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Sheer Versatility: An Interview with Irish Soprano Ailish Tynan

16 March 2017

Ailish Tynan, Delphian, Opus Arte, Signum Records, LSO Live, Opera, Iain Burnside, Judith Weir

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The Irish soprano Ailish Tynan has gone from strength to strength, gaining prominence not only on the opera stage but equally on the recital podium, as well as in the symphonic sphere. Even now as she enters a new phase of her life - becoming a mother - she continues bringing her endless energy and charismatic persona to festivals, recordings and recitals. We began by sharing our experiences as Irish musicians abroad, which proved a perfect starting point for the conversation that followed!

Well firstly, what strikes me is your sheer versatility! You are renowned on the opera stages worldwide, from Covent Garden to La Scala Milan and you are also well-versed in recital repertoire such as German Lieder and French arts song by composers like Poulenc and Fauré; and thirdly, you have done a lot of performances of concertante works such as Mahler’s 8th Symphony. How did you come to this point and do you have a preference?

Well when I was younger I was a bit of a mad one you know and I wasn’t very focused and I didn’t work as hard as I do now.

While I was a student at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, I was mostly having a great old time, heading to the pub and enjoying myself. But after I graduated from Guildhall I got on the young artist’s programme at Covent Garden. They only take 5 people into this programme: there was myself, a Korean, a Russian, an Australian, and so on. That was the real turning point for me. And basically, I’ve managed to keep the three things going I work really hard. I’m quite glad that I had the wild years when I was younger.  

"It’s lovely to be able to dabble in everything. To go from Schubert right through to the modern stuff. I’ve recently done a commission by Mark Anthony Turnage. Judith Weir also wrote a piece for me."

I actually came to the singing very late. Firstly, I did a degree in Trinity College Dublin in music and history, with a view to becoming a teacher. After graduating from my degree, aged 22, I got a job teaching in a school and two weeks later I thought to myself ‘Oh Lord, these are faces only mothers could love!’ and gave up the teaching job. Everyone – teachers, my family, the people I knew from the music college where I used to go as part of the teaching degree – everyone said I should be singing. But I didn’t think that was a realistic job at all. You know, in Ireland at the time, there wasn’t that tradition of opera. I didn’t think you could make a living as an opera singer. So I was going to put my backup plan into position first before I did anything drastic. I did the teaching for two weeks and thought: ‘This is a mistake!’ Then I went to the Royal Irish Academy of Music and did a masters in music performance. And straight after that I entered a competition in Ireland in which I was considered a very ‘outside option’ ….but didn’t I go and win it! And nobody could believe it because I hadn’t really gone through the usual channels like all the rest of them had. I hadn’t been going to Junior Royal Irish Academy or hadn’t done my undergraduate degree in music performance. So they were shocked when I won it. One of the people on the panel was Menno Feenstra, a Dutch guy who was a casting director at Glyndebourne. He took me under his wing and he said to me ‘Let me know when you come to England and we’ll get you into Glyndebourne.’ So I came over to London and got into the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, got in touch with Menno and auditioned for the chorus at Glyndebourne. I would do 6 months at Guildhall and 6 months at Glyndebourne understudying the big roles and being in the chorus. In my second year at Guildhall I got to play the part of Barbarina on the Glyndebourne tour.

Photo by B. Ealovega

Those things got me spotted by the guys at Covent Garden. And they offered me a place on the programme which I could hardly believe. That was the crème de la crème of what you could hope for as your next step. By that stage I was 25. I was a bit more sensible and settled. I’d had all my wild years by then. I really made the most of those 2 years. The coaching was sometimes from 10 in the morning until 10 at night. It wasn’t only singing: there were also language coaching lessons, sword fighting lessons, acting classes and more. They really looked after every bit of your career that you needed in order to make it. As a young artist I did lots of small roles like Papagena in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Xenia in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and the 1st niece in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. That was a great way to learn the trade.

