A taste for Opera: Interview with Anne Marie O’Sullivan

A taste for Opera: Interview with Anne Marie O’Sullivan

Is opera dead? Who are the young Irish singers to watch? How to bring people closer to opera? From her privileged point of view of former Head of Vocal, Opera and Drama Studies at DIT over the course of seventeen years, Anne Marie O’Sullivan answers these and other questions.

“A life lived in music is a life beautifully spent, and this is what I have devoted my life to”. These words from Pavarotti might as well have been said, and meaningfully, by Anne Marie O’Sullivan. I was thrilled to have the chance to meet her, and in the days that followed this interview I couldn’t stop pondering and admiring the intellectual beauty of this woman: her encyclopedic knowledge of opera, of course, given by a lifelong commitment to music; but also her mellow manners and complete lack of snobbery from somebody who could have afforded being a snob; her old world charm singularly coupled with sharp logic; her genuine passion and her initiative, not diminished but rather enhanced by age; her enchanting and oh-so-carefully-chosen-words way of telling a story, which you could have experienced if you ever attended one of her Opera Galas at the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire where she was presenting. She is a bona fide lady, but far from being a prima donna. Anne Marie O’Sullivan is in fact the founder of “Glasthule Opera”, which gave place to an annual Opera Gala in Dun Laoghaire since 2009, as well as an attempt to to establish an annual Opera Festival with a few full operas locally produced on some of these years. But culture – in this case musical culture – is a delicate plant that needs nurturing and care to blossom. Politicians have a fundamental role in this and in ensuring that opera will not be one day forgotten in Ireland, depriving future generations of the enjoyment of a centuries old art form which is at the same time, remarkably, highly sophisticated and utterly visceral.

What and when was your very first contact with opera?

I grew up in a musical family, my mother was a piano teacher, my mother and father always went to the opera and my grandparents went to the opera; we lived very close to the city and I grew up listening to all kinds of music including opera. I started the piano when I was three and the cello when I was eight and I had no great interest in opera, I thought that they were all screaming their heads off. And then one day, when I was fourteen, I was at home – we went home for dinner in those days – and we always listened to the radio, and on the radio on that particular day somebody started to sing, somebody started to sing “Un bel dì” from Madama Butterfly, and I had to stop in my tracks, while the goosebumps came out all over me and I thought “My God, what’s that?”. Magnificent. Well of course it was Maria Callas, and that was the moment that changed everything for me. I started to listening to singers, I started to buying songs, and teaching myself songs, and by the time I was seventeen I had won the competition in the Feis Ceoil for girls under eighteen. That was it, that was all I wanted to do from then on.

You have mentioned in the past the model of the Glyndebourne Festival in the UK and the potential for Dun Laoghaire to produce something similar: what’s exactly your vision for Glasthule Opera?

Well, my first thought about this was… I had been to Glyndebourne, it’s a beautiful country house, with people with lots of money, and they built an opera house in the Sussex countryside, on their grounds. The opera house is magnificent, the old house is beautiful, the grounds are absolutely wonderful. Now, it’s a very very posh set up. During the festival, which starts in about mid May or maybe early June and goes on through the summer until maybe the end of August, the opera will start at 4.30 and then, the first interval is for a picnic, so you bring your picnic, or you order your picnic, or you book into one of the restaurants, there’s a big restaurant in the marquee, you can picnic all around the grounds, under trees, you know; the very wealthy people bring their butlers, and their tables are set up with linen and cutlery, and they’re served their meal during the interval of the opera. Now I live in Adelaide road in Glenageary and I look out of my bedroom window and I see the old church hall of Saint Paul, do you know it? It’s a beautiful old building with a red roof, full of character, and I looked out one day and I thought: “I could do an opera there!”. It’s not a very big venue but I could do an opera in the summer, and people could walk across the road and we could have our picnic in my back garden; it’s not very big but it would be enough for the people in there. So that was the start and then I started thinking about it, then I started talking about it, and then I thought, well now, in a few years I’ll have to retire and I want something that I can do. So I decided to start. I founded “Glasthule Opera”, which is supported by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council. They were quite interested in the beginning, but you see, other things are more important. They still give some money, but not enough to do a full production anymore.

What are the biggest obstacles to establishing an annual Opera Festival in Dun Laoghaire?

