Who inspired you to pursue a career in music and who has been the most influential to your musical life and career?
I have been lucky enough to have had many wonderful people that guided me on my way, and they’re all valuable and they have all been a source of inspiration, but let’s begin with the greats… Mirella Freni, Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti, I know it sounds like a cliché, but these are the opera singers I first became familiar with, not knowing anything about opera or classical music, and I would say that those greats were the reason that I found a passion in music. On a more personal note, my teachers, the late Dr Veronica Dunne and Christa Ludwig, both inspired me and were huge influences in my life, because although I had a talent – to sing – I suppose they are the ones that gave me the confidence and trained me to do what I’m doing now. Also José Carreras has been a great adviser and friend, and he has influenced a lot of my decisions with regard to repertoire choices.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Well, there have been many challenges. I would have to say that the biggest gift that I ever learned was to be gracious in defeat, because there were a lot of ‘no’s’ on the way, but at the same time you can’t base your career on everyone’s opinion, because if you did that you wouldn’t be able to dust yourself off and get back up again. So, for example, if the audition doesn’t work out, for whatever reason, leave it behind and move forward, and with regards to mental health, just keep positive, keep going and follow your dreams.
It goes without saying that the greatest challenge of my career so far has been not being able to perform during the pandemic. Two years of not being able to work – we were the first ones to lose our jobs and the last ones to go back to work. I lost my livelihood, I lost my passion, I lost my outlet for expression. I also lost my way of living, financially and emotionally, and that was hard because it’s really difficult in times like that to try and keep positive, but I did. You have to find a way to move forward, even through the tough times. So I’d say that the pandemic was the greatest challenge to date, but thankfully I was lucky that I was able to do things and keep going – not everybody was, and I’m very mindful of that.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I would say my recent recording of La Bohème with Irish National Opera I’m most proud of. I made my opera debut singing the role of Mimì in 2010. It was the last role that I performed before the pandemic which was in Hamburg Staatsoper, and it is the first role I sung when restrictions came in, with Irish National Opera, with whom I also made a recording. The performance I’m most proud of, I’d have to say is Marie/Marietta in Die tote Stadt by Korngold. It’s a very demanding role both physically and vocally, and I’m very proud of it because of these challenges.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
That’s easy – Puccini. I am a ‘Puccini girl’!. I love singing Puccini roles. I am a lyric soprano and singing in the verismo style really sits well with my voice. I am a very emotionally charged person and Puccini allows me to embody these wonderful roles and express every emotion they are feeling through every note. He wrote so beautifully for the female voice, (he loved the female voice), but also the orchestration drives these emotions in such a way that you cannot be unaffected by his writing. I have the luxury of performing such roles and enjoy performing them. I have sung, to date, Madame Butterfly, Magda in La rondine, Mimì, Liù, Turandot, and Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi. I just love all these Puccini roles. I most recently performed the role of Liù in Oper Steinbruck in Austria, and I’m going to sing the title role of Madame Butterfly this summer at Bregenz Festival. I was due to sing Liù in Covent Garden, but because of the pandemic, sadly it was postponed.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I’m inspired by the people around me. I love meeting new people, talking to people, and getting to know them. I love working with people, and meeting up with friends. I home in on their stories when I’m performing and draw from them, portraying convincing characters. I’m part of a drama group – the Gaiety School of Acting – and that’s very important because that inspires me to be a better performer. The days are gone when you just had to stand on stage and sing, now you have to be a great actor and a great singer and look good as well.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
If there’s a role that I want to do or debut I will discuss it with my agent. For that to turn into a contract, my agent will contact the theatre to present me or sometimes the opera house will get in touch with my agent and present it to me, and then the repertoire choice is actually a case of where I am and where I’m going. If the role is too big then I have to decline; that has only happened once when I was offered La Gioconda, I turned it down because it is too big for me at that moment. Maybe one day though! I don’t want to strain my voice. I’m still young, and I want to be careful that I don’t develop a big vibrato by singing roles that I’m not ready for yet. I always seek advice – I’m blessed to have many friends in the music world. I have a good mentor in Jack Mastrionani and my agent Deborah Sanders and sometimes I will ask José Carreras, who has been a very good friend – he’s excellent with advice.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
There’s no place like home, and so my favourite concert venue would have to be the National Concert Hall in Dublin – I love performing at home. When I started out singing, it was the National Concert Hall and the national orchestras that gave me the opportunities to perform for the first time. I travel a lot, performing opera and concerts all over the world, so it’s a pleasure to be able to come home and perform in front of a home audience. Of course there are some concert venues that stand out, namely Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall, so to sing at those wonderful renowned concert venues is amazing.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?
