A slice of cake with opera
Audrey Whelan and her singer granddaughter Karla Tracey work at her Victorian-themed tea rooms, writes Andrea Smith
KARLA Tracey’s mum Norma married at 19 as did her grandmother Audrey, and while she’s that age herself now and has been dating boyfriend Gary for three years, the pretty young soprano insists that there’s no way she intends to make it a hat-trick.
Growing up with such young parents and grandparents was brilliant, she says, even though some of her friends’ parents were actually at school with Audrey, who was only 39 when she was born. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Karla. “I had a wonderful upbringing.”
Audrey and Karla say that they’re “two brats” when they get together and are always messing around. They suspect they probably drive poor Norma mad as they “carry on a bit when we’re together”. “Mam is the most practical person and she grounds us both,” says Karla. “She kind of has a sensible exterior, but she is such a laugh when she gets going. My dad Paul is hilarious and so generous, and both of my parents are very hard-working. My brother Joshua (14), sister Ruby (nine) and I are so lucky to have them as parents.”
Arklow has played a huge role in the family’s story, as Audrey (now 59) grew up on the Main Street and now runs her Victorian tea rooms there. She came third in a family of six girls and three boys. Her dad, Paddy O’connell, was a farmer and her mum Ann had a hairdressing salon. The extended O’connell family were great business people, with all sorts of interests on Main Street, including bakeries, shops and an undertakers.
After school, Audrey also worked at hairdressing, and married farm labourer Norman Whelan. They have two children, Daniel and Norma, who are in their late 30s. “All I wanted was to get married and become a mother,” says Audrey, who is also grandmother to Daniel and his wife April’s children, Max (five) and Robyn (three).
When Karla came along, Audrey was “besotted” with her eldest grand- daughter, whose musical prowess was evident from an early age. “My own mother was a great singer, but we were all crows,” she laughs. “Karla was a real little lady and you could bring her anywhere. I always encouraged her to sing, which I think gave her confidence from an early age.”
Karla says Audrey also taught her to be entrepreneurial, so she organised a Christmas CD as a transition year mini-project at school, St Mary’s in Arklow. Mind you, she was mortified when Audrey got her a slot singing at the local Tesco to promote the CD. “All the boys from the CBS came down and I thought I was going to die,” she laughs. “Granny kept pushing me out to sing and I was withering. She doesn’t care what people think — in a good way — and she taught me that it doesn’t matter what other people think of you as long as you’re happy.”
Karla attended Innovations Theatre School from the age of six and went to musical theatre and classical singing lessons with Denise Brennan at seven. She did all her grade exams and had lots of lovely roles in shows. At 17 she began training in opera with Mairead Buicke in Dublin. She is now doing a BA in Music Performance at the Conservatory of Music and Art at DIT.
Karla knows that by pursuing a career in opera, she will end up travelling and probably living abroad, but she’s up for the challenge. “I know that Mam and Granny don’t really want me to go, but as much as I love home, the world is so big and I want to see it,” she says. “Ah, I do want her to go because she has to fly,” says Audrey, who is inordinately proud of her talented granddaughter.
Karla has just landed the lead soprano role in DIT’S forthcoming production of L’heure espagnole, and also works part-time in Audrey’s business, Victorian Tea Times.
The concept came about because Audrey loves food and cooking and previously ran a cafe. She is also a huge fan of Downton Abbey, and was enchanted at the scenes of afternoon tea being served in the drawing room. “It looked so elegant,” she says.
Mind you, Karla and Norma initially thought she had taken a “notion” when she declared her intention of opening the tea rooms. Husband Norman was very much involved in decorating the place, which opened in March 2018, and has period furniture, embossed wallpapered walls, plush velvet couches and ornate candelabra.
Guests pre-book for afternoon tea and receive a truly immersive experience, combining fabulous food with flouncing Victorian ensembles. They’re attended to by staff in period costume — and indeed can dress up themselves if they wish as there is a wide range of costumes to choose from — and the gorgeous afternoon tea is served on crisp linen tablecloths with silver tea pots, fine hand-painted china and bone-handled butter knives. It’s perfect for special occasions; family gatherings, birthday parties, alternative hen parties, team bondings days or just for a lovely experience.
“We have such fun working together, and everyone who comes in always has such a lovely time,” says Karla, adding that she and her granny are very close and working together is a really special experience.
Audrey Whelan and granddaughter Karla Tracey. Photo: Damien Eagers