Well, the biggest problem is money, because you need money to advertise, that’s a very expensive element and what I did in the beginning, I [little laugh] tried to keep as much money as I could for the music, because if the music is not good I’m not interested, there is no point. Like, I made costumes, to save on that, or I can save on a whole lot of things and spend as much as I can on the music. I mean, the orchestra costs a fortune, because they’re all the top players, they’re stunning. But I wouldn’t want it any other way, you know?

Who are, in your opinion, the young Irish singers to watch?

Well, first of all, the girl who’s singing, Jennifer Davis. She sang [here] Susanna in 2012 [from “Le Nozze di Figaro”], and she has acknowledged that she sang her first role with Glasthule Opera; she’s now in Covent Garden and she’s a lovely girl. She sang with the symphony orchestra in the Concert Hall in July in one of their lunchtime concert; it was packed out, she was wonderful. She has everything, she is superb, there’s no doubt about it. And the other one to watch is the mezzo who’s singing, Kate Allen. She’s a Dublin girl, she’s studied with me all along, she’s got this fantastic voice and she will be singing from l’Italiana in Algeri “Cruda sorte”, the big aria, she has all the flexibility. She’ll also be singing from “Cavalleria Rusticana” “Voi lo sapete”, she will do the “Norma” duet with Jennifer and they’ll do the “Così [fan tutte]” trio, the quartet from “Rigoletto” and the brindisi from “Traviata” for the Gala, you know, all sorts of popular things, and few other; oh and Jenny will sing “Un bel dì” cause she sings it beautifully.

What would you say is the difference between Kate Allen and the now very popular Rachel Kelly?

They’re very different voices, Rachel is a mezzo who would do Mozart roles and lighter things. Kate’s voice is much bigger and she would be the much more dramatic mezzo, she’s a young dramatic mezzo, I mean, she’s learning Eboli at the moment, from Don Carlo. There’s a lot of people interested in her. Lorin Maazel picked her to sing in a commemorative concert in Venice in La Fenice just before he died as the mezzo in Beethoven’s [9th Symphony]. She spent the summer in Bavaria in an opera Festival. She’s definitely a voice to watch, it’s a voice for opera, it’s a huge voice, and she’s young, which is unusual for the Ebolis and the Azucenas, you know, it’d nice if they’d be young rather than older looking on stage, if you like.

What advice would you give to a young person who wishes to undertake the path of the opera singer?


Anne Marie O’Sullivan, founder of Glasthule Opera.

Well, if you’d asked me that thirty years ago I would have said “Go for it, follow you dream”; all of that. Now I would say to them: “Be very cautious, make sure it’s what you really want, and make sure you have some insurance in terms of qualifications, because it’s a very hard life”. I’ve seen many – now, I don’t want to be pessimistic – but I’ve seen many many many young singers who get very disappointed, because you have to be made of absolute steel, and you have to be single-minded, and you have to keep going. There’s nobody going to knock on your door and say: “I believe there’s a beautiful singer here, would you like to come and sing in Milan?” It’s very hard. So they have to make sure that they have the goods in terms of the voice, the talent, which is a small part of it, and the ability to work really really hard at everything: languages, very important, you know, learn to read music… Germany is a place where there’s lots and lots of work for singers, but if you don’t speak German they don’t want to know you, because it’s too hard. So they should be very very careful to make sure that they want to do this and that they want to put the work in; they can’t have everything, nobody can have everything.


In your experience, what elements make the difference between a young talented singer and a young talented singer who will have a successful career on the international stage?

Well, the ones who succeed on the international stage are the ones who have something special that you can’t define, the je ne sais quoi, something magic that you can’t define, as well as everything else. And then the others who succeed are the ones who won’t give up, who keep knocking on doors and keep going.

And between talent and determination, which one wins?

Determination. Oh yeah, hard work and determination beats all. Absolutely. Talent is no use unless it’s worked, unless it’s helped along, you know, talent is not enough, if by talent you mean somebody who’s going to open their mouth and make a beautiful sound all the time, see, that’s not enough; there has to be talent but it has to be managed and worked; it’s like if I gave you a beautiful piece of steak or fish and you don’t know how to cook it: how good is it?

How do you see the future of opera in general and, in particular, of opera in Ireland? Do you believe in the ‘death’ of opera?