I do feel that classical music is growing, and during the pandemic people lost out on live music and now want it back in their lives. The days are gone when people saw opera as elitist; people are getting to know opera and classical music through organisations and opera companies that put on short snippets, or opera scenes, like young artist programmes and things like that. And of course you’ve got the Regietheater in Germany that keeps people interested through the way they interpret the operas. So I do think the world is changing a little bit – slowly, but we’re getting there.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I’ve been lucky enough to perform in a lot of great concert venues, but the most memorable was the very first concert I did with José Carreras, who by then had become a great friend, to an audience of 16,000 people. Also performing with him for the King and Queen of Thailand, and with Andrea Boccelli for the Pope, were among many highlights.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Even though I have goals – like one day I want to sing at The Met – I’ve been very privileged to sing at some of the most wonderful opera houses around the world: Hamburg, Bregenz, Covent Garden many times, Leipzig, Dusseldorf…but I would say the definition of success is not where I’ve sung, but it’s actually having a successful balanced life. I have a lovely supportive family, three wonderful children, I have a good career, I love my job, I love what I do, and I’m very lucky to be able to do a job that I love whilst reserving time for family too. So my definition of success is having a wonderful balance between work and family – and I’m lucky enough to have that.
What advice would you give to a young aspiring singer?
Look after your mental health. You are going to get knocks on the way, there will be auditions that don’t go your way, there are things that will go wrong. You have to be able to rise above it and move on. When one door closes, another opens. You have to be optimistic, you have to really look after your mental health, it’s so important. It’s a tough industry and you have to be ready for it – you have to be a tough cookie, as Ronnie Dunne used to say to me.
You’ve recently recorded La Bohème with Irish National Opera; tell us more about this project.
It’s very important to highlight that this was recorded during the pandemic, when everyone had to socially distance. Having recorded a few times beforehand, it felt very strange, and normally I would hear the orchestra live, but I had to hear it through monitors. I couldn’t hear the woodwind because of social distancing – it was challenging at times. The conductor had a lot of weight on his shoulders, as did the producer and recording engineer, they had a lot to deal with but they were amazing. I’m sure it was difficult for them as it was for us, but it was also a very fulfilling time, because it was during the pandemic and we were lucky enough to be able to work – just to get to sing was an absolute thrill! There was such joy in the experience, and we had a wonderful conductor, Sergio Alapont, and Rodolfo was Merūnas Vitulskis who I’d sung with before in Germany where he was my Pinkerton and I was his Butterfly. Also Anna Devin, who’s a friend of mine, made her debut as Musetta. It was wonderful to be around people having been isolated for so long. And the orchestra were fantastic – even though it was a very challenging project, it was a very rewarding one and it sounds fab!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Quite simply, to lead a peaceful life.
What is your most treasured possession?
I have two very treasured possessions. The first is the first opera score that José Carreras bought when he sang the role of Don José in Carmen. He gave it to me when I was learning the role of Micaëla, and he signed it! Also my Maria Callas Gold medal for winning the Maria Callas Grand-Prix in Athens, along with my other awards which I’m very proud of. But my most treasured possession was more recently acquired, and has nothing to do with music. Two years ago, my father pulled a Christmas cracker with me, and inside was a green daisy plastic ring, and I wore it on my baby finger. To me that is an extremely treasured possession, and I value it more than the diamonds I wear alongside it, because my Dad passed away during the pandemic, and that was the last thing he gave me.
Irish lyric soprano Celine Byrne sings Mimì in a new recording of Puccini’s La bohème with Irish National Opera, released on 25th March 2022 on Signum Classics
Celine Byrne is a lyric soprano from Kildare, Ireland. She received her Masters in Music from the Royal Irish Academy of Music in 2007, where she studied with Dr. Veronica Dunne, also receiving the RIAM award for outstanding achievement. In addition she has an honours Music Degree from the Conservatory of Music and Drama, Dublin, where she was awarded the college Gold Medal for excellence. She has received coaching at the National Opera Studio of London and has studied with Christa Ludwig at the Vienna Staatsoper.