Sometimes I wish I was a DIVA!
Soprano Sandra Oman on how being a people pleaser can go against her – and why she wishes she’d started a family earlier and had more children
Dubliner Sandra Oman, 49, may be one of Ireland’s most celebrated opera singers but she arrives on time to our interview, is soft spoken, gentle and friendly – in short, nothing at all like a diva. She doesn’t even storm off when I ask if she would have liked more children; Sandra and her voice coach husband Conor Farren have one daughter Emily, 8.
In fact, she is disarmingly candid about her regrets for not starting a family sooner – and later we will get to that.
‘I suppose I’m not your typical diva but that can be to my detriment to be honest with you because I’m a pleaser,’ she admits. ‘I’ll try and please everyone around me before I try and please myself. That’s not always the best way in life, I don’t think. I suppose some people would like to call it a codependent personality.
‘But having said that there is obviously a huge desire in me to get out and exhibit. So there’s a bit of a dichotomy going on with me.’
We have met to discuss her intriguing collaboration with prima ballerina Monica Loughman, Prima Donna, in the National Concert Hall on Saturday, April 21. While Sandra and others sing songs from famous operas, Monica and other Irish and Russian ballet stars interpret the lyrics through dance alongside them. ‘It is a beautiful ballet and opera fusion show,’ Sandra explains. ‘It’s the first time something like this has ever been done in Ireland or, as far as I know, anywhere in the world. They are beautiful numbers that everyone knows and loves.’
One of Sandra’s numbers is O Mio Babbino Caro, which most people will know. ‘It’s about a young girl who is telling her father, “If you don’t allow me marry the person I love I’m going to throw myself off the Ponte Vecchio”, the bridge in Florence. At the same time Monica will be interpreting that in her own way.’
So it’s like two shows for the price of one? ‘Exactly,’ she smiles.
Monica, she says, is not a diva either, but ‘an extremely professional person and I have nothing
but admiration for her’. Though Sandra does admit – without naming names – that she has seen tiresome diva-like behaviour in others. ‘It’s very unpleasant to work with people like that and there’s no need for it. You know, cribbing about costumes, cribbing about hair. Of course we all want to put our best foot forward and it’s important to stand up for yourself and say, I think this could be better. But there’s a nice way of doing things. Then there’s doing things for the sake of it. I have seen some mad behaviour.’
Sandra, from Dublin’s Liberties, first hopped up on stage as a junior infant and blew her whole school away with her repertoire of songs and pitchperfect voice. ‘In school they used to show a movie in the big hall,’ she recalls. ‘We’d all go in and you’d see The Wizard Of Oz or you’d see Shirley Temple or something like that – one of the old black and whites. Occasionally the movie would break down and there’d be murder. The principal would get up, the head nun, and she’d say, “Does anyone want to get up and entertain while the movie is being sorted out?” And immediately my hand shot up, aged four or five.
‘It’s quite funny because I’ve always thought that was normal behaviour. I’m only realising now, living life again through my daughter, that that is not normal behaviour. My daughter doesn’t want to do that. My husband is the opposite to me, he’s a backstage man. But I got up anyway and I sang all of Shirley Temple’s oeuvre, shall we say – Animal Crackers, On the Good Ship Lollipop, stuff from Captain January...’
Though her background is ‘definitely working class’ – her father has retired from Aer Lingus and her mother is a housewife – Sandra and her brother Robert were steeped in their parents’ love of books, film and music.
After school Sandra, who ‘loved the stage’, attended the DIT Conservatory of Music, having auditioned for the legendary Veronica Dunne. She graduated with the Ely O’Carroll Medal, the Conservatory’s highest award, and moved to London where she trained with the late Italian soprano Graziella Sciutti. But for many years now her teacher has been her own husband, who she met through a friend in a Ballsbridge pub in the early 1990s. Does she not get annoyed if he criticises her singing?
‘I’m my own worst critic so if he says to me that something isn’t right, chances are I’ve thought it and thought it multiplied by ten,’ she admits. ‘Having said that, you don’t want to hear it from someone else. We’re both fairly laid back, we never get into arguments, really, which can be a bad thing too. I’m more huffy or the silent treatment and walk off. But at some point I try to be – and I think I am – a logical and analytical person. So I go away and think, actually, he’s right.’
Conor has ‘loved opera forever’ and certainly he sounds like a superfan of the art form. ‘I wouldn’t be listening to opera on my downtime; he does. He goes in for the shower and he’s blasting the Bose system with Madam Butterfly and Emily and I are just looking at each other. It’s his raison d’etre.’
What Sandra appreciates most is what she calls Conor’s ‘commonsensical’ approach.
