Q & A: Deirdre Masterson Talks About Her Career As Opera Singer, Teacher, Recording Artist, Voice Therapist & New CD

By Alan Neilson

(Photo: House of Photography – Mark Ivory)

There can be few singers with such a diverse and impressive CV as that of the Irish soprano Deirdre Masterson. Having made her stage debut at the age of 12 in the role of the Spirit in Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” and followed the usual training programs, she seemed destined for a successful operatic career. Events, however, dictated that she would not follow the typical path experienced by the majority of singers. Instead, she created a successful career as one of “The Irish Sopranos,” with which she toured the world for a number of years.

Not one to rest on her laurels, Masterson eventually called it a day on that particular enterprise and changed track once more, returning to the world of opera to carve out another successful career, although not just as a singer.

A brief glance at her current positions and undertakings is enough to give one an idea, not just of her accomplishments, but also of her versatility and the zest with which she approaches life. She is Head of Vocal Studies and a Company Director at the Irish College of Musical Theatre, an institution she helped found in 2011, formed with the aim of developing and expanding music theatre training in Ireland; the Dean ofPerforming Arts for the Irish American University in Dublin; a voice specialist focused on the training and rehabilitation of injured voices; performs in operas and concerts; and is a successful recording artist, with her latest CD due for release at the end of September.

With so much experience in different areas of opera, OperaWire thought it was time for an interview.

OperaWire: What attracted you to opera?

Deirdre Masterson: I came from a very musical family, but it was mainly traditional Irish music. However, at my confirmation I was asked to sing, and the Bishop told my parents that it would be a crime not to have my voice trained properly. So they arranged for me to have an audition at the Wexford School of Music with a man called Alan Cutts, who has now sadly passed away. After listening to me, he took me down to the Opera House and asked me to sing for this lady, which I thought was part of the audition. The lady was actually Elaine Padmore, the artistic director of Wexford Festival Opera, although I had no idea who she was. I was only 12 at the time. The piece was “Porgi Amor.” As a result, I not only got into the school but also became part of the opera amateur chorus, which was used to support the professional chorus at the festival. So I started to sing in operas. I still remember the first time I appeared on stage. It was in a production of Leoncavallo’s “La Boheme.” I was mesmerized by this Romanian singer, whose name I no longer remember, and I knew then that this is what I wanted to do.

OW: Following on from your experience with Wexford Opera Festival, how did your career develop?

DM: I spent five years with Wexford Festival Opera. Then, at the age of 17, I started studying with Ronnie Dunn and got an internship with the Dublin Grand Opera Society, which went on to become Opera Ireland. I was with them for four years, doing various different roles, such as Zerlina and Barbarina. After that, I received a scholarship to study with Astrid Varney in Munich, and then I moved to the UK to study at the Royal Northern College of Music. Then, suddenly, everything changed direction.

OW: What caused the change in direction?  

DM: When I was seven, I had a tonsillectomy, but my tonsils grew back, and so in my early 20s I had to have another operation, and it didn’t go well. I realised I couldn’t force myself to sing opera, but it was possible to sing lighter pieces.

Therefore, I looked for a position with which my voice would be able to cope, and I managed to get a contract with a German company called Landgraf, singing in an Irish musical. I toured with them for three years with great success, and we ended up touring the world.

This led me on to the next stage in my career. Along with Kay Lynch and Wendy McGuire, I went on to form “The Irish Sopranos,” which was a female version of “Il Divo” or “The Three Tenors,” which was very successful and a lot of fun. We showcased at the Hilton in New York and were signed up almost immediately and given a 30 day tour. Within a year, we were playing at Carnegie Hall. We were singing the usual popular opera favourites as well as crossover music and, obviously, some Irish music, which is very popular in the USA. We sang everything from “Lakmé” to “Danny Boy,” tailoring our programme to fit the audience. If we were singing with the Boston Pops, we would be doing classical pieces, but if it was for an Irish festival, we would do more Irish pieces, including arias from Irish operas. This lasted for 15 years, and unfortunately, this resulted in me losing contact with the opera world: “The Irish Sopranos” was a full-time job; it was impossible to do both.

Then I realised my voice was changing. I had always been a light lyric coloratura soprano, but I started to realise that my voice was developing into a bigger instrument, so I decided to take time out to retrain, with a view to returning to opera. Now I try to sing opera regularly, but given my other jobs, it is difficult. I don’t really have the time to rehearse productions, so it is mainly concert performances, although not only. It is a balancing act, but I do need to sing; it’s good for my soul.

OW: So what made you decide on a career in coaching?

DM: Really, it was a mixture of things. Following my tonsillectomy, I had to undertake a lot of research to find the right rehabilitation and the right tutors. I couldn’t understand why it was so difficult. Why weren’t there rehabilitation services readily available? I also think that there is a stigma attached to singers when they have something wrong with their voice. It is taboo subject. When athletes have a problem with their muscles or tendons, it is considered normal; everybody accepts that an athlete will have injuries. It’s not the same for a singer who has trouble with their voice, and this is what drew me into this area.

