Interview with Sinéad O'Kelly

For the sixth interview in Encore's Rising Star series, we chatted with RCM student Sinéad O'Kelly. Originally from Northern Ireland, Sinéad is well on the way to opera stardom with her first professional performance already under her belt. We find out what lies ahead for her career and for the genre as a whole.

How did you get into opera? When did you start?

I reckon I started relatively late, compared to other people studying it at music college. I started singing classically when I was 18 after I’d left school, and before that, I’d done loads of musical theatre and really wanted to go into the performing arts.

When I was doing my A-levels, my Dad suggested I go to a teacher for some lessons, which I’d never done before. I agreed, and the guy I went to asked if I’d ever thought about going to a conservatoire. I didn’t even know what that was at the time! I’d studied classical music for GCSE, so I wasn’t totally new to the subject, but he gave me first proper introduction to the operatic style.

So, opera is your thing?

I’m training to be an opera singer at the minute, but I do song as well, which is slightly different. Song repertoire is what you would do in a recital, whereas opera is what you’d sing on stage. I also sing oratorios, which are sacred works for soloists, choir and orchestra.

You gave your first professional performance recently. How was that?

Back in Autumn I played ‘First Lady’ in The Magic Flute for NI Opera touring around Northern Ireland, which was amazing! I was really flattered to be asked to be involved with them, and I learned a lot. It’s such a cliché when people say, You only start learning when you’re on the job, but it's so true – there's only so much you can be taught in a classroom.

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3 Ladies promo shot for 'The Magic Flute' with NI Opera - September 2014

How does a professional engagement differ from what you’ve done previously?

The standard of what’s expected from you is a lot higher. You have to pick things up really quickly because they’re reluctant to go back over things more than once. There’s also the added pressure of having to remember things like what the directors say, where you’re meant to be on stage, what the conductor’s doing – there’s a whole new layer of things you have to consider.

Obviously, though, that differs depending on the role. Some roles can be really energetic and dynamic, involving fighting or dancing, whereas other roles will just being standing and singing. This was a really active role, which meant I had lots to think about!

Have you been able to play a variety of roles in your career so far?

I played a man in Opera Scenes in College last year - ‘Nerone’ in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. That was slightly different, because as a soprano you don’t expect to play men very often - it's much more common for mezzo sopranos.

It was interesting, because you have to think about your whole physicality. What is it about the way that men, in general, move that’s different to women, and how do I convince people that I’m not a woman?

The ‘First Lady’ role was a lot of fun. We played seductresses who had to undress the main character in the first scene... while singing a trio, which was pretty difficult!

That’s some impressive multitasking!

The guy who played ‘Tamino’ actually used to go to RCM and was in the upper echelons of the school when I started, so it was cool to be working on a par with him.

Do you have a dream role?

‘Mimí’ in La bohème. It seems corny, but I think the music is absolutely stunning and she’s the pinnacle for every dramatic soprano. It would definitely be a dream of mine, but won’t happen any time soon – probably in ten years or so.

Angela Gheorghiu sings Mimì's most beautiful and famous aria "Sì, mi chiamano Mimì" when she introduces herself to Rodolfo in Puccini's opera 'La Bohème'

You’re also a choral singer. Is it difficult switching between the two styles? Are they very different?

It is different, and I’ll probably be lambasted for saying so! I came to choral singing even later than I did to opera. I started at College when I moved to London and got a job singing at a church.

I love choral music, it’s incredible, but I think sopranos get the worst deal of all the voice types for having to change from one technique to the other. If you have a lower voice, like a bass or tenor, I think you can get away with having a slightly bigger sound in most choirs. Basses, tenors and even altos have the capacity to use their full voice. If they have to have a bigger sound, they aren’t told to reel it in as much as sopranos, who are often required to sound like boy choristers.

I can imagine that being quite frustrating.

Not really, I understand why they do it. I don’t think I’d want to go near a choir of 6 massive warbling sopranos on top. It wouldn’t serve the music.