Well, I couldn’t possibly believe in the death of opera, but in Ireland… I wouldn’t be one hundred percent sure. I mean, it’s just not appreciated, you know; it just isn’t. Children in primary school need to be introduced to all these things. I give you two examples. I was in Frankfurt a few years ago and one of the things I went to see was “Così fan tutte”; it’s a beautiful production, there’s not a note cut out of it, so it’s quite long, and it’s also a production that is slow moving, it’s four hours long and the night I was there – it started at 6.30 – there were children at it, boys and girls. None of them moved. I’m serious! They’re brought to the opera from when they’re five or six – and maybe you wouldn’t bring that age to ‘Così fan tutte” – but it’s part of their lives, it’s like we bring them to the cinema, you know, to the pantomime. I was there, I saw them. Now, here’s the other thing: the year I did “The Magic Flute” I went to the Arts office here, to talk to them, and I said: “Can you help me a little bit with this, I’d like to do something with schools”. So we worked it out and they said well, what we’ll do for you, we’ll write out and we’ll take one [school] on each side of the county to include them in this project. And I said “If you do that that’s great and I’ll do the work. The first thing I’ll do is, I’ll go to the school, I’ll bring music, the music of “The Magic Flute” with me, I’ll bring maybe a recording, and I’ll bring the sketches of the costumes. The second time, which will be a week before the opera, I will take two singers with me to each school and they will sing some of what’s in the opera; and the third one is: I’ll arrange the dress rehearsal for the daytime and we’ll bring the children to the Pavilion, they’ll meet the orchestra and the conductor and they’ll see the first act of “The magic flute”. Now, one of the schools was in Ballinteer, and the other was Dalkey School Project. So I went out, I talked to them, fourth and fifth classes – what age, about 11? – and they were great, you know? They learned Papageno’s aria with me on the piano, and they asked questions, and then the second time, up in Ballinteer, I brought two of the boys, I brought the Tamino and the Papageno to meet the children and to sing their arias for them, and to Dalkey I brought Katy Kelly who was the Queen of the Night and she sang the Queen of the Night aria for them. And I played for. Well [sighs and pauses a moment], the children were sitting there on these steps and they were like this, look [she mimics an amazed look] and when she finished they jumped to their feet and they cheered and clapped, and I could hardly stop them. And then they came in the buses to the Pavilion and David Brophy showed them the orchestra, the instruments and they saw the thing. I mean, why wouldn’t you introduce children to this?

So, to summarise your opinion, it’s all down to education at an early age?

Yes it is, absolutely, absolutely, and for it not to be something that other people do, it’s not elitist, you know? It’s not. The other thing is, everything is elitist if you don’t do it, do you know what I mean? Like, football is elitist to me [laughs]!

But, although for opera lovers there’s nothing less elitist, some people will say, because of the length of an opera, because of the foreign languages, because of its complexity, it will necessarily always be something that only the few will appreciate.

Well, I mean, we don’t all do everything but surely we should be allowed to love opera and it shouldn’t be something that scares people. I mean, I say to people, just listen to it and see if you like it, and if you like it that’s fine and if you don’t like it, that’s fine as well; but give it a chance.

Do you think that understanding the language of an opera is fundamental for its appreciation?

Well it would be wonderful to understand a different language, however, I think the music carries this and then, when you know what it’s about, you can feel the emotion in the words and the music and, you know, it loses in translation. I mean, imagine Puccini in English…

Can you think of one or two operas produced in the last few years or decades that could achieve, in the future, the same status of the most popular classics?

I saw two contemporary operas in the last twenty years which may (or have already) become almost part of the mainstream repertoire: “Die Soldaten” by Zimmerman, which I saw in London at ENO in the 1990’s and “Silent Night” by Kevin Putts which received its European premiere at the Wexford Festival in 2014. I’m sure there are others which I haven’t seen.

What do you think about translating foreign operas into English and, in general, of any kind of modernisation and popularisation attempts?

Well it very much depends. My problem with the modernisation attempts is that directors are looking for notice for themselves. Sometime the translation works. Sometimes. But Puccini in English I just can’t take it. And Verdi. You know, I saw Rigoletto in Berlin one time in German; it was horrendous! “Bella figlia dell’amore” [sings] in German! And I love German. The other thing is that, you know, Puccini wrote the words to fit the music, the vowels are on notes that are easy, that can be sung beautifully; you translate that, or you give somebody the job of translating that… they don’t understand this. I’ve heard some Mozart done quite well in English, but still… I still prefer it in the original because of the composer’s intentions to make the words work.

