An Ordinary Girl Doing an Extraordinary Job: Celine Byrne

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

Soprano Celine Byrne is proudly flying the flag for Irish talent on the international operatic scene. With an elegant and refined command of her instrument, Byrne has garnered much praise from the critical press. No stranger to the National Concert Hall in Dublin, she has frequently appeared onstage in theatres and auditoriums throughout Europe, as well as the US, China, Russia and Mexico. The vivacious singer has been invited to sing roles in a variety of operas, including perennial favorites such as Così fan tutte, Le Nozze di Figaro, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, Rusalka, Carmen, Faust, Turandot and Die Fledermaus, to name but a few. A former first-prize winner of the prestigious Maria Callas Grand Prix and Masters graduate of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Byrne has sung with world-renowned tenors José Carreras, Roberto Alagna and Joseph Calleja.

Final Note caught up with the Irish soprano ahead of her Covent-Garden appearance as Micaëla in Bizet’s Carmen to talk about her love of opera, juggling motherhood with performing, the role of fate in her career thus far, and her exciting touring schedule for the coming season.

When did you get 'hooked' on opera?

When I was younger my favourite thing to do was to go outside, sit on the swing and sing away to myself. I always went around singing and my mother says she could always hear me before she saw me. Singing was escapism for me and if I wasn't singing, I was listening to music. When I was 18, I went to Italy to work as an au pair. I lived in Milan for a year and during that time the family bought me a ticket to go to an opera at La Scala, as they knew I loved music so much. I had never been to an opera in my life, nor did I even realise the prestige of the opera house at the time. I remember sitting in the seats and feeling uncomfortable...this experience was alien to me. My anxieties were soon diminished, as I became engrossed with the music and the staging. I listened to the singers and instantly knew that this was what I wanted to do.

How did your time studying with Dr Veronica Dunne prepare you for your career as a professional singer?

I first met Ronnie when I was selected to participate in the inaugural young artist programme at Wexford Opera in the summer of 2005. I instantly clicked with her. I went on to study with her that September, while studying for my Masters Degree in the Royal Irish Academy of Music. She has taught me so much, and has instilled in me a passion and drive to perform. She is an amazing woman and we are good friends. I still turn to her for advice. I have had wonderful teachers and coaches along the way, and I am grateful for their guidance, support and encouragement.

In 2007 you were awarded the First Prize and Gold Medal in the Maria Callas Grand Prix in Athens — was this a game changer for you?

Winning the Maria Callas Grand Prix was a triumph for me in many ways. A few months before the event I became quite ill while competing in Ronnie's International Singing Competition. I sung in the final but the next day I was in hospital with pneumonia. My friends and family picked me back up again and I went to Athens to take part in the Grand Prix. I was so delighted to be in the final and I rang Ronnie. She told me to "go out and win!...put your two feet on the ground and sing your heart out!", which I did! It was a fantastic experience and a wonderful accolade to receive. My husband flew out on the day of the final and news soon spread of my win. We were invited to the Irish Embassy where it was announced, so I ended up celebrating with a lot of people. As a result of the competition, I was invited to sing in concerts in Russia and in Carnegie Hall. My debut in Carnegie Hall was a recital with Dearbhla Brosnan. I returned there with Camerata Ireland and Barry Douglas in 2011.

Tell us about your operatic début as Mimì in Scottish Opera's 2010 production of La Bohéme.

Making my debut was exciting and I can't believe it was only 5 years ago. At the time I was homesick, as I hadn't been away that long before. Opening night was amazing and I'll never forget my first Mimì. The role is close to my heart and I am looking forward to reprising it next year with the Moscow State Opera. So much has happened in my career since then. I have sung many roles, most of which were debuts for me. My favourites were Die Marchallin in Der Rosenkavalier, which I performed in Kassel under Patrick Ringborg, and Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly with the Moscow State Opera. It's been non-stop, and as a freelance artist you are not presented with the work, you have to go and find it.

I think it's great that I get to travel around the world and perform in different places. I get to sing wonderful roles and I've been lucky enough to have been invited to sing in Covent Garden for the third time. I think it's important to protect your artistic integrity and choose projects that are right for you. I'm also very grateful to our own RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra with whom I've worked with every season over the last 6 years. I don't know what the future holds for me, or where my career will bring me, but right now things are great and I can only hope and pray that it continues.

Has good fortune/fate played much of a role in your career so far?

I feel blessed that things have gone well for me, but with every opportunity that was presented to me, there are some that I have missed. I was invited to take part in the Vilar Programme (now the Jed Parker programme) in Covent Garden in 2007 following my win at the Maria Callas competition, but I had to decline as my children were still very young — my youngest was just a baby at the time. I was also invited to be on the inaugural young artist programme in Berlin Staatsoper, but for the same reason I couldn't leave to work in another country. I have tried to make decisions that are good for both my family and my career. I chose not to sing in an opera until my children were all in school, as I wanted to be at home with them when they were small. I feel I made the right decision. I concentrated on singing in concerts that only took me away from my family for a few days at a time, instead of a few months. I've been lucky enough to sing with world-renowned tenors such as José Carreras, Roberto Alagna and Joseph Calleja, which has been fantastic. I have had great opportunities in my career so far and at times I haven't been in a position to take them. I suppose you could call that fate, but I believe it's divine providence.