While I was there I won the Rosenblatt Recital Prize at BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2003 (which is now known as the Song Prize). The combination of winning that prize and being a young artist at Covent Garden gave me a great couple of strings to my bow. I got the sense I was good enough at recitals to win the Rosenblatt prize and good enough at opera to be in the opera programme at Covent Garden, so people could see me in the dual role. Part of the recital prize from Cardiff was that I became a BBC New Generation Artist. Once I won the prize, BBC just gave me so many recording opportunities and recital opportunities for the following two years. Part of the prize was that you got to record whatever you liked with the BBC orchestras. Adam Gatehouse was running it at the time and he would say ‘Ailish, what do you want to do?’ and I’d say ‘I’d love to do Ravel’s Scheherazade or Barber’s Knoxville Summer’ and they agreed to it. I had the idea to do Schumann’s Liederkreis or Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson. No problem. It was a really amazing opportunity. The luck of the Irish probably.

Photo by B. Ealovega

The level of work that goes into a recital is phenomenal. Recitals are probably my favourite things to do and that’s quite unusual with singers, because they are so much hard work. If you do an opera you might do 8 or 10 shows so you’re going to get 8 or 10 fees for the exact same amount of effort, night after night. Whereas with a recital, you have so much work because it is 70 solid minutes of music. You’re learning different languages, you’re not stuck in one genre. I like to memorise my recital repertoire as much as possible because there’s a much better sense of communication and immediacy with the audience. There’s an awful lot of work that goes into that. And you do it once and then it’s over. It’s a real labour of love but I just love it and I love the fact that you can make all the decisions. When you do an opera most of the decisions are taken out of your hands and you have to follow the decisions of the opera director and you have to follow the conductor. In a recital it’s just you and the pianist making all the executive decisions. And I love the opportunity it gives you to really be your own artist. No interference from anyone else so you can put your own stamp on it. 

Then of course I got loads of concert work. We just did Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony in Bournemouth. I’ve done Mahler Symphony No. 8 with Valery Gergiev, Maazel and Pappano and had some incredible experiences. I’ve done so much concert repertoire. Something like Mahler 8 for instance, is something you learn once and it’s there for life and every time you do it, it gets better and better because you have so much confidence, and you can enjoy it even more.

Photo by B. Ealovega

Even within your recital repertoire, you go from German lieder to French chansons to brand new commissions by contemporary composers. How impressive!

It’s lovely to be able to dabble in everything. To go from Schubert right through to the modern stuff. I’ve recently done a commission by Mark Anthony Turnage. Judith Weir also wrote a piece for me. I received it in the post and she had written “for Ailish Tynan” and I think that was the most excitement I’ve had in ages. I couldn’t believe it! Here was a great composer – she’s Master of the Queen’s Music now – she took over from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. I’ve actually recorded a lot of her repertoire for orchestra and soprano with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London. And we’ve got a friendship over the years and now she’s just written this work for me to premiere in Wigmore Hall in July.

The recital will be with Adam Walker on flute, James Baillieu on piano and Allister Tate on cello. The thing is, we wanted to do Ravel’s Chansons madécasses which is for those 4 specific instruments and when Judith and I were talking about the commission I said I wanted to have a companion piece to the Chansons madécasses so that’s why she’s written her new work for that combination. We’ll also add some Fauré and lots of other French repertoire. Its so exciting to have someone like her writing a piece of music for you.

Have you performed in any Irish operas, by composers such as Michael Balfe or more contemporary composers like Gerald Barry?

I haven’t done any Irish contemporary music. But of course I‘ve done the Balfe opera The Bohemian Girl, not staged, but in a concert performance. Iain Burnside and I have recorded 2 discs of Irish stuff, one album of repertoire all by Herbert Hughes. And the other one is a mixture of all sorts of things, some of it just Irish poetry set by Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber and the Benjamin Britten arrangement of Irish folksongs. No contemporary Irish repertoire at all though, which is a pity.

What about your take on Handel's Messiah. Being an Irish person abroad you must be proud of the Irish connection.

I’ve performed the Messiah in Ireland but not for a long time. I went home to do a performance with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra just before last Christmas and they said I can choose which songs to sing. They wanted “Silent Night” and some operatic arias, so I insisted that we perform “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” from the Messiah. I don’t know what it is about that but I just love it. With Kings College Cambridge, you know the way they’ve started broadcasting opera live in the cinema, well this was the first time they ever did the live streaming of an oratorio and it was the Messiah from King’s College Cambridge. It was myself, Alice Coote, Alan Clayton and Matthew Rose. And they made it into a DVD. It was very special for me to do it. And out of the whole oratorio, what I liked best was again “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth”. There’s just something very powerful about it.

