Cara O’Sullivan is one of Ireland’s most well known coloratura sopranos. Loved for her warmth and talent, this Cork-born singer attacks both her music and life with admirable aplomb. She is constantly in demand for her keen interpretative skills across the repertoire of oratorio, art song and opera. On a rare time off, we meet with Cara at her home in Frankfield.
Why did you follow a career in music?
It was not a planned move on my part, it just happened very gradually. My family are all good singers and I believe my Paternal and Maternal Grandparents also sang. Being able to sing and being able to perform are two very separate skills. Having a combination of the two is vital.
Having studied and performed such a wide expanse of repertoire, what does your learning process involve?
It usually takes me a year to learn a major work. It's a long slow process but always interesting as I break it down and put it back together again.
How do you find the move from recital and oratorio performance to opera, and do you have a preference?
I spent the first number of years singing only recital and oratorio, the transition into opera was very gradual. My first opera role was 'The Queen of Night' from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. My first love though is oratorio. My teacher Robert Beare instilled that love in me. My favourite oratorios are Mendelssohn's Elijah, and Britten's War Requiem.
What would you consider as your highlights and lowlights to date?
I often think of Pádraig Harrington [the Irish golfer], who has said that his motivation to succeed is fear of failure. I have had a few highlights and low moments, private and personal realisations that I could have sung better on a particular night, and when I musically 'drop the ball' I try to fix the mistakes and carry on. I tripped over things a few times and went crashing down — not fun when the dignity is in shreds, but I got up and got on with my job!
As a professional singer, how terrifying was it having nodules removed from your vocal chords, and did you worry about the prospect of your voice not recovering?
It was frightening, but my surgeon made an interesting point to me at the time. I had 'painted' myself vocally into a corner, and surgery was my only way out. I was very fortunate to have a few people — family, friends and professionals, around me to help me get vocally back on my feet.
In the past you’ve been described as ‘fearless’ in your interpretations — are you, and how?
Dramatic coloratura roles require a certain 'devil may care' attitude. I found I needed to think beyond the fast running passages and high notes and not worry if I fell off! It's like riding a bicycle for the first time, there might be a few wobbles and then you are off!
The word ‘diva’ is all too often attached to the title ‘soprano’ — are you a diva Cara or would you consider yourself to be more down to earth?
Well I was given the nickname 'Caradiva' by a chum years ago — I used it as a title for a CD I created for Marymount Hospice in Cork. It made a very tidy sum for them. Am I a diva? I don't know...I can be if I need to be!!
How do you ground yourself against the stresses of being a performer?
I try to keep everything on an even keel, I think it helps to avoid the highs and lows that are very much a part of a performer’s life. I avoid after-performance parties and look forward to a bit of silent time after concerts. However, I am always happy to meet an audience after a concert, because without their support there would be no career or opportunities to sing new repertoire.
Many young sopranos have an idealised vision of their future career, from your experience, how should they prepare themselves?
Practise, preparation and packing.....
Take the time to learn your repertoire properly, prepare for a sometimes back-breaking series of concerts by building up vocal stamina and pack your suitcase wisely, don't forget the essentials — that can be a major panic and not good before a performance. I make lists, to make sure I am organised.
Maintaining a public profile is a crucial part of the arts today, what do you do to promote your artistry?
PR isn't my strong point, I usually get someone in to help me work all that out.
You are well respected for your fine vocal talent and ability to charm your audiences, does this (the ability to read the room) come naturally to you, or have you had to work at it over the years?
I honestly don't know. In a more lighthearted performance I like to keep an eye on what's going on around me, and I see everything, dozers, munchers and texters! In an opera it's quite different, the audience are invisible to me.
Would you consider yourself a spiritual person Cara, and what inspires you?
Yes! Fellow musicians whose interpretive skills can sometimes take my breath away!
Is it important to you to have Cork/Ireland as your base, or do you ever see yourself moving away for your career?
No, Cork is and always was home. I commuted everywhere over the years from here. It never occurred to me to move elsewhere.
How is life treating you at the moment?
Life is fine, some small changes afoot, learning new music, allowing myself some down time, trying not to shout and roar when Munster Rugby are playing! My late Father could be heard roaring at the TV in the next parish when there was a match on, I must have inherited that trait from him!
Following your recent successful appearance in Gounod’s Faust in Cork, are there further operatic productions on the immediate horizon?
No operatic productions at the moment, but I am for the first time, performing Richard Strauss’s ‘Four Last Songs’ with the Hibernian Orchestra, conducted by John Finucane in The National Concert Hall On Wednesday 10th June. I'm also performing Verdi's Requiem in University Concert Hall Limerick with Limerick Choral Union on Saturday 25th April.
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