‘There’s a lot of common sense goes out the window with singing teachers,’ she complains . ‘“If you do this and if you lift your right leg at the same time and sing at the moon you’ll achieve this” – it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It can become extremely technical and difficult to comprehend and to put into practice. He talks in very layman’s language. I trust him completely.’ I tell Sandra about a friend whose singing teacher would swing her around the room as she sang, which seems bonkers. But Sandra reckons it’s not the maddest thing she has heard a singing teacher do and it might simply be a distraction technique.
‘Occasionally my husband will do something like he’ll throw a pencil at you. Or sometimes he has done this with me where you’ll be singing away and he’s throwing a basketball at you to catch. What that’s doing is it’s trying to free up your mind.
‘A lot of us have inhibitions, particularly when it comes to singing. I had been told from an early age that I was a mezzo soprano. In reality I was most definitely not, I was very much a soprano. I had everyone from the great Carlo Bergonzi to my husband telling me this. But because I had been put in a certain box that put a lid on my range, I thought, I can’t go any higher than that. Then
Looking back on my life now, I should have had more children
there’s fear and tension. You think you can’t do it. So what Conor would do, as he was throwing the ball, I was going la la la...’ she says, giving an example of singing the scales while miming catching the ball. ‘Then he would go back to the piano, press a key and say, “That was B you sang there” or “That was a C”.’
Most people are familiar with the idea that there is a ‘mental’ side to sports, but it seems there are similar psychological barriers to singing to the best of your ability too.
Sandra shudders at the memory of teachers talking about ‘the larynx, the pharynx, the epiglottis’ because ‘I’m a person who doesn’t need to know or shouldn’t know exactly what’s going on in the body because I am a worrier by nature. If I were to know all the technical details of what I’m doing, that would give me more problems.’
Too much information? ‘Too much information,’ she agrees.
Sandra honed her craft through work and was in such demand for opera contracts from her 20s, she eventually had to give up her civil service job in Dublin City Council. ‘I wasn’t a prodigy; my voice developed much later. My range came naturally into my 30s. I wasn’t someone singing with a very wide range at a very young age. It took time.’
Opera singing took her out of Ireland for long stretches. ‘I was in the UK principally. I used to go over and do contracts there. But I went as far as the Faroe Islands. Warsaw, Latvia, the States.’
Apart from having a successful career doing something she loved, did she always want to be a mother too? ‘Yes I did. For years I was singing and there’s never a right time but I really did want to be a mother and it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s changed, definitely, my career path. I now base my career here.’
What a big change it must have been – one minute jetting around the world to perform to rapturous audiences, the next, at home in Mount Merrion with a baby.
‘I was ready for it though,’ she counters. ‘Yes, it does change everything. It’s nothing I didn’t embrace or didn’t want or didn’t love.’
Would she have liked more children? ‘Yes, absolutely. Do I have regrets in that respect? Yes, I do, yeah, I do. I had a miscarriage prior to Emily as well. But looking back on my life now, I should have had a lot more [children]. And you think that it will happen or you can wait a little bit longer to have children and you just don’t intellectually understand that tempus fugit,’ she says, the Latin for time flies.
‘I was 41 so I left it quite late in life to have kids. Looking back on my life, I should have done it ten years earlier.’
Then again, ours is the generation who saw our mothers mostly working in the home and who longed for financial independence and exciting careers of our own.
‘Exactly. And we looked at people who had babies around the same time as me. We looked at Nicole Kidman, we looked at Julia Roberts, all these people who were having babies. These were all having assisted pregnancies, number one. You don’t intellectually comprehend – even though it’s kind of said to you – that definitely fertility drops massively after a certain point.’
She and her husband were both equally busy managing Sandra’s internationally successful career as one of our finest ever sopranos. Conor also teaches singing at the Lantern Intercultural Centre on Synge Street.
‘Was he pushing me to have a child? No. It’s kind of nobody’s fault. Looking back on his life too, he would say the same as me. We’re both so thrilled to have Emily and he’s an incredible father and he’s very involved.’
Sandra clearly revels in motherhood and is, for the most part, a full-time mammy. ‘Now I don’t even pursue a career outside this country, I don’t pursue anything where I can’t get home at night. So even opera contracts can be tricky if they’re down the country in Ireland. I tend to bring the entourage with me: my daughter, my husband, my mammy, my daddy. My parents are phenomenal people.
‘I take Emily out of school for a week or two. Tuesday it’s Irish dancing, Wednesday I bring her to gymnastics and basketball, on Saturday it’s the ballet. So if I go missing it’s trying to cover all of that. I love her to come with me if I can and it’s not too disruptive. We make a family holiday out of it, hire a house,’ she smiles. ‘I treasure those times.’
“NOW I DON’T PURSUE A CAREER OUTSIDE THIS COUNTRY. I DON’T PURSUE ANYTHING WHERE I CAN’T GET HOME AT NIGHT”
Sandra in character in La Boheme and, right, at Dublin City Council’s Opera in the Open