Coloratura Cousins: Victoria Massey and Majella Cullagh

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

Soprano Majella Cullagh and mezzo-soprano Victoria Massey have sung in some of the world’s most distinguished opera theatres and concert venues. The former of the pair has carved an international career on the operatic stage, while the latter has enjoyed great success in recital and oratorio. Majella trained at the Cork School of Music, Cork Institute of Technology and the National Opera Studio in London, while Victoria is a former student of the Hochschule Mozarteum in Salzburg and a first-class honours graduate of the Masters in Performance Programme at DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama where she studied with Deirdre Grier Delaney and Trudi Carberry. With an extensive catalogue of recordings on the Naxos, Chandos and Opera Rara labels, Majella has enjoyed collaborations with esteemed conductors such as Jeffrey Tate, Sir Charles Mackerras, Giuliano Carella, Richard Bonynge and Robin Ticciati. She has performed with The Royal Opera, Opera New Zealand, The Royal Danish Opera, Opera Holland Park, Opera de Toulon, Grange Park Opera, Wide Open Opera, Lyric Opera Ireland, Opera North and Cork Operatic Company, to name but a few. Victoria’s international festival profile includes appearances at Macerata Opera Festival (Italy), Opera Festival Klosterneuburg (Austria), Chiemgau Summer Festival (Bavaria), Belem Cultural Festival (Lisbon) and Altolivenza Festival (Italy). She has sung with the Royal Opera Covent Garden, Teatro La Fenice, Opera Theatre Company, and Opera Ireland. As a seasoned performer, she is in constant demand for her pedagogical and adjudicating skills, and her voice can be heard on a number of RTÉ lyric fm recordings.

Aside from an inherent passion for classical music and opera, Majella and Victoria also share another connection — they recently discovered that they are cousins. Final Note is delighted to share their story.

Majella grew up in a very loving household in Cork with her Mum, Kitty, and Dad, Tom. Sundays were filled with the sounds of her father’s recordings of symphonies and grand opera. Majella’s mother adored musical theatre and the vocal stylings of Frank Sinatra. There were always movie magazines in the house and Kitty enjoyed nothing more than watching black and white musicals from the 1930s with her daughter. Gene Kelly was Kitty’s favourite but Majella was more of a Fred Astaire fan. She admits to being drawn to artists who were “all heart, soul, suffering and passion à la Judy Garland, Janis Joplin and Edith Piaf”.

Victoria had a very similar upbringing. Her life with Dad Tony, Mam Vera and sister Louise was filled with warmth, happiness and love. As a child, the bubbly Victoria made friends easily and was known as, “a bright little button” in primary school. Vera was an avid supporter of her daughter’s musical education. Victoria remembers their trips to lessons fondly:

She brought me to my singing and dance classes, and sat outside in her little Mini car, even in the cold winters, with a rug over her knees and a book in her hand. We were on the go every day of the week. She brought me to singing competitions and waited patiently with me, often calming my nerves before getting up to sing. She was always so positive and instilled in me a great attitude towards competing.

Along with a strong religious faith, Vera passed on her love of the Golden Age of musical film to her daughter:

Mam loved all the old shows with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly — a fine looking man. She admired the great dialogue in those movies and the manner in which the story-telling process was conveyed, without resorting to people jumping in and out of bed all the time. I learned so many songs from those old films by Cole Porter. I loved Sinatra and Doris Day. I now show a lot of those films to my little boy Elliot who is 6. My mam loved the happiness in the musicals and she always said they put her in a good mood.

Music played such a fundamental part in Victoria’s childhood. Her father loved listening to Domingo, Kiri Te Kanawa and Pavarotti — the latter of whom inspired the purchase of many a cassette tape for the young Victoria.

Around the age of 7/8 Victoria found out that she was adopted. Even though she never wanted for anything growing up and loved her family dearly, Victoria felt the need to trace her biological roots and find out from where her love of singing had come. She explains the process as follows:

There wasn't much help available at the time, so I had to do it all myself, with some emotional support from the Adopted People's Association. They forewarned me that it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack, if not worse, as I had practically nothing to start with. It took me a long time to find my biological mother — I was 27.

I discovered that she, Ellen, had travelled from Cork to Dublin to give birth. She named me “Mary” and nine days after my delivery I was adopted into the Massey family. Our first meeting coincided with my return from the Mozarteum in Salzburg. She was really thrilled to see me and delighted to know that I had experienced a good life. Peace came to her then and I always remember the image of her crying with happiness into her large white handkerchief and waving it about, which reminded me, with much amusement, about my beloved Pavarotti!!!

I am so grateful to my biological mother for having me and for trying to find a good family for me.

Sadly both Ellen and Vera died within a year of each other.

Further investigation into Victoria's biological family revealed a strong connection with the Irish tradition. She had “always grown up with a deep love for Ireland and ironically used to win more Golds in the Irish singing competitions than the English”.

