When fate con­spires

Blue­beard’s Cas­tle star, Ir­ish mezzo-so­prano Paula Mur­rihy

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY MICHAEL DERVAN

‘‘ When I ask about the most dif­fi­cult chal­lenges she faces as a singer, she talks about the way her voice changes. It’s a phys­i­cal mat­ter, not just of the kinds of dif­fer­ences we can all ex­pe­ri­ence from day to day, but shifts that be­come manifest over longer pe­ri­ods of time

Mezzo-so­prano Paula Mur­rihy’s jour­ney from Kerry to the stages of the Metropoli­tan Opera in New York and the Salzburg Festival, not to men­tion her reg­u­lar ap­pear­ances with Teodor Cur­rentzis’s cut­ting-edge Mu­sica Aeterna, be­gan at Si­amsa Tíre in Tralee.

She comes from a back­ground where tra­di­tional Ir­ish music was the fam­ily pas­sion. And that’s where her own early mu­si­cal in­ter­ests lay. She en­joyed singing and kept get­ting com­pli­ments on her voice. Those plea­sures even­tu­ally be­came a spur to do some­thing more and make the most of the gift that she had. But music as a ca­reer was not re­ally in her sights – just the idea of devel­op­ing and im­prov­ing her voice, be­cause singing was some­thing she loved.

Then she found her­self mak­ing a leap into the dark. Al­though music and singing were a re­ward­ing part of her life, she was plan­ning a ca­reer as a pri­mary school teacher. Ev­ery­thing seemed good to go when she got the re­sults she needed in the Leav­ing Cert.

She was at home with her sis­ters one day that her par­ents were away, and re­alised it was the last day for mak­ing changes to CAO ap­pli­ca­tions, the last day she could steer a course away from teach­ing and to­wards music. The pull proved to be too strong. She reg­is­tered her new choice with the CAO and rang her fa­ther to tell him. He took a breath and just said, “I’ll put you on to your mother”. The die was cast.

She stud­ied for a per­form­ing de­gree at the DIT Con­ser­va­tory of Music and Drama, find­ing her­self “singing ev­ery sin­gle day”, which she rel­ished. It was in Dublin that she went to her first opera (Puc­cini’s La bo­hème in Opera Ire­land’s 1996 pro­duc­tion). By the time she grad­u­ated from the con­ser­va­tory she had no real no­tion of how she would make a liv­ing, or what type of ca­reer her train­ing might have pre­pared her for. She is far from unique among grad­u­ate music per­form­ers in that re­gard.

She de­scribes her first pro­fes­sional en­gage­ment, in Belfast’s beau­ti­ful Clonard Monastery for a Mozart Re­quiem with the Ul­ster Orches­tra, as a rev­e­la­tion. The per­for­mance was given dur­ing the time of the peace process and the

great and the good of North­ern Ire­land politics were seated in the front row. She was in awe of the fact that she was work­ing on the same level as sea­soned pro­fes­sion­als, and singing for an au­di­ence that in­cluded peo­ple she would have known only from news re­ports. And then, like one of the Lit­tle Match­stick Girl’s matches, the vi­sion dis­ap­peared. She found her­self alone, back in her room at the Europa Ho­tel, be­fore wan­der­ing down to the Mace on the op­po­site side of the street to buy some­thing to eat. In just a sin­gle en­gage­ment she ex­pe­ri­enced both the bright lights and the lone­li­ness of the per­former’s lot.

When she talks about the way her ca­reer de­vel­oped she sounds mod­est, even self-ef­fac­ing. She’s not some­one who has ever been shy of hard work. Her fo­cus is al­ways on do­ing the best she pos­si­bly can. She says she owes a lot to hav­ing grown up in nur­tur­ing fam­ily and says she wouldn’t be where she is with­out the sup­port of her hus­band, Ea­monn Bonner (the two met as singers in the DIT). An al­most ca­sual way

Luck, of course, is an el­e­ment of any suc­cess story. She was en­cour­aged in what sounds like an al­most ca­sual way to ap­ply for a course run by the Wil­liam Wal­ton Foun­da­tion on the is­land of Ischia in the Bay of Naples. She turned up early for the audition and, be­cause of gaps in the schedule, was asked if she would like to jump the queue and sing rather than wait. So that’s what she did.

At Ischia she worked with the direc­tor Colin Gra­ham, a close col­league of the com­poser Ben­jamin Brit­ten, and the con­duc­tor Stephen Lord. It turned out to be a life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Her new men­tors steered her in the di­rec­tion of the US, and it was be­cause of their ad­vice that she chose to con­tinue her stud­ies at Bos­ton’s New Eng­land Con­ser­va­tory of Music.

Amer­ica’s high-pow­ered music schools are a daunt­ing en­vi­ron­ment. It’s not just that the stan­dards are high. The com­pe­ti­tion is also fierce. She seems to have thrived in ex­actly the same way that she sur­vives in the highly charged world of lead­ing in­ter­na­tional opera houses.