"Sometimes I sit there and think.......in my perfect version of the Messiah I would just take all the best numbers for myself!"

Sometimes I sit there and think ‘I wish I was a mezzo and sing “He was Despised”’ or I’d love to be a tenor and sing “Thou Shall Break Them”. In my perfect version of the Messiah I would just take all the best numbers for myself! [Laughs] and maybe “The Trumpet Shall Sound” as well. The only problem with “The Trumpet Shall Sound” though, is that the bass always gets upstaged by the trumpet player. The trumpet is so fabulous in it and has such a great and heroic part that I think ‘Oh, I’m glad I don’t have to compete with that!’

Photo by B. Ealovega

Personality is important for any musician, and even more so for a singer because you carry your instrument around with you all your life. Has your singing developed over time as you grew both as a singer and as a person?

 Oh definitely. Even this Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony that I did that night is a good example of that. I had performed five years ago at the Three Choirs Festival it and actually if I’m being really honest I probably wasn’t ready for it then, vocally. Last night my husband was in the orchestra and he said it was really dramatic – a huge orchestra and a huge chorus with the singers singing above all that sound. It’s amazing what the years do for a voice. For women in particular you really come into your voice between about age 40 and maybe 50. Even when I was pregnant my voice got richer. A gynaecologist came to one of my concerts and he said that the oestrogen is thickening up your vocal chords and improves your voice. I think I might have to stay pregnant now!

"I see a lot of young singers desperate to sing the big roles in La traviata, Madame Butterfly and Donna Giovanni. I would say to them ‘Take your time!’ Because if you stretch your vocal chords too much they never go back and I just feel so grateful that I never had anybody pushing me to do the big repertoire or lead roles too early."

I definitely find that as you get older the voice keeps getting better and better, like a bottle of red wine! Vocally I feel like I’m in my prime. It’s nice to know as well that I didn’t stretch myself too much as a young singer. I see a lot of young singers desperate to sing the big roles in La traviata, Madame Butterfly and Donna Giovanni. I would say to them ‘Take your time!’ Because if you stretch your vocal chords too much they never go back and I just feel so grateful that I never had anybody pushing me to do the big repertoire or lead roles too early. For years they were happy for me to do roles like Zerlina and Susanna and all these roles that don’t tax your vocal chords too harshly.

Photo by B. Ealovega

And what’s in store for you in the future?

It’s going to be quiet for a while in terms of opera as I turn my attention to motherhood. It’s been a hectic 15 years! Like even since being pregnant, I’ve done Shostakovich’s The Nose at Covent Garden and lots and lots of concerts and recitals. It’s kind of nice to be having a bit of a breather. It’s come at quite a good time for me because I’ve kind of established myself. The next thing I’m doing is adjudicating on the panel of the Song Prize at BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. There will be another Irish person among us: John Gilhooly, who runs Wigmore Hall, is the chairperson of the panel. Wigmore hall is really going from strength to strength under him. 

And then I’ll ease myself back into in gently. I’m actually going back home to Ireland to do some performances at the Kilkenny festival. They’re having a Schubert year and so I’ll perform some Schubert with Iain Burnside and James Baillieu, two of my favourite pianists that I do a lot of performing with.  Then I’ll go to Barry Douglas’s Clandeboye Festival in Northern Ireland. Then I’ll go to Dresden to perform Mahler Symphony No. 8. My husband is principal bass trombone player in the Royal Opera House Orchestra at Covent Garden andit’s great to be married to somebody that understands how a musician’s career works and can see where I’m coming from. I’m glad I’m not living my life with a banker because I don’t know if a banker would be able to put up with me. Also, because the Covent Garden musicians work right through Easter and Christmas, they get a five-week summer holiday. So when he gets his summer holidays, he’ll be able to mind the baby. And then I’ll take another break in the autumn and then I’ll be back to the grindstone in a while. There are a few nice things to ease me back in.  So that and the baby will keep me busy!

Ailish Tynan in conversation with Rachel Deloughry


Download Ailish Tynan's recordings on primephonic



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