Q & A: Mezzo-Soprano Sharon Carty on Her Role at the Blackwater Valley Opera Festival and Her Recent CD Releases

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Frances Marshall)

With Ireland’s Blackwater Valley Opera Festival about to get underway, OperaWire thought it would be a good opportunity to catch up with mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty, who will be playing the role of Sesto in the festival’s headline presentation, Handel’s “Giulio Cesare.”

2024 is proving to be a busy year for Carty. She has had a full calendar, comprising recitals and concerts across Ireland and abroad, focusing mainly, but not only, on early music, featuring works from a diverse set of composers, ranging from Bach, Handel and Boccherini to Mahler. She has seen the release of a new CD entitled “Cushendall,” featuring a series of Irish songs by C. V. Stanford, which she shares with baritone Benjamin Russell, and a new recording entitled “Orchestral Songs” also by Stanford is about to be released very soon, this time shared with baritone Morgan Pearse.

Not content to sit on her laurels, however, she is now planning for new challenges, tantalizingly hinting at significant changes that will take her career into new areas within the world of classical music. At the moment, however, she is giving nothing away!

OperaWire: You are about to perform the role of Sesto in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” at the Blackwater Valley Opera Festival. What are your impressions of the role?

Sharon Carty: Sesto is a teenage boy whose father, Pompeo, has been beheaded by Tolomeo, a petulant child who happens to be the king of Egypt. Although he did this to please Cesare, it triggers a conflict between the Romans and the Egyptians.

Sesto grows up in a court dominated by alpha males and decides on a plan to take revenge on Tolomeo, which he eventually carries out by killing him. It is a really satisfying role, as you get to kill the bad guy!

He has a courageous character. He is physically the smallest character and politically the weakest, at least at the beginning. Despite all this, he risks death and is put into chains and thrown into prison, but he is undaunted. He is prepared to challenge the powerful to avenge his father’s death. He is a character that really matures over the course of the opera, developing from a privileged Roman teenager to a man with a purpose. It is a role with a lot of youthful energy, frustration and desire, and this is very gratifying personally because it means I have agency.

It is also a trouser role, and this is something I like about it. I enjoy the idea of performing a male character because you are not bound by your own sense of identity. It is an extreme form of stepping into another person’s shoes. Obviously, I have to think about my body language, and as I have very feminine hands, I have to be very careful how I gesticulate with them. Although having said all this, the audience knows I am a woman playing the role of a man, and so I am not really trying to convince anyone that I am actually a man.

This will be the third time I will be looking at this role. The first time was 15 years ago, when I was the cover for a production by the English National Opera, and then, more recently, I sang it for Theater Freiburg. I always love coming back to roles; it is not like a film because every production is different, and it allows you to dig a bit deeper into the text. The cast, the director and the conductor are all different, and they all bring their own ideas. Also, the subtext can be very different even though you are singing the same words. Each new production can, therefore, be a very different experience.

Musically, it is a wonderful work, and it is great that we have Nicholas McGegan conducting; he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the form and the style. I am also very fortunate that I have the opportunity to sing the famous duet “Son nata a lagrimar,” which is an absolutely stunning piece; it is one of the most beautiful moments in the opera, and I am not just saying this because I will be singing it! Although it is quite a long opera – even with substantial cuts, this production lasts over three hours – Handel has ensured that the arias are clearly differentiated from each other so that all have their own distinctive color, which is important in an opera of this length. Yet, he still manages to maintain the cohesive dramatic and musical consistency necessary to carry the narrative.

We have just started rehearsals, so we are still giving shape to the production but are playing with the idea of having it set in an ambiguous era; it could be then; it could be now. The set itself is relatively sparse, so the focus will be on the interaction between the characters. The costumes are very beautiful and very glamorous.

It really is a great opera that has everything; there is romance, betrayal, politics, war, murder, revenge and reconciliation. It is a 17th century version of a Hollywood blockbuster. It has a glamorous leading lady in Cleopatra, a dashing lead male in Cesare, a baddie in the form of Tolomeo and a host of interesting secondary characters.

OW: You recently released a disc of songs by C.V. Stanford called “Cushendall.”  How did this come about, and what do you like about his music?

SC: The recording was a labour of love.

I have been performing with Finghin Collins, the pianist on the CD, for about ten years now, and he is a huge supporter and promoter of Stanford’s music, so we always included some of Stanford’s songs in our recitals, and for many years, he has been angling to record some of his songs. The opportunity came when the Stanford Society wanted to organize several recordings to mark the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death in 1924. One of their projects was a recording of his songs based on Irish texts, and it is these songs that form the basis for the CD.