Another reason was that at the time here in Ireland, there were not enough teachers to cope with the demand, and singers were forced to go abroad for training if they wanted to perform on the international stage. Ireland has such a wealth of talent and it’s important that singers have somewhere to develop this. It is something about which I feel very strongly.

Also, it was the right time! I wanted to set-up home in Ireland. I had a lot of experience and the right contacts.

OW: How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

DM: Teaching should be a calling with the students at the centre of the process, not the teacher. A large part of the job is about nurturing them. It is not a job for everyone, and I feel some people fall into teaching for the wrong reasons, which is not how it should be.

It is very important that, from the beginning, young singers learn to look after and to understand their voice. The right answer to these problems is to develop a good technique and to have the right teacher.

Achieving results with the best students is not that difficult. As a teacher, I measure my success by how far along I can bring the other students.

OW: So would you say that, with the right teaching, it is possible for most people to become opera singers?

DM: Certainly, everybody can acquire techniques so that they can improve on whatever they start with. They can learn to improve their breath control, their resonance, to extend their range, and acquire a better understanding of how to sing, but it’s like everything else in life: you are born with certain qualities, and I think that the instrument has to be of a certain standard to begin with, if you are to go on to sing to an operatic standard.

OW: What are the qualities you look for in a student?

DM: If you had asked me this question 20 years ago, I would have given you a different answer. Now, having worked as an educator and seeing many students come through the system, I think I have a better understanding of what to look for in an audition room. I am not looking for raw talent; that is not enough! I need to see determination, passion and commitment, and there has to be a drive to want this like nothing else. If I cannot see these traits in the person, then I have serious concerns. As an opera singer, you must have something to say and be able to communicate it, and in opera, you often have to work harder at this aspect because, often, you are trying to communicate in a foreign language. If singers don’t want to do this, they should follow a different career path.

Some singers actually get so caught up in trying to be technically perfect that they forget about communication. Students must remember that an audience wants to be drawn into an emotional journey. They don’t really want to be looking at the surtitles all the time to find out what the singer is saying. This should be clear in the way they communicate the aria. An audience does not want perfection. They can hear that on a CD at home.

OW: It is noticeable that there are many excellent female singers in Ireland, but not so many male singers. In your role as a teacher, can you shed a light on why this situation exists?

DM: In part, it’s down to the ratio of males to females who want to be opera singers. It is also down to the culture in Ireland, where if you’re not an exceptional male singer, you won’t follow it as a career path.

Also, the female voice develops and settles earlier. In their early 20s, the male voice is still finding itself, and it often happens that career choices have already been made by this time. It is difficult for someone to drop everything in their mid-20s and then fund the necessary courses and training for a career in opera, especially when it is uncertain as to whether or not they will succeed. Female voices develop more quickly, which gives them an advantage in this respect.

But it is a difficult question to answer. There are so many factors at play: anatomy, technique, the decisions that have already been made, pressures in life and so on.

OW: With your singing, teaching and administrative roles, you have a lot going on. Do you have a primary interest?

DM: At this stage in my life, I’m trying to maintain a nice balance, a happy medium. I want to continue both teaching and singing, but I also want to have a good family life. It is a difficult task, a bit of a juggling act, especially at this time of the year because the start of the academic year is always very busy.

I consider myself very fortunate to be able to do what I am doing. Outside of my family, I have two passions: singing and teaching, and I’m able to do both.

OW: You have CD due for release at the end of September. Can you tell us something about it?

DM: I was encouraged to make this recording by my Aunty Beth, who died about a year ago. She was a traditional All Ireland singer, and everyone thought I was going to follow in her footsteps. I really looked up to her and was extremely close to her. During her final year, I was privileged to act as her carer, along with her two daughters. It was she who made me promise that I would return to singing, as she felt that I was devoting too much of my energy to teaching. She said to me, “Please start to sing again. It brings you so much joy.” So I thought, OK, I’ll do it. I started recording in her final months, so that I could share some of it with her. I included the track “Carrickfurgus” especially for her.

The title of the album is “Mo Chroí” which is Irish for “My Heart.” It is a very personal compilation, in which every track comes from my heart. It is a mixture of genres, representing different aspects of my life. As a child, I grew up watching Diana Durban movies, so I included some of her songs. There are some crossover pieces from my time singing with “The Irish Sopranos,” also some traditional Irish music that reminds me of my family background, and then there’s opera too. It is a mix, and I know people can get upset when you step outside the genre they associate you with, but there is good and bad music in all categories, and for me, this disc is about emotion. It comes from a real place, from the heart.

OW: What does the future hold?

DM: For certain, I want to perform more and get out to meet the audience more. I also want to develop my education and rehabilitation work.

But I’m also very excited about the progress of my sister Kelli-Ann, who is also an opera singer. Her career is going really well. She will be appearing as Norina in Irish National Opera’s production of “Don Pasquale” this winter, which is an important step in her development. At the moment, she is looking for an agent, but it is not something she is rushing into as it has the right agent. This is very important.

I’m her big sister, her godmother, and her teacher, and I’m really looking forward to seeing her career develop. I’m so proud of her!


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