Q & A: Soprano Kelli-Ann Masterson On Making An Opera Career In Ireland

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Patrick Browne)

Opera in Ireland has recently been going through a boom time. Whereas only a few years ago, Irish singers were being forced to look abroad to establish a career, owing to the lack of opportunities at home, now, with the emergence of Opera Collective Ireland, the Blackwater Valley Opera Festival, and, most significantly, Irish National Opera, along with the long-established Wexford Festival Opera, they are able to forge a career at home. In fact, so successful have these companies been that the number of quality professional singers coming out of the country has risen significantly.

Soprano Kelli-Ann Masterson is one such singer who has certainly benefited. This December, she will be headlining Irish National Opera’s production of “Don Pasquale” in the role of Norina, and she now stands on the cusp of what appears is going to be a very successful professional career. Yet, apart from a single early experience with the UK’s Gilbert & Sullivan Company, she has learned her trade exclusively in Ireland, performing with all four of the above-mentioned companies. Given that she is, therefore, perfectly placed to provide an insight into the opportunities that have opened up for would-be opera singers in Ireland, OperaWire thought it an excellent time for an interview.

OperaWire: What is your musical background, and what made you want to become an opera singer? 

Kelli-Ann Masterson: I come from a very musical family and was surrounded by music from the day I was born. And it was not just classical music, but music of all types, especially traditional Irish music. I am the youngest of four siblings, and when I came along, my brothers and sisters were all teenagers, going into adulthood. My eldest sister, who was 18 at the time, was pursuing a career as an opera singer, studying with Ronnie Dunne in Dublin. She went on to have a successful career before moving on to academia. Although I was very young when all this was happening, this obviously had a big influence on me. I was always going to concerts, and I remember it being lots of fun, especially when we went to watch my sister on stage, which was always exciting.

So for me, all kinds of music, including opera, have always been the norm. I never experienced a musical revelation, as it was always part of my life. And growing up in Wexford, with the opera festival on my doorstep, made opera seem just a normal thing, which it obviously isn’t.

When I had to decide on what career to follow, I was torn: should I go down the music route or should I become a teacher? Luckily, I came across a degree course at Trinity College, Dublin in which you studied education as well as music, with the aim of becoming a music teacher in a secondary school. The course allowed me to study a lot of performance modules. You were also twinned with one of the conservatoires, so this meant I was able to keep my options open. I could still train to be a teacher, but at the same time train to be a singer. It was Mairead Hurley, Head of Vocal at the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama, who I really have to thank for pushing me towards the singing route. She saw something in me; she told me that I had the potential to become a professional singer, and suggested I stay on and do a master’s degree, which is what I did. I did it part time over two years, and for the first time I really absorbed myself in opera.

OW: What were your first professional experiences?

KM: I finished my masters in 2017, and decided to jump in at the deep end, and joined the Gilbert and Sullivan Company in the UK. It was the first professional engagement I had as a singer, and it was a great opportunity. I learned so much, and I absolutely loved it. It was the best thing I could have done! It made me realize what I could do, and that I could earn a living doing it, whilst having a great time. It was tough, but it taught me so much. We did four opera’s, a different one every night, sometimes two shows per day, over a four-week period. We performed at the G & S Festival in Harrogate as well as other theaters around England, including the Buxton Opera House, which was great.

OW: So did things move smoothly from then onwards? 

KM: Not at all! I came back to Ireland and found myself in a state of limbo for 18 months. After the contract I had in the UK, I assumed everything would start to move forward quickly, but in fact it didn’t work out like that. I did a bit of teaching to make money, but I couldn’t find any singing positions. I was 24 at the time, and my sister told me to give it another year. Meanwhile, I worked on material, and did a couple of courses, including one in Weimar in 2018, which was really tough, but it was what I needed. You had to be fully committed. You worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week for a month. It was so intense, but it really taught me what the job was all about. Also, I received a lot of advice from my sister. I’m really lucky to have her because she knows exactly what needs to be done and how to do it. If I ever have a problem, I go to her, and she always has the answer.

Then in 2019, everything started to change, and I got my first actual role. It was a chamber music performance by Opera Collective Ireland of Telemann’s comic opera “Pimpinone,” in which I played the role of Vespetta, conducted by Peter Whelan.

