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.’


San­dra in char­ac­ter in La Bo­heme and, right, at Dublin City Coun­cil’s Opera in the Open

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