What have you learned along the way?

I have learned to live by the motto that you are only as good as your last performance and that's why every performance needs to be your best. I always try to do my best and give as much as I can. I love what I do! I never thought that I would have a career as an opera singer when I was younger. Singing was a hobby that developed into a career — an ordinary girl doing an extraordinary job, and I thank God every day for the joy that it brings me.

Who inspires you?

I am inspired a lot by the great sopranos such as Maria Callas and Mirella Freni...Callas for her lovely singing and especially her interpretation of the works she performs. When I listen to her, I can hear the emotion. This is what I always try to convey when I perform on either the opera or concert stage. Freni's voice was super and her bel canto style of singing, with gorgeous legato phrases, made everything she sang sound so effortless.

Does acting come naturally to you or is it something that you need to work on?

I have always loved performing. I was in a cabaret group when I was younger, run by a lady by the name of Mona Conroy. She was the first person to push me (and I literally mean that!) on to the stage. She encouraged me to get out in front of an audience and perform. In St Mary's College in Naas, where I went to school, I performed my first musical as the lead role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. I was nervous but I loved being up on stage, so after school I joined Naas Musical Society. In NMS I performed many roles but my first role was my favourite — Anna Glavari in The Merry Widow. I was nominated and won an AIMS award for best female singer and best overall performance. In many ways I learned by doing. I was able to implement the stage experience from musicals into my operatic roles.

Tell us about being an ambassador for mental health.

I work with several charities, including SOS (Suicide or Survive) and Cycle Against Suicide, to promote mental health awareness. I had depression and it was a particularly hard time, but college and family were my reasons for getting up in the morning and persevering. Thankfully, I have learned how to spot the signs and stop myself from slipping towards depression. In my spare time I give talks about mental health awareness and suicide prevention in secondary schools around the country. I'm not a counselor, but in sharing my story, I let young people know that it's ok not to be ok and that it's good to talk.

How do you juggle family life with preparing for a new operatic role or concert?

I am blessed to have such a wonderful family. I think family is important for everyone. I have always tried to maintain a happy balance between family and work. I explain to my children that my job is not 9–5 every day. However, for the time I'm home, I'm with them all the time. My children are a bit older now. My youngest is now 10 and they are all used to me being away with work. They always come to stay with me when I'm abroad, and they get to see different countries and learn about new cultures. When at home or abroad, I always set aside a few hours to study every day — to work on my music and languages. This is normally during the day when I'm at home, as I want to have free time for my family in the evenings. My career is important to me and preparation is key. I work hard and I hope that acts as an example for my children — to follow their dreams and to work hard to achieve their goals.

What are your passions in life?

Life itself! Living life to the full. Happiness is key. I love performing and I also love spending time with my friends. Friends and family mean a lot to me. Many of my friends have been my friends since primary school, while others I've met through music...without them I'd be lost. I love spending time with my family and creating memories with my children, like the day we went for a picnic on the beach, even though it rained, or the day we went on a boat trip. These are the things they'll remember. I also love baking! My specialties are baked American cheese cake and carrot cake — Yum!

Tell us about your last album For Eternity: Celine Byrne and do have you any future recording plans in the pipeline?

In 2010 I recorded the CD For Eternity with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under the RTÉ lyric fm label. The title track is an original song sent to me which I really liked so I included it as a bonus track. I wanted to record some of my favourite arias but I wanted to do something different so it wouldn't be merely a CD of popular arias. José (Carreras) suggested that since I was singing Spanish zarzuela with him I should include some on the CD and I did! Then I added the Goyescas as it's so beautiful, and ‘Les filles de Cadix’ merged the Spanish-feel with the French arias. I would really like to do an Irish Album and celebrate Irish song in the same way that German lieder and French chanson is performed. I also want to make a religious album and sing the songs I grew up singing in church. These projects are dear to me.

What's next on the horizon for you?

I'm just back from America where I had a concert with José Carreras. I'll be singing with him again this Christmas in Aalborg, Denmark and he has also invited me to sing with him in The Royal Albert Hall next year. I'm currently in Covent Garden singing the role of Micaëla in Francesca Zambello's production of Carmen. My next concert in Ireland will be the Celine Byrne Christmas Gala on 6 December in the National Concert Hall, conducted by David Brophy. My next operatic roles are Marie/Marietta in Die tote Stadt in Germany, Contessa in Le Nozze di Figaro in Kassel, Mimì in La bohéme with the Moscow State Opera, which is also coming to The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre and La Gioconda in Malmo Opera. I'm also engaged for concerts in Sweden, Luxembourg, Beijing and Prague, including recitals and other works such as Brahms's Deutsches Requiem and Verdi's Requiem...so I’m being kept busy!

For more information on Celine see: www.celinebyrne.com

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