Cork soprano: It’s a dream to get this role early in my career

A 28-year-old Cork woman has landed her dream role in an Irish National Opera Tour. COLETTE SHERIDAN catches up with Niamh O’Sullivan, to talk about performing at opera houses all over Europe
Cork soprano: It’s a dream to get this role early in my career

Niamh O’Sullivan opera singer from Cork.

CORK-BORN soprano Niamh O’Sullivan will sing her “dream role” in the Irish National Opera tour of Werther, which will be at the Everyman on May 6.

Directed by the Everyman’s Sophie Motley, Niamh is playing Charlotte, a young woman torn between duty and love. Loosely based on Goethe’s novel of painful and suppressed love, it’s about a poet, Werther, who is in love with Charlotte.

“She is after falling in love with Werther but she has made a promise to her mother (who is dead) to marry a man called Albert,” says Niamh. (Werther and Albert are friends.)

“I don’t think Charlotte is in love with Albert. Really, the opera is about Werther’s extreme response to unrequited love. He pours his heart out to her because he is a poet.

“The first time he meets Charlotte, he reads a poem to her about how he can see the stars in her eyes. He is this romantic guy who will fight to get Charlotte. But he doesn’t in the end. Charlotte is completely in love with him. I feel she knows halfway through the opera that he could do something bad. That’s when she realises she has to go to him – but by then, it’s too late.”

Niamh recalls studying Charlotte’s arias when she was a student with the late Veronica Dunne at the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM).

“Veronica always said that Charlotte was definitely my role. Vocally, the French repertoire suits me. It’s a dream to get this role so early in my career.”

For this production, the opera is set in 1950s rural Ireland when electrification was being introduced. As Niamh points out, Charlotte, who is rearing her siblings, has a hard life. But the introduction of washing machines and dryers makes things easier for her. However, Charlotte’s emotional life is complicated.

Soprano Niamh O’Sullivan
Soprano Niamh O’Sullivan

While 28-year-old Niamh has a successful career that sees her performing at opera houses all over Europe, it has been difficult at times for the former pupil of Regina Mundi College. She was only 21when she started working at the Bavarian State Opera, one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world.

Niamh was doing a competition at the RIAM. One of the jury members, the head of the opera studio at the Bavarian State Opera, said they were looking for her type of voice.

“I was asked to audition in Germany. I was only halfway through my degree but I said I’d do the audition, thinking I didn’t have a chance. I got the job and moved over four months later.

“It was huge for me. I had no German. I’m a home bird. I had to uproot my life. I’m still based in Munich, living out of a suitcase basically for the last 12 months and for the next 12 months.”

Looking back, Niamh says the first year “was awful”.

“It was really difficult both vocally and mentally. And they’re tied in together. If you’re feeling not well mentally, it affects the voice. When you’re working on an opera, it’s not like you’re studying. You’re thrown into the production and you have to do what is asked of you.”

Niamh says that period was one of confusion with “a lot of different opinions” about what she should do.

“I didn’t know what to do with my voice or how to manage my head. I was losing my voice a lot in my first year because of stress. I managed a lot better in the second year. But I was still very young and if I was to go back, I probably wouldn’t have gone away until I was 25. But it was the most amazing learning curve, to be thrown straight into the deep end. I don’t regret it.”

Visits to the ear, nose and throat doctor were frequent for Niamh in her first year abroad.

“He would look at my vocal chords. One time he said to me that my chords looked like The Rocky Horror Show. They were red raw. He said it was all from stress. So he would ring the opera house and say I couldn’t perform and they’d have to accept that. There’s always someone waiting to jump into your place. That’s the thing about this career; you’re never missed.

“But fortunately, I didn’t have to cancel many performances. However, I often felt unwell and I just went ahead working. But mentally, I was not really secure.

“In Ireland, we’re quite laidback. I was with singers from Russia and Italy. They’re much more able, singing from a much younger age than us. I felt a little bit out of my depth but I survived it.”

Niamh is now 90% fluent in German and has a working knowledge of the other languages she sings in. She lives in an apartment in Munich, but has to travel a lot. She is doing Das Rheingold in Covent Garden in July, Carmen in Zurich this year as well as Madama Butterfly in Germany this year.

“For me, living out of a suitcase is the hardest part. Every time I step outside my door with my suitcase, I cry. It’s like a reality check. ‘Is this what I really want to do?’ I ask myself.

“But you know, it’s always worth it in the end once you have good rehearsals and a good performance. But the travelling aspect is definitely the hardest thing.

“Usually, I’d be away for six to nine weeks for an opera production. I try to get an Airbnb when I travel.”

Niamh admits that because her life is so “hectic”, she is not good at keeping in touch with people.

“You’re with the same people for six weeks on a production. You build really strong friendships. But then, you’re gone from them.

“Sometimes, you’ll find the odd person that you’ll stay in contact with. But it’s really difficult to have a big support group.”

Having been in a relationship until last year, Niamh says it was difficult to keep it going with all the travelling.

“My ex-partner and I are still very close. He’s a lot older than me. He was really able to understand why it wasn’t working. We made a mutual decision to split up. But we’re still pals.”

Niamh says her calendar is full until 2025, with a few gaps in between.

“Opera houses plan productions five years in advance. But opera singing can be unpredictable. I’ve been lucky to have found a good agent.”

How does she keep her voice sounding good?

“Lots of sleep and water and not too much talking.”

Niamh isn’t just an opera fan. She started doing musical theatre with Mary Hegarty as well as with the Montforts.

“Musical theatre still has a place in my heart. I go to musicals if I’m in London. I also like jazz. I love singing everything.”

Niamh started doing drama classes at primary school. Drama teacher Shirley McCarthy taught her after school hours.

“That kind of gave me the buzz for performance. She suggested I go to a stage school. So I ended up doing a musical every year with the Montforts.”

Clearly, it was good training for what has turned out to be a stellar career.

Irish National Opera brings to The Everyman a production of Werther by Jules Massenet, performed in a new orchestration by Richard Peirson, on Saturday May 6. Tickets at

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