OW: You also performed at the Wexford Festival Opera in 2019. It must have been a very emotional experience, being that you live on its doorstep?

KM: At the time, it felt like a dream. I always remembered doing an audition for Wexford while still at college, and thinking, will I really ever be able to sing there? And there I was in 2019. I was cast in the small role of La Fée in “Cendrillon” by Pauline Viardot and in the chorus for Massenet’s “Don Quichotte.” It was not too demanding, and so I had plenty of time to really focus on what I was doing. I enjoyed every minute.

Also, being from Wexford, obviously made it something special. All my friends and relatives came to watch me, which was fantastic. I think I had someone there at every performance, And on the last performance I think they took up about three rows. My niece, who was four at the time, came to one performance. My brother wasn’t going to bring her, but I insisted and she loved it. I remember her sitting there, her little head popping up and looking at me. She was mesmerized! At the end, she came up on stage and tried on the shoes and other things. It was a special moment.

I also won two awards at the festival, which was great. In fact, 2019 was a very good year for me. My career seemed to be taking off and doors were opening, then covid struck, and closed everything down.

OW: Covid may have closed the theaters, but thanks to Irish National Opera’s imaginative reaction to the situation, you were actually provided with new opportunities through the creation of filmed versions of new operas. How different was it from performing live on stage? 

KM: It’s a very, very different experience from performing on the stage. At the time I was on INO’s ABL Aviation Opera Studio Program, and Fergus Sheil, the artistic director, came up with the idea of performing 20 short operas. I remember that we all thought that this was very ambitious, but we were all wrong. They worked brilliantly. I was cast as the scientist in “Ghost Apples” by Irene Buckley. We were all allocated a set amount of time in which we had to get it done. We recorded the audio first and then mimed the role for the film. It felt like I was making a pop video.

Not having an audience in front of you when you are performing is very strange. When you step onto the stage, it is as if a switch is turned on, and you get this extra 10%, but it doesn’t happen in front of a camera, at least not for me. You then try to overcompensate, and so it becomes very difficult to get the right balance. Also, when performing on stage, there is a lot of emotion in the voice, but when you’re miming to a recording, the emotion is very different, which makes it doubly difficult.

One thing I found very humbling about “20 Shots of Opera” was that all the singers were given equal treatment, whether they were relatively new, like myself, or already established.

The second filmed opera I made was called “A Thing I Cannot Name” by Amanda Feery, which lasted about 20 minutes, which originally was meant to be a full-length opera, but thanks to covid it had to be altered. The character I played was very different from anything I had played in the past. She was a woman with gritty, raw emotions, and I found it to be a very daunting, but very positive, experience. There are three girls in the opera and they actually never interact with each other, so we were never filmed together, although we did meet each other for long discussions about our characters.

OW: Has your experience of performing for the camera altered your approach to the way you tackle a staged performance?

KM: They are two very different things. With film, your performance is divided into two parts: recording the voice is one part, but then you have to work with the director on how you will mime it on film, which is obviously different from performing on a stage. Also, when you are on stage, the audience is some distance away from you, whereas when you’re filming, you have a camera stuck in your face, which was a completely new experience for me. There is nowhere to hide; you have to be very honest in what you’re doing. On the other hand, filming allows you to assess yourself. You can listen back to your performance and critique your performance. One thing I would like to say is that although this was an interesting experience, I think we would all prefer performing on stage.

OW: Earlier this year, you performed Amore in “Orfeo ed Euridice” at the Blackwater Valley Opera Festival in Lismore. How was this experience?

KM: It is one of the most enjoyable contracts I have had, and part of this is because of its location; you’re thrown together with all the other people involved in the festival in a very beautiful, cut-off area in rural Ireland.

David Bolger, the director, managed everything brilliantly. He brought together the soloists, the BVOF chorus and the Cois Céim Dance Theatre Group for a wonderful production. Peter Whelan conducted the Irish Baroque Orchestra, who were just phenomenal. Their playing was so good that it was as if there was a new character in the opera. The different timbres created layers of emotion from the orchestra. I love working with Peter. He makes you feel so relaxed. He creates a calm but exciting atmosphere which puts you at your ease. I can’t speak highly enough of him.

