Q & A: Niamh O’Sullivan On Her Role Debut As Charlotte In Irish National Opera’s Production Of ‘Werther’

By Alan Neilson

Irish mezzo-soprano Niamh O’Sullivan is due to return to her home city of Cork in early May, where she will be performing Charlotte in Irish National Opera’s nationwide tour of Massenet’s “Werther.”

Over the past few years, the young singer has witnessed her profile rise quickly on the European opera circuit, notching up regular performances in Munich and Zurich as well as establishing herself in her native Ireland, where she has featured in numerous productions with INO, including Asteria in Vivaldi’s “Bazajet.” At the 2022 Wexford Festival Opera, she performed the role of Mirza in David’s “Lalla-Rouhk,” for which she received praise for her “light vibrato, wonderful vocal coloring, delicate coloratura and attractive phrasing.” She has already proven herself adept at singing a diverse range of roles from the baroque to French, German and Italian Romanticism and more contemporary works, most recently as Alva in Dennehy’s “The First Child.”

With INO’s tour of “Werther” about to start in Letterkenny on 22nd April, OperaWire thought it would be an excellent opportunity for an interview.

The production will play at venues across the country, ending 14th May in Dun Laoghaire.

OperaWire: What was your pathway into opera?

Niamh O’Sullivan: As a child, I did a lot of performing in musicals, dance and drama. Then, in my early teens, people started telling me that I had a voice that might be suitable for classical singing. As is the case with most teenagers, opera was not something I wanted to do, but eventually I thought I would give it a try. So, I went up to Dublin to talk with Dr, Veronica Dunne, and she convinced me to study with her. I was with her for three years. Then, when I was taking part in a competition in Ireland, I was spotted and asked to audition for Munich. I gave it a try and got a position with Bayerische Opera, which meant I had to cut short my studies in Ireland. The first year in the studio in Munich was a quite difficult one, both mentally and vocally; I didn’t feel ready or up to the required level. I was very young and had the attitude of a typical student, but they were really supportive. In the second year, however, I really got into the swing of things and progressed vocally. It was an amazing experience. I was working with my idols and could hear and see the level I had to reach.

When I finished the studio, in many ways I felt I was back to square one. Getting roles was difficult. I was only 23, and people thought that I was too young to perform the roles for which I was suitable. I am not a high mezzo. I couldn’t sing Cherubino, for example, and I was too young to sing Carmen. At the time, I felt I needed more guidance. But I was fortunate! I found a good teacher, and the Bayerische Staatsoper brought me back to do a few roles. Then I got a position at Zurich, which was a great opportunity and enabled me to move forward.

OW: You are currently playing Charlotte in “Werther” with Irish National Opera. What are your thoughts about the character?

NO’S: Charlotte is a role I have dreamt of performing, but I didn’t think I would have the opportunity to do so so early in my career.

Charlotte has an amazing journey. She is a simple, young girl who was given the responsibility of looking after the children when her mother died. So she is family-oriented, stays at home and keeps the promises she made to her mother to stay with Albert. Suddenly, Werther arrives on the scene, and her whole life is turned on its head. She stops having time for the children and no longer cares for Albert; who knows if she ever really did love him or whether she was just keeping her promises to her mother?

Her life is now consumed with Werther. She moves from a simple life to one of desperation, in which she is torn between her duty to the family and Albert and her love for Werther. It is really interesting to see how she attempts to navigate a way through these competing pressures.

Although not much time passes from the beginning to the end of the opera, she develops into a confused character with no idea what to do. At the beginning, she could have gone off with him, but she doesn’t because she thinks it isn’t the right thing to do. And when she decides that she wants to, it is too late .

OW: What difficulties have you found with the role?

NO’S: It is a huge challenge, both vocally and dramatically. Charlotte has very lyrical moments but also quite dramatic moments too, which are difficult to navigate; it uses two gears of the voice. You need to keep the lightness and brightness as well as the beautiful round color, but then you also need strong, almost aggressive singing as well, which is something new to me. I am lyrical, not dramatic, and I need to keep hold of the beauty and the lyrical coloring when I am singing the more dramatic parts. It is a good challenge for me, as I would like to move towards the more dramatic later in my career.

OW: How is it going to be presented?

NO’S: It is set in 1950s rural Ireland at the time of electrification. So instead of Charlotte and Werther going to the ball, they are going to an event celebrating electrification. It is something the director Sophie Motley came up with because when electricity was introduced across Ireland, it was a big event. I know it might sound a little funny, but it changed the everyday lives of the people. So initially, we see Charlotte following a simple way of life, washing things by hand and so on, then suddenly, with the introduction of electricity, she has more time on her hands. She has less to do and therefore more time to focus on other things outside the home.

OW: It is being toured across Ireland. Do you like touring, or do you prefer being in a fixed location?

NO’S: I suppose there are benefits and disadvantages to both. Touring can be quite tiring. With “Werther,” we will be doing a show every other night for two and a half weeks, and during the days in between we will be traveling. But touring allows you to bond with the rest of the cast, and that is something I like! Also on this tour, I will get to see parts of Ireland that I have never seen. Actually, we will be performing in Cork, and I am really excited about it; all my family and friends will be there.

Many of the theaters we will be playing in are fairly small, so space is limited. It has, therefore, been decided that we shall perform it as a chamber piece. The orchestra will only have 12 musicians.

We have also decided to cut quite a lot from the performance. It will last for only about two hours, plus an interval. The reason is that it is not an opera that everyone knows, and we will traveling to remote areas where there might be some people who may not know anything about opera and so we shortened it. My role has survived almost completely in tact; just a few little bits have been cut.

OW: Describe your voice?

NO’S: I am a lyric mezzo, but more toward the alto end. I have a rich, round color and it is quite flexible at the top, although I feel more comfortable in the middle and lower ranges. I think it is a very natural voice. As a child, I had a good voice, and, at times, this can get you into trouble because you feel you don’t need the technique as it all comes quite easily. However, I soon learned that you do need the technique, especially for a role like Charlotte; a natural voice can only get you so far. You have to have the tools to work with it.

OW: You sing a wide variety of roles. Is there a particular style or composer you prefer?

NO’S: I have had some success with the smaller Wagner roles, and eventually I would love to do some of the bigger parts like Kundry or Fricka. Also, I love singing in German, and maybe because I have spent so much time in Germany, I feel very close t6o the language. I would like to sing some Strauss roles, such as Ariadne. I feel that is where my voice is going.

I also want to do more French Romantic pieces. I don’t do much in Italian, although I felt comfortable singing Handel and Vivaldi, but the agile coloratura stuff isn’t my thing.

Lieder again comes to me quite naturally. I think that comes from my Irish background as we are storytellers. With lieder, you are telling a very intimate story; the song is all about the story. There is no set. It’s just you telling a story. I love the intimacy. I find it really satisfying. Certainly, lieder is something I would like to do more of. It won’t be easy to schedule as I have so many opera engagements planned, but I am determined to fit it in.

OW: What are your plans over then next 12 to 24 months?

NO’S: I will be going to the academy in Aix-en-Provence this summer, and then straight after that I will be singing in “Das Rheingold” at Covent Garden. Then I will be back in Zurich for a “Götterdämmerung,” Mercedes in “Carmen” and another “Das Rheingold,” and then I am off to Heidenheim where I will be singing Suzuki in “Madama Butterfly.” So I am really busy.


InterviewsStage Spotlight