So, If I understand well, your opinion is that translation into English of a foreign opera is not only not necessary but also not desirable?

Well, you see, it’s down to people’s choice; if it draws them into opera, I wouldn’t have a problem if it means they will come and find out about it, and if they did that then they may come again. Like, I did “The Magic Flute” in English because I felt there’s a lot of recitatives and there’s dialogue, you see, and singers are notoriously bad at dialogue. But the director got the Papageno to speak in a Dublin accent and the audience loved it; they loved it. So who am I…? But imagine Wagner in English.

The audience at an opera event seem to belong invariably, in average, to an older age group; why do you think there aren’t more young people into opera and what can be done to make opera more popular among the younger generations?

It’s from the beginning, it needs to come into the schools, it needs to be treated like something that can be a normal part of everybody’s existence, just like going to the library or reading a book or being interested in art… It should be part of us but it’s not.

But there was time when there was more opera in Dublin than there is nowadays, there was a more active scene.

My grandparents went to the opera in Dublin. A hundred years ago, and before that, people had to go out to get entertainment. And there was an opera company in England called the Carl Rosa, and they always came to Dublin to the Gaiety and my grandparents always went. Now here’s the funny thing: going back to what we talked about, about the language: the English company that came here, they sang everything in English, and my family knew the words, and I know some of the words of arias in English because they would sing them around the house. For instance in “Un bel dì”, “One fine day”… And “Il Trovatore” was a real favourite, you know, and they were always in English.

So that’s probably another key to understanding why you see older people at the opera, because it was part of their ‘daily’ entertainment.

Well it was. You see there was no TV, and there probably was very little radio, or none. We used to listen to the radio a lot. We got concerts and play on the radio. I still love the radio. I can’t do without the radio. I can do without TV but I can’t do without the radio.

What’s your favourite opera and why?

Listen, that is such a hard question; but I would have to say – well I’m a huge Mozart fan, I’m a huge Richard Strauss fan, but – I think the opera I have seen more times than any other is Verdi’s “Don Carlo”. The music is so magnificent. I’ve seen it in so many places. It is stunning. The arias… and it’s full of wonderful men, you know, baritones and basses, it’s wonderful music, wonderful, I love it. And the other, the music of “Otello” is so beautiful. I mean, of course I love the Puccinis, you know, I love “Tosca”.

You mentioned Maria Callas and Renata Scotto as two of your favourite sopranos; who is your favourite tenor?

Carlo Bergonzi. I loved the sound of that man’s voice, there was something very beautiful about it.

In which city or cities in Europe do you think there’s the best opera scene today?

Well it’s very very hard to beat Covent Garden. I love it. Glyndebourne is wonderful. Then there’s another company in England called “Opera North”: stunning, they’ve one of the best orchestras I’ve ever heard.

If somebody who is not very much into opera will be reading this, what would you tell them to encourage them to come and see the Opera Gala in Dun Laoghaire on the 30th of September?

Well, the Opera Gala is a nice one to ask people to come because they’re all different, you know, there are tunes that they may recognize and there are tunes that they may have recognized, I mean, you could hear the “Così’” trio if you walk around the supermarket sometimes, if it’s a decent supermarket [laughs]! Then Owen Gilhooly will sing “Nessun Dorma” and John Molloy will do “Non più andrai”… Come along and listen, and if you like it that’s fine, or pick out the things you like or say “I hate that and I wouldn’t like to hear that again”, you know? It’s like tasting food, give it a try! Here’s what I say.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Well, I just wish that there were people who, if they love opera, and if they’ve any way of helping, they would stand up. And if there are companies who would like to be involved, if they could help to promote opera, in return their employees could come to the opera, make a night of it, instead of going to the dogs or the races or something, you know? I mean, the singers are very entertaining, and off stage they’re very entertaining as well, you know, it could be a social thing. It’s just, I don’t know if you’ve seen my little quotation from Moliere, “Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive”. It’s from a long time ago but wasn’t he so right?

Interview by Pia Maltri