The recording includes two world premiere recordings: the “Cushendall” song cycle and “Three Blarney Ballards,” which is sung by Benjamin Russell.

One of the things that I adore about Stanford is that I always find that he serves the text faithfully and is very respectful; he remains in the background and doesn’t impose himself on the texts. He serves the art form. I love the way he marries the classical elements with the Irish vernacular without making it sound twee, yet still retaining its Irishness. He straddles the two worlds expertly to capture the nostalgia and the evocation of the Irish landscape and its people, such as the Irish mammy shouting at her child in the street.

It is amazing to look at all the people he taught and the very different styles they have. They seem to have very little in common, other than how they are all able to create incredible atmospheres when serving the text. He supported them in developing their own styles without corralling them into a box, and I really like that about him.

Someone said about Stanford – I can’t remember who – that he was too British for the Irish and too European for the British. He had feet in many camps and is a difficult figure to pin down.

OW: What is your favorite track?

SC: That is a very difficult question to answer, but I really like the song “Cushendall.”

OW: You have a new disc coming out soon. Can you tell us about this recording?

SC: This one also came about through the Stanford Society. This will be released very soon on the Resonus Classics label. It was recorded with baritone Morgan Pearse and conductor John Andrews with the BBC Concert Orchestra in London. Also, there are a couple of tracks that feature the BBC singers

It is a disc of orchestral songs, largely set by Stanford himself, with a couple of songs orchestrated by his biographer, Jeremy Dibble. The disc is called “Orchestral Songs” and shows off Stanford’s gorgeous orchestral writing. I am really excited by the recording and looking forward to its release.

I share the singing with Morgan Pearse, so I sing on about half of the tracks, and the songs are all very different. There is also one duet, which I am very pleased with as it helps bring the disc together.

It is a very different disc from “Cushendall.” The relationship you have with the pianist is very different from that you have with a full orchestra. When singing with an orchestra, the singer is at the top of the texture with a sea of color underneath, and the conductor acts as an intermediary between the two. Whereas with a pianist, it is more intimate. This is my first recital recording with orchestral music, and so it proved to be a very interesting and exciting experience for me personally.

OW: Looking at your career, you seem to take quite an intellectual approach. You are involved a lot with education, and you engage with long-term projects, for example. Would this be a fair assessment?

SC: Very fair. It can, however, be a double-edged sword. Taking a too intellectual approach can be seen as not being emotionally authentic, and it is a criticism that has been raised against me, but I reject the argument completely.

OW: So, given that you accept this observation, do you ever consider opening up other paths in your career, for example, becoming a director or even an artistic director of a company or a festival?

SC: It is something I would definitely be interested in doing. I am an artist who is interested in curating programs. I have been very lucky to have been given the opportunity to be involved in administrative capacity in planning things, and I have really enjoyed it. So, I would certainly welcome the opportunity to move my career in this direction.

I have plenty of ideas of what I would like to do, and my educational background means I possess the skills necessary to bring them into being. One thing I would love to explore is how music can be used in the community to engage with young people and, of course, adults, such as through establishing community-based choruses. It is necessary to break down barriers. I don‘t think that audiences need to know everything about the composers’ lives or the name of every instrument. It’s all about improving accessibility. Everyone, regardless of their background or level of musical education, can go to a concert and come away with the feeling that they have gained something from the experience. It is the job of the artist to ensure this happens.

I would also like to have the license to explore themes or a specific composer and again bring in people from all walks of life, not just the elite performers, in an attempt to widen the social background of audiences that come to the opera.

I know opera is written to be performed on stage, but I also realize that finance acts as a big constraint on what any company can achieve. However, I honestly believe that creativity allows us to find a way around such problems. As artists, we have the responsibility and the means to enthuse everyone else about the advantages of listening to music, absorbing art and experiencing them together as a group. The sharing of experiences was one of the things about the pandemic and the lockdowns that we missed. We couldn’t sit in an audience or walk through a gallery and share the experience together. A shared experience creates something that cannot be achieved by listening or seeing something on your own. It is the same as watching a football match. The crowd is connected by the game they are watching, and this in turn changes the way the individual is experiencing it.

OW: What type of musical programs would you like to oversee? Would baroque music be of interest?

SC: Baroque music is where I feel most at home, but I would be interested in any type of music in which a mix of vocal and instrumental music can be included. I like looking at the relationship between text and music. So, operas, lieder and oratorios would be important to anything I became involved in. Simply put, I love exploring the different ways in which the voice can be used in classical music.


InterviewsStage Spotlight