I played Amore. The opera is really about Orfeo, and Amore is only a relatively small role. Yet, sometimes it’s more tricky doing a small role, as you have less time on stage to create an impact. Being a God-like creature, there are many different ways you can portray Amore, which I discussed with David at length. In our interpretation, she was like a puppet master, who sets events in motion. She was also an ambiguous character: is she a nasty or a good character? Is she playing with Orfeo for her own personal amusement and personal gain? In the end, we decided she wasn’t all bad, as she did want people to be loved. So I played her as a playful character with a cheeky, even creepy, side. Certainly the costume gave that impression. It was also a little creepy, while at the same time being fabulously attractive. Again, there was ambiguity here.

The outside area used for the staging is perfect for opera because you could hear the birds singing, and the changing light provided a different ambience for each of the three acts. Even the little rain that fell gave the performances a different quality.

The audience absolutely loved it, which was great because when they originally announced the title of the opera, I did hear a few people questioning whether or not it would be suitable for the festival, as normally it presents comedy, buffo-type productions. I think people were surprised by how much they actually liked it.

OW: You have also performed for Opera Collective Ireland on a couple of occasions, and you are about to start a short run performance of Handel’s “Semele” at the Kilkenny Arts’ Festival and in Dublin. Can you tell us about the company and about how you intend to approach the role?

KM: Opera Collective Ireland was set up by Colette McGahon in 2011 as a way of giving young Irish singers an opportunity to perform in fully stage productions in front of live audiences. They do two productions a year, one large scale, one smaller. I have done a few performances with them. There was the “PimpInone” in 2019, and later the same year I also did “Vagabones” by the Irish composer Raymond Deane, which was my first experience in singing in a contemporary opera. I also recently played Duchess/Bottle in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Will Todd, but unfortunately we only had one performance, as the others were cancelled due to covid.

“Semele” was meant to happen in 2020, but was postponed, also because of covid. Then it was rescheduled for 2021, but was cancelled again, so we’re doing it this year.

I have already started studying for the opera and it looks very intense, with lots of layers to it. It’s very much on the edge of what was happening at the time. At the moment, I’m getting to know Semele, and how she relates to the other characters in the opera. I find her to be quite a vain woman, but also one who is unsure of herself. She gets quite mad at Jupiter and keeps pushing and pushing; she is always demanding more and more. Musically, the part has lots of coloratura, which looks quite challenging. At the moment, I don’t know anything about the design of the production or what the director has in mind. There was a lot of humour in the piece which is often hidden, and needs to be brought out, and so I’m very intrigued as to how we’re going to put it all together. The tenor Andrew Gavin will be playing Jupiter, and he is perfect for the role. He has such a lovely voice.

OW: You will be playing Norina in INO’s production of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” this December. What are your initial thoughts on playing the part?

KM: Norina is definitely on my bucket list of must-do roles, so I’m absolutely delighted to have this opportunity. It’s an opera with great characters, it is totally over-the-top and so much fun, I just can’t wait to start. Even though the characters are so ridiculous in their behavior, you can relate to them because they are all so human. And the music is beautiful, it’s infectious, you can’t help but sing along. Vocally, the role is an absolute dream, it fits my voice perfectly.

OW: What are your medium and longer-term aims?

KM: With the exception of my initial stint with the Gilbert and Sullivan company in the UK, all my work up to this point has been in Ireland, and while I do love performing here, I need to establish myself internationally. So I’ll be pushing for that.

I am looking to do competitions across Europe as a way of increasing my profile. I recently took part in the BA Lirica International competition in Busto Arsizio, near Milan. It was the first time I have taken part in an international competition, and I was very pleased with how it went as I managed to get to the final. It’s not so much about winning the competition, although that would be nice. It’s more about getting your name recognized; maybe someone will hear you, and you will be offered a contract

At the moment, I haven’t been approached by an agent, nor have I applied to any agencies. This is something I need to do, but first I must add to my CV. The problem is that to improve your CV, you need an agent. It’s a circular problem.

As to my future repertoire, I am still open-minded. I have a light voice and, to an extent, this determines the sort of works I can sing. There are many baroque roles which suit my voice, and there are some Donizetti roles I would like to perform, and I enjoy doing contemporary  opera, but I have no fixed ideas at the moment.


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