malaysia. “I always travel with young people who come to help. They give so much of their talents and energy. When we come home there is this sense from them saying, can you imagine if we had this amazing feelgood week in our own city?”
Reaching 40 this year led her to feel the need to connect with her home city more and the opportunity arose in perfect time. Having contributed to the initial bid for Music Generation Cork, last year Keogh became a development advisor for the project.
“In January they asked could I do something here on the scale of what I do internationally. I said, absolutely. The core of what ARTlifeCULTURE does is all in Summer Sing!, and Music Generation Cork have been the ones to take the leap and bring it back home.”
Keogh has 30 young Irish people involved to help deliver the programme to over 120 children in the city later this month. She has also assembled an international team of experienced professionals to form what she calls a ‘pyramid of participation’.
“From the youth perspective we have two young teachers from the Malaysia Choral Festival and they’re travelling to Cork at their own expense to be involved.”
At the next tier is David Brophy, assistant conductor of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. “David is a very good pal of mine and has come out on a number of my international projects. I’ve huge respect for his work with young people who are often on the peripheries and he brings a fabulous energy.”
Keogh has also carried out something of a coup in bringing Alicia Edwards, children’s chorus manager of the Metropolitan Opera NYC to Cork to manage the project. Keogh first met the New Yorker when she called the Met on spec while on an Arts Council-funded study tour through Asia and the United States in 2008.
“They put me straight through to Alicia. She said, ‘You’re interested in childrens’ choruses? Get down here!’ I was amazed by her generosity, I thought the Met would be posh and exclusive but it was the most open and welcoming place I could imagine. She is a fabulous lady. She’s going to manage Summer Sing! with a team of five young people who will get to train with her so they’ll be learning from the best.”
Triskel Christchurch is the central base of the project and the participating children will start each day there. Everyone involved will sing together for the warm-ups each day, including Alicia Edwards and David Brophy. From there they divide into six groups, and each group with their team of four tutors will get to visit a different cultural building for the day’s singing.
“Each day one group will go to the City Library, which I love as they really get to break the rules by singing there,” Keogh says. “Another will go to sing sacred music in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral where they’ll sing in the choir stalls, which is usually a no-go area for the public. Another will go to the quirky Unitarian Church in Princes Street, another to the Crawford Art Gallery and the last to the Cork Vision Centre, which will be hosting the Texaco Childrens’ Art exhibition at the time.
“Basically the whole thrust of it is exploring the city with a purpose and going with a sense of right to enter each building which is a totally different attitude. They’ll sing lovely songs beautifully, I know, but if one if those children says on the way home, ‘Mum, can we go in here, I saw something really cool?’ — then, bingo — they get to own their city a little bit more.”
The children will learn a different song in each space, and at the end of each day rejoin the full group. “I want them to engage with their Irishness so we might do ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’ to learn good solid unison singing and some ad lib harmony, and an arrangement of ‘Suantraí’. In St Fin Barre’s they’ll learn some very simple sacred music to show them how it calms the human spirit.
“They’ll also learn our festival song ‘Watch Me Fly’, which was commissioned by the Malaysian Choral Festival. It’s hip and jazzy, and will show them that good singing isn’t all po-faced, in fact it never is in my opinion.
“At 2.15pm from Tuesday to Thursday, let the world be welcome to come to Triskel Christchurch to come and hear them. On Thursday at 2.15pm they can hear the accumulation of the week’s work.”
Keogh says ARTlife CULTURE is committed to delivering Summer Sing! annually into the future in addition to their international work. The company is currently developing Irish International Youth arts programmes in China and Malaysia for 2014 and a unique youth arts installation AIR for Milan World EXPO 2015.
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