Feeling like myself again — for the first time in years

Ahead of her concert, for Cork Orchestral Society's 80th anniversary, soprano Majella Cullagh talks to COLETTE SHERIDAN about grieving for her father, piling on five stone in two years, and how she’s found fun in teaching
Feeling like myself again — for the first time in years
Soprano Majella Cullagh.Picture Denis Minihane.

INTERNATIONALLY acclaimed soprano, Majella Cullagh, says she has finally come out of a limbo-like state which made her unable to grieve for her beloved father, who died five years ago.

Majella, who will sing at the Cork Orchestral Society’s 80th anniversary season’s opening gala concert at CIT Cork School of Music on September 27, says her friends were worried about her.

“It was a strange thing. I couldn’t grieve dad’s death. I was walking around as if nothing had happened. I was worried about myself. I knew I had to grieve but it was like my body was protecting me.

“Instead of grieving, I put up a whole load of weight. And the weird thing is, I recently had another death. My best friend, Dinny, passed away in May. His legacy is that him dying made me able to grieve. So now, I’m grieving dad.

“On the one hand, it’s horrible. I’m feeling all the pain. It’s like a tidal wave of emotion. On the other hand, it’s great. For the first time in five years, I’m feeling like me.”

Raised in Blackpool, Majella, an only child, lost her mother in 1992.

“I adored my parents. It’s hard being the only one left. It’s a combination of being unmarried and childless. I never created my own family. So the loss of my parents is immense. But I have children in my life. I’m a godmother five times over. The godchildren are aged from 30 to three. I hold them very dear. I am blessed.”

While the last five years were emotionally arid, Majella says that good things happened during that time.

“I had some amazing concerts, singing in Switzerland and Barcelona. Also, I started teaching with the Montforts. A lot of my own area of expertise is irrelevant there. For the most part, I’m not teaching classical singing.

“I was in a bad place before I started there. I didn’t need any stress or pressure. Instead, I entered an area that is fun — and I needed fun. And I found a kind of family with the Montforts. Eileen Nolan (founder of the Montforts) is a legend and there’s Trevor Ryan (who runs the performance company.) It’s like a little musical theatre family. They welcomed me with open arms and minded me. So it’s good craic and also really comforting.”

Soprano Majella Cullagh.Picture Denis Minihane.
Soprano Majella Cullagh.Picture Denis Minihane.

Majella, who has been performing as a soprano for 25 years, started her career as a dental nurse: “I was just going with the flow. Everything happened organically. I joined choirs and unbeknownst to myself, I was actually networking. Then I started taking singing lessons in the Cork School of Music. Singing was my hobby and also, my passion.

“I got more and more opportunities and started doing amateur drama, and singing with the Cork Operatic Society, Blarney Choral Society and Kinsale Opera. I was really learning my craft. I was working with people such as James N Healy and Dave McInerney, who’d been treading the boards for decades. I was learning by osmosis.”

Majella’s singing teacher, Maeve Coughlan, felt her student had a good enough natural instrument and the musicality to become a professional singer.

“She sent me off to London for the experience of auditioning. Much to the surprise of both of us, I got into the National Opera Studio in London. It was mega because they only take on three sopranos a year. After I left them, I had 18 months of work.

“I had always been singing with the hair brush. I just wanted to sing. I loved all music. I could have been pulled in any direction. I love traditional music. I used to sing Abba songs, Mary Black songs, Barbra Streisand songs and Madonna songs.

“When I was 14, I was singing with a band in the Brandon Hotel when my parents were approached by a manager of a quite successful band. He wanted me to sing with his all-male band. But my parents said they wanted me to stay at school. I didn’t know about this for years. I was furious when I found out!”

The Cork Orchestral Society gala concert happens in the middle of the rehearsal period of John O’Brien’s opera, The Nightingale and the Rose, in which Majella will be singing. She is also in contact with her agent in Italy.

“My Italian agent has been waiting for me to say when I’m ready to perform (in Italy) again. I just need to get myself back in shape. When you’re singing in a production, you have to kind of disappear behind the character. If you’re too thin or fat, it’s like you’re interfering with your role. You can’t just disappear. Now I’m starting to feel more like myself with the circle of grief closing, I can live again. Putting on weight was my way of coping. It wasn’t alcohol or shopping. I put up five stone in two years. I gave myself permission to do that because I knew that I was either going to be lying on the ground or functioning and eating cake. I chose the latter.”

Soprano Majella Cullagh.Picture Denis Minihane.
Soprano Majella Cullagh.Picture Denis Minihane.

Majella has now started exercising, doing a lot of walking. She spent the summer in Camp in County Kerry where her father more or less lived after his retirement from the North Cathedral Credit Union.

She has also allