Q & A : Sharon Carty On The Wexford Festival Opera & Her Upcoming Schubert Album

By Alan Neilson

At this moment, opera in Ireland is really on the up. Over the last couple of years, the country has seen a significant number of developments, which has started to lift its profile. This year, for example, saw the inauguration of the Irish National Opera company, which has an ambitious vision for delivering opera, showcasing Irish singers and increasing the public’s engagement with the art form. This has been made possible, of course, by the wave of talented singers, composers, and musicians which have emerged in Ireland over recent years.

One such singer, very much in the ascendency, is the mezzo-soprano, Sharon Carty, who is presently starring in Ireland’s prestigious Wexford Festival Opera, as Lucy Talbot in William Bolcom’s “Dinner at Eight.” Although she was relatively late in embarking on a career as an opera singer, she is quickly establishing herself, especially in the baroque, classical and contemporary repertoire.

Sharon was kind enough to find time, during her busy schedule, to talk to Operawire.

OperaWire: Why did you decide to become an opera singer?

Sharon Carty: I never woke up one morning and decided to become an opera singer. It was a long, slow, gentle realization.

I was sporty as a teenager, and I just wanted a career as a PE teacher. Luckily, the all girls’ school I attended had an excellent music department and an amazing music teacher. We did three-part versions of well-known works, such as Handel’s “Messiah,” Duruflè’s “Requiem” and Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” learned how to sight-read, and learned about performing.

Then I went to university, to study PE and English, but I realized there was a big music-shaped hole in my life. So I decided to do a teaching and singing course at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin and naively thought a singing path would open-up.

Obviously, it did not, it takes many years of training to build up a technique, and so I took a teaching job. But there was still this niggling in the back of my mind, and so I cut back the hours and started to prepare for a singing career. I also used my holidays to attend summer courses in Salzburg and Vienna, where I managed to see opera regularly at the Staatsoper and Theater an der Wien.

OW: Reading your biography, I noticed that in your early career you sang parts from a variety of periods, including Strauss and Verdi. Now you don’t. You seem to be specializing more in the baroque, classical and contemporary repertoire. What made you move in this direction?

SC: I have always gravitated towards baroque because I love it, and it is so healthy for the voice. Whereas with contemporary repertoire it was almost accidental as I had always been frightened of it; I was asked to sing in Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s “Oscar and the Lady in Pink” at Theater Freiburg. I jumped in six weeks before the rehearsals started, and surprised myself how I was able to adapt to it.

I really enjoyed it, and it was really rewarding. People thought I performed well, and when you do something well you are asked to do more of it, so now it has become part of my repertoire. It seems to be just the way things have unfolded. It was not an artistic decision. I just follow my voice, and if my voice changes in the future, I may move back into the romantic repertoire.

OW: What have been the significant milestones in your career?

SC: Obviously, my debut in 2008, in which I sang Maddalena in “Rigoletto” at the Anna Livia Festival in Dublin, was a big thing for me. Bernadette McGreevy took a big chance in giving me this great opportunity, she believed in me. I was only one year into my studies, and it went well, and the press was very kind to me.

There have been other productions that have also helped: the 2013 Barrie Kosky “Dido,” in Frankfurt was an incredibly exciting production, and I received great reviews, and again this pushed my career forward.

Then in 2016, I won the RAAP/RTE Lyric FM Classical Breakthrough Music Bursary; it was a great endorsement, and really helped me financially.

And, of course, being named as an Artistic Partner for the newly-formed Irish National Opera was a great honor. Opera in Ireland is really on the rise, and it is great to be a part of it, and it also means that I am now able to spend more time singing in Ireland.

OW: What does Wexford mean to you? You are Irish, it is an internationally prestigious festival, do you feel any extra pressure?

SC: I thought I would feel pressure, but everyone, including those behind the scenes and the people in the town were so supportive that I felt no pressure at all. It is a real pleasure to sing here, and obviously a huge honor.

Also, the team that sang “Dinner at Eight” in Minnesota were wonderful, they were so relaxed, flexible and generous, and this helped so much. They did not demand it had to be done the same way as in Minnesota, which made it so much easier for me to slip into the role. The audience were great; they were very enthusiastic and seemed to really enjoy the show, and gave us a great reception. So, the whole experience has been just great and has left me feeling very proud at having been part of it.

OW: In Wexford you will be singing Lucy Talbot, in “Dinner at Eight.” Tell me about your role, and the challenges it presents for you?

SC: Lucy Talbot is a friend of Millicent, and she is married to Dr. Talbot. She is smart and poised, but unhappy in her marriage; her husband has had at least 4 affairs. She is the opposite of Kitty Packard, another character from the opera, who is a super feminine, Marilyn Monroe type character.