This love for Irish traditional music also featured in Majella’s musical aesthetic. While in her twenties, the world of set dancing was brought to her attention, and to this day she still enjoys “a good session”. She also sang in a band — performing standards in hotels, belting out country and western music in pubs and dance music for weddings — while holding down a day job as a dental nurse in a private practice. Majella loved it all and admits that “singing that repertoire came naturally” to her. She believed that “all opera singers could switch off their classical sound”, and was amused when colleagues would look at her in bewilderment when she spoke of her "normal voice".

Despite her love of music, singing was very much a hobby for the young soprano. However, her involvement in amateur dramatic societies and the chorus of the Cork City Opera changed all that. She decided to audition for singing lessons at the Cork School of Music:

I was fortunate enough to be taught by the late Maeve Coughlan who fast-tracked my studies and enabled me to successfully audition for the National Opera Studio in London. At the time a position at the Studio was like gold dust. My immediate entry into the UK world of opera was secured.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s I sang at Opera North in Leeds, English Touring Opera, Grange Park Opera, Garsington Opera and Glyndebourne On Tour. My career gained international footing when I started recording for Opera Rara. On the recommendation of various colleagues, I auditioned for Patric Schmid who ran the much respected and acclaimed company that recorded rare bel canto opera. I still cannot believe my luck in having the priviledge of working with Patric. He was an extraordinary human being and taught me so much about music and about life. Sadly, he passed away from Parkinson's Disease in 2005. I ended up with an extensive discography and my association with these bel canto recordings opened doors to an international opera career.

Both Majella and Victoria enjoyed successful singing careers and were aware of each other on the performing circuit. Victoria had encountered Majella during her own student days singing in the chorus of Opera Ireland. She remembers thinking how lovely and talented this soloist was, and how much she would love to have a career such as hers. The hand of fate soon intervened.

Victoria found her biological father and learned that she had a cousin who was also a singer. When she discovered that it was Majella Cullagh, she exclaimed: "sure I know her, she is famous like!" Majella remembers the day she found out about her new cousin from a relative in Liverpool:

She was all excited with news of the appearance of a young woman who had been adopted, but was the biological daughter of her youngest brother. She was beyond excited when it transpired that this young woman was also an OPERA SINGER. Having ONE in the family was amazing, but having TWO seemed extraordinary!!!

I was delighted that this young lady had turned up. My mother and her father were first cousins. I had heard her name mentioned in Irish Opera Circles, but didn't personally know her. Soon afterwards I heard that a very close baritone friend of mine (Joe Corbett) was singing Papageno in an Opera Theatre Company production of ‘The Magic Flute’ and Victoria Massey was in the cast. I made it my business to catch a performance. I cannot tell you how relieved I was to find that this girl had an exquisitely beautiful voice and was truly a great singer. I also liked her very much when we were introduced post-performance...Phew! It was nice to find that we had such a profound connection.

One of my treasured childhood memories is of sitting in Vicky's biological grandad's kitchen listening to opera on the radio. Danny was a big opera fan and when I appeared enthralled with the music, he delighted in explaining what the singers were trying to communicate. He would have been over the moon to think that he had a granddaughter AND a grand-niece who were involved in the music that he loved so passionately.

Following their initial meeting, life and work commitments took Victoria and Majella in different directions. The pair didn't see much of each other, but this summer Victoria, with her son Elliott, paid a visit to Majella’s holiday home in County Kerry. They all had an absolute ball and, not having appeared together on stage before, Majella and Victoria decided to create a unique performance opportunity — a duet recital in the intimate surroundings of Dublin’s historic Freemasons’ Hall on 14 November.

For Victoria, the chance to finally sing with her cousin is quite emotional:

I am really excited about the forthcoming concert with Majella. She is an amazing talent with a great career, but mostly a wonderful person to work with...easy, very grounded and reliable. I do feel an innate trust with her. We both love the craic and the giggles, so I know it's going to be a lot of fun. The cat duet in particular should be hilarious! Oh dear God, both singing ‘Miow’! I hope I don't collapse. I’m very prone to the giggles!

I would certainly love for this concert in November to be the first of many together. I can't imagine if I hadn't found her. She was worth all the searching. I think the concert will be emotionally charged in a great sense because of the specialness of it all!

The admiration is mutual, as Majella reveals:

I am thrilled that we are finally getting to sing together. I know that the combination will be spectacular. I think we will compliment each other beautifully and I feel it in my bones that this will be the first of many successful collaborations. At least that is my sincere wish. It is wonderful to be related to an artist that I admire so much.

If this heart-warming story has piqued your interest, then feel free to pop along to the Freemasons' Hall on Saturday 14 November to hear the enchanting duo perform some of the most beautiful opera arias from the manuscripts of Delibes (Lakmé), Gounod (Faust) and Bizet (Carmen). The world of musical theatre will be represented through Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel and Bernstein’s West-Side Story. If that’s not tantalizing enough, the programme also includes an array of musical delights from the genres of French Chanson, German Lieder, Irish Traditional Song and Sacred Music.

This unique concert will feature the talents of West Wicklow Voices (conducted by Conor O’Reilly), violinist Katie O'Connor, pianist Padhraic O’Cuinneagáin, and Colm Phelan on the bodhrán. RTÉ Lyric fm’s inimitable Liz Nolan will lead the night’s entertainment as compère.

For more details on the event see: https://www.eventbrite.ie/

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