“You’ve got to find and fol­low your road,” she says. “You can’t spend your time look­ing over your shoul­der.” Her hus­band, she ex­plains, likes to make a com­par­i­son with ath­letes in a race, when they’re all lined up for the start. They’re in a stag­gered row, and no one knows ex­actly who is where un­til they all merge in the fi­nal straight. Her con­cern is to fo­cus on what she has to do, and not al­low her­self to be dis­tracted by what any­one else is do­ing around her.

The pre­ci­sion of her per­sonal fo­cus be­comes clear when she talks about pre­par­ing for the role of Ju­dith in Bartók’s Blue­beard’s Cas­tle. Like many singers she be­gins her prepa­ra­tion with the words, which are of­ten more tan­gi­ble than the music.

There was, she says, some dis­cus­sion of per­form­ing the opera in English, but she’s glad that they went with the orig­i­nal Hun­gar­ian. The pro­duc­tion is di­rected by Enda Walsh, who has also pro­vided a new trans­la­tion for the sur­titles.

While work­ing at the Salzburg Festival last sum­mer she heard of a coach who has helped a lot of singers in Vi­enna when they per­form in Hun­gar­ian. So she ar­ranged to work with him, took the train to Bu­dapest, and found her­self be­ing tu­tored in his fam­ily home, with the ben­e­fit of home-cooked Hun­gar­ian lunches on the side. It’s a fair in­di­ca­tion of the ex­tra mile she chooses to go in the pur­suit of her goals.

The readi­ness she seeks to achieve for the start of the re­hearsal process has to be an open readi­ness. A rich vi­sion but one with­out pre­con­cep­tions is what she aims for. Bartók’s sole opera, to a li­bretto by Béla Balász, is an ex­pres­sion­ist treat­ment of the tale of the wife-mur­der­ing Blue­beard, of which the most fa­mous ver­sion is by Charles Per­rault.

Mur­rihy sees Ju­dith, the fourth wife, as some­thing of an ad­ven­turer, a brave wo­man who en­ters Blue­beard’s life with her eyes open, be­liev­ing that, in spite of all the ru­mours she has heard, she will know how to han­dle him. It’s hard not to re­late that view of a con­fi­dent Ju­dith with her own con­fi­dence as a per­former in a pro­fes­sion which, she dis­arm­ingly says, she still doesn’t fully un­der­stand. Her fo­cus is much more on where she’s go­ing than on where she has been.

When I ask about the most dif­fi­cult chal­lenges she faces as a singer she talks about the way her voice changes. It’s a phys­i­cal mat­ter, not just of the kinds of dif­fer­ences we can all ex­pe­ri­ence from day to day, but shifts that be­come manifest over longer pe­ri­ods of time. It means that when she comes back to a role she doesn’t ex­pect any­thing like a sim­ple re­peat. Even to get the same sounds, the same vo­cal ef­fects, al­ways re­quires a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. That has all to be dealt with be­fore she comes to any new per­spec­tive she might have on the role it­self.

She is chal­lenged by the amount of travel that’s in­volved, though some of the sting is re­moved by the fact that she in­sists on trav­el­ling with her hus­band and daugh­ter, a lux­ury that not many per­form­ers man­age to achieve.

She wishes she didn’t have to take so much care over her health. She had to can­cel a long-planned meet­ing with friends be­cause one of them had an in­fec­tion. It was not just that she didn’t want to risk catch­ing the in­fec­tion her­self, but also that she couldn’t risk the pos­si­bil­ity of in­tro­duc­ing an in­fec­tion into the group of col­leagues in re­hearsal. An im­por­tant re­union had to be sac­ri­ficed.

Some­times, she says, she feels as if her head and me­mory are full, so full that she al­most can’t imag­ine learn­ing an­other role. The things you can be sure her head is full of now, be­yond

Blue­beard’s Cas­tle, are Strauss’s Ari­adne auf Naxos (for Oper Frank­furt in Novem­ber), the songs of Mahler’s Des Kn­aben Wun­der­horn (with Teodor Cur­rentzis in Mi­lan, Mu­nich and Bu­dapest in De­cem­ber) and Mozart’s La

clemenza di Tito (for the Metropoli­tan Opera in New York in March).

■ Ir­ish Na­tional Opera’s pro­duc­tion of Bartók’s Blue­beard’sCastle­fortheDubl­inTheatreF­es­ti­val isattheGai­etyTheatre­onFri­day12th,Satur­day 13th,andSun­day15th.dublinthe­atre­fes­ti­val.com

LEft: Paula Mur­rihy, who plays Ju­dith in the up­com­ing pro­duc­tion of Béla Bartók’s ‘Blue­beard’s Cas­tle’ for the Dublin Theatre Festival. Above: direc­tor Enda Walsh.

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