Lucy is a different type of feminine, and cannot express herself as she would like. She recognizes this but remains trapped. She says she loves him, but I am not sure if I believe her. I can’t imagine she would still be with him, if the opera was set in 2018. There is an ambiguity here, and this doubt actually helps me with the performance.

Vocally, the role presents no real problems, it is well-suited to my voice. Actually, William Bolcom’s wife is a mezzo, so he knows exactly how to write for the mezzo voice. The real challenge is the body language because I am naturally exuberant, used to more lively roles, so I had to calm my body movements, and stop myself from being more demonstrative. It was difficult.

OW: William Bolcom and his librettist, Mark Campbell, were here in Wexford for the festival. What were your impressions of them?

SC: They are both lovely people, and they came to the dress rehearsal and to the opening night. They chatted to us about the opera. It was really interesting listening to them; they agree about some things and disagree about others.

For example, William Bolcom says Lucy should always remain calm, but Mark says absolutely not – she can be angry. I think it is this clash, this frisson in their relationship which makes “Dinner at Eight” so successful. It creates a third way, which is necessary for the creative process.

But, it was also very clear that they had so much respect for each other. On the opening night, Mr. Bolcom came onto the stage, it was a great moment! It was great to share the stage with the man who had written the part I had just been performing.

OW: Then you will be singing a recital. What is the repertoire you have chosen to sing, and why?

SC: I am planning to record a Schubert CD next year, with the pianist Jonathan Ware, and I thought it would be nice to try out a group of the songs which will appear on the disk.

In the recital, I shall be including four songs about the seasons, including “Viola,” which is actually my favorite. All the soloists are encouraged to sing pieces from their own country, so I will be singing a couple of songs by Charles Villiers Stanford.

Then there is a piece by Mozart, and I finish with two cabaret songs by William Bolcom, which are very interesting for me personally, as they have opened up new color palette that I didn’t know I had.

There is a lot of variety, and together I feel they make for a very interesting and entertaining programme.

OW: Can you elaborate on the Schubert recording?

SC: Yes. We are looking to record it next year, for release the following year. Jonathan and I received a bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland to help plan for it, buy scores, research material, and travel expense.

I love singing Schubert, his songs really are amazing; he is able to mix profound sorrow and profound joy in a way I thought impossible. As I said, I shall include my favorite Schubert song “Viola,” a sad song about a little flower that comes into the world too early and dies from loneliness and the cold. I cried the first time I read the text. It last around 12 to 13 minutes, and is operatic in proportions and so beautifully written.

OW: You have already sung in the world premiere of Donnacha Dennehy’s “The Second Violinist.” What are your impressions of the work?.

SC: It is about 70 minutes long. It is not your typical opera, and is quite complex. It includes lots of dialogue and video imaging, and the first singing doesn’t occur until 10 minutes into the show.

Dennehy, the composer, intentionally leaves a lot of questions hanging in the air, so that it really makes the audience think, and encourages them to engage intellectually with the work. People were coming up to me, two or three weeks after the show, and saying they were still thinking about the opera, and trying to find answers. So it is more than just superficial entertainment, and this is very important for art.

Also the music is very beautiful. There are three singers in the work, who are recollections of a musician, Gesualdo, an unstable genius, who has murdered his wife and her lover. It is unclear whether the thoughts and words coming out of my mouth are my character’s thoughts or his recollections and projections. You have no idea whether what you are watching is objective or his own thoughts projected into the mouths of others.

As the opera unfolds the main character becomes more unstable and violent. The stage is really wide and is not directed in the normal way. Different narrative threads of the opera occur simultaneously, so different members of the audience see different things and also miss things. They follow events which they, themselves, have chosen to follow. For example, I might be singing an aria on one part of the stage, but there may be actors doing something entirely different on another part, while something else is happening in the video projections; people are, therefore, free to follow things that have captured their interest. In my opinion, it really is a powerful work.

OW: Your latest CD is a recording of W.S. Gilbert’s “The Mountebankes.” It is unlikely many people will know the work. Would you tell me something about it?

SC: It is a comedy by Gilbert and Alfred Cellier, and not with Sullivan because Gilbert could not convince him to compose the music for it. It is light comedy with plenty of characters, singing big choral numbers, delightful love duets and arias – the music is really lovely!

We made the disc with the young British conductor John Andrews and the outstanding BBC Concert Orchestra and BBC singers. The feedback was wonderful, and although we only made a studio recording, hopefully, one day I will be able to perform it live.

OW: Lastly, what are other goals you have for your career?

SC: In the medium term I need to concentrate on building up the central roles in my fach. I would love to do some Rossini, whom I adore. I have not yet done a professional performance of Rossini, but have studied some of the roles, and it is something I feel the need to do soon. There are still a couple of Mozart roles I want to do, and then in the longer term, I would like to move towards Charlotte from “Werther,” and then Octavian. Of course, I would like to continue premiering new works, providing it is good music and suits my voice.


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