For me, personally, I’m finding it harder and harder to fit those rules. Every time I do a choral concert or a series of gigs where I have to sing like that, I feel like I’m setting myself back. I have to take days off to reset my voice. I guess I do find that aspect quite frustrating, as it stops me from progressing continuously. I think from now on I’ll take a bit of a back seat and go to choral gigs to listen rather than sing.

How was your Genesis Sixteen experience?

I loved it. It’s a fantastic program and is perfect for someone like me who came to it late, didn’t know about choral scholarships, but really loved the music. Working with and getting to know Eamonn Dougan and Harry Christophers was great. Just before Christmas, I did the soprano solos for Eamonn in the Messiah with the IBO, so it's been fruitful for me in terms of getting to know people in the industry. I made loads of friends when I did it and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s thinking of applying.

Competitions feature frequently in your concert diary. What do you enjoy about that environment?

Weirdly enough, I thrive better in competitions than I do in auditions. I’m terrible at auditions, I’ve never had a good one, but I really enjoy competitions. I’m not sure what it is that makes the difference. It could be the audience, which can provide a real sense of energy. If you know they want you to do well, you feel a lot more confident. I’ve got a couple of competitions on the horizon, which I'm really looking forward to; the semi-final of the Mozart competition, and the Royal Overseas League.

A lot of people don’t agree with competitions because you often find people who spend their time at conservatoire and afterwards just tailoring their repertoire to competitions rather than learning things for enjoyment or because they have a role coming up. They’ll pick things that would fair well in competition. And this is across all instruments, by the way, not just voice.

I’ve read lots of articles written by people who think competitions should be abolished and are a terrible forum for creative development. I can understand where they're coming from, but they have their benefits, too. There are so many people whose careers have been launched from winning competitions, particularly BBC Young Musician, Ferrier, and BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. They’re good for me, personally, because they give me a timeframe for getting something to competition- or performance-standard, and luckily, I’m the sort of person who thrives under pressure.

What are your plans once you leave College?

I have a few more years here before that happens! This is my first year of a two-year masters course, then I’ll probably spend another two years in opera school, which is a post-Master’s course for people who’ve decided that opera is the thing for them. It’s just extra training and it's when you start getting cast as the lead roles in the College productions. I really like the opera school here, so I’d want to stay here once I’ve done my Masters.

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The Royal College of Music in London

There has been a lot of talk about the perception of classical music – opera in particular – amongst the younger generations in recenty years. Have you seen any changes to its audience and in how it is viewed?

Funnily enough, last night I watched ‘Orfeo’ being performed at the Roundhouse in Camden, which was put on by The Royal Opera House. The chorus was played by current Guildhall students - almost all of the leads were in their early 30s, late 20s, which is really young to be singing with The Royal Opera! - and it was also in collaboration with the East London Dance Company.

It was amazing! I actually watched it as a live stream on my laptop, which in itself is a good thing. For somebody who’s come from not knowing what opera is at the age of eighteen to being able to go to the cinema and watch a live stream from The Met in New York is a really positive progression in terms of making opera more accessible. The marketing teams at the big opera houses have realised that making opera a more cinematic experience will capture a younger audience. Adverts for upcoming operas have gradually become more and more similar to the trailers of epic films Hollywood films over the last few years.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that, when I talk to people who don’t know anything about opera, they are always surprised to know that you're given a translation and surtitles when you're watching an opera – people don’t know that. They think that everyone who watches opera know has an intimate understanding of Italian or French, which is absolutely ridiculous! If opera houses were just a little more explicit about the fact that they have the translations, it would change a lot of peoples’ minds.

Is there anything exciting coming up people should look for on the opera scene?

I’m interested to see where that collaboration goes. ‘Orfeo’ is the start of a long-term project between The Royal Opera House and the Roundhouse. It’s all part of the attempt by the Royal Opera House to bring opera out of Covent Garden and into other places around the UK and further afield.