MARY Hegarty, who has had a successful career on the international stage as an operatic soprano for 30 years based in London, is now enjoying the second act of her career.
Back in her native Cork, she is lecturing at the CIT Cork School of Music as well as enjoying new musical partnerships on the local jazz scene. She has performed at the Jazz Festival. And now, for the first time, she will be singing Christmas classics with a big band under the direction of her husband, John O’Connor at the Everyman on December 17.
At the upcoming Christmas concert, Mary will be performing duets with operatic baritone Joe Corbett, singing hits such as True Love, Silver Bells and the now controversial Baby, It’s Cold Outside.
John, who was head of wind instruments at CIT Cork School of Music for 18 years, is now head of jazz, pop, trad, voice and drama studies there.
The couple, who got married seven years ago, having both been married previously, are delightful company, bantering and joking in his office overlooking the river.
John says: “Of course we have artistic differences. We both have opinions on how to do certain things. It’s through argument that you often come to a compromise and to the right answer. It’s great that we can do that.”
As Mary says: “You have to go through that process to get the final result that we’re both happy with.”
The couple have similar tastes in music, liking most genres, although Mary isn’t as keen on pop music as her husband. How did they meet?
“We knew each other for years,” says Mary. John recalls that it was with the Cork Pops Orchestra in the ’90s that they first shared a stage together.
“I would have been playing in the orchestra and Mary would have been singing. It was the Lord Mayor’s 50th gala concert in 2010 when we got together.”
Did they always fancy one another?
“I couldn’t take my eyes off her!” says John, laughing, while Mary says she needed to be persuaded.
“Mary was this gorgeously turned out red-haired sparkly thing. I always had an eye out for somebody like that and when I got to know her, it was her personality (that clinched it).”
Is marriage better the second time around?
“It’s fantastic the second time around,” says John, who has four grown up children from his first marriage.
“That’s not to say it wasn’t fantastic the first time either. It’s a totally different experience. We both got married when we were quite young the first time around. There were the pressures of a young family and a mortgage and all that kind of thing which can be difficult.”
Mary, who doesn’t have children, says “you get to a certain age and we all arrive with a bit of baggage.” She seems happy and comfortable with the way her life has gone.
“I love teaching,” she says. “It makes you question things. And it’s fascinating watching how some of the students develop. There’s a lot of talent coming through the system here such as Molly Lynch.”
John says that the theatre schools “are very strong in Cork”. He mentions the Montforts, the Cork Arts Studio, CADA , the Aileen Coffey Academy, the Wolfe Stage School and Irene Warren’s stage school.
“All the people who run them were in the profession, working in London and then coming back. It’s where our musical theatre students come from. They’re very well trained.”
John initially wanted to be a doctor.
“I failed to achieve that pinnacle. At the time, I was becoming a more serious musician.”
There was always music at home and John’s brother, Cormac, is a talented contemporary composer.
“My father loved more than anything else Gilbert & Sullivan and was in a G&S Society. I won’t say it was inflicted on us but it was part of the ambience of home. I came to love it. And my mother brought me to symphony orchestras and things like The Dubliners at Cork Opera House. She gave me all sorts of musical experiences. I thought it was normal and a little annoying. I didn’t realise what she was doing was above and beyond (her role.) It was very formative for me and I really appreciate now that she did it.”
John’s parents were very supportive when he decided to pursue music as a career.
Mary comes from a strong musical background. Her father taught piano and organ at the then Cork School of Music. Her mother used to play the violin.
“There was always music at home,” recalls Mary.
“Dad accompanied me all the time. I was spoilt rotten. I had someone to rehearse with 24/7 at home if I needed it.”
John points out that he and Mary have much in common with each other.
“Mary had a family pop band (Double Unit) when she was young. She spent a long time working at that.
“I had a long freelance career playing with function bands, doing commercial music. On top of that, Mary and I both have classical training.” When John and Mary were beginning to develop their careers in the 1980s, many of their contemporaries — including Mary — had to leave Cork as there was no work in the city.
“Out of my college class, only myself and the very talented Anne Dunphy (a teacher and chorister) stayed in Cork. I was able to sustain a freelance career. It was tricky enough but I was able to do different things. I was a qualified teacher. I taught classical music and I was also into pop and jazz music so I could scrape by.”
Would John recommend the musical life?
“It’s a difficult career. It’s a fantastic hobby. Mary and I have been lucky.
“You’ve got to work hard and be talented. But you also need luck.”
John hopes that his son, Hughie, the only one of his children to pursue music as a career, will also have luck. He is studying for a degree in pop music at CIT Cork School of Music.
“He’s off recording Other Voices in Dingle. He thinks he’s a rock star!”
The Everyman concert promises to be an enchanting festive occasion. But Mary doesn’t understand the fuss that has been made out of the song Baby, It’s Cold Outside. The #MeToo movement has deemed it problematic with the accusation that the woman in the song saying ‘no’ is really interpreted as saying ‘maybe’ or ‘yes’ to staying the night with the man.
“I love it. I don’t know what the problem is. The woman is saying she’ll just stay a little longer while the man is just saying that it’s cold outside. Can people not just enjoy it? Myself and Joe have great sport with it. I performed it once at another concert with Ciaran Bermingham and we reversed it. I was the ‘predator’. There were no complaints about that.”
John points out that the song was written by Frank Loesser for himself and his wife to sing.
“They often reversed it, apparently. It was their party piece. Obviously you can see where the objections come from. But you have to see it historically. I think the cigarette references are worse.”
And maybe John has a point. As Mary points out, if one was to question the lyrics of every song, including opera, without taking the time and context into account, nothing would get performed.
The couple are looking forward to spending Christmas in New York with John’s two youngest children, Hughie and Saoirse. They are going to see The Nutcracker ballet at the Lincoln Centre. It doesn’t get more traditionally Christmassy than that.
Big Band Christmas runs at The Everyman on December 17 at 7.30pm. Tickets €27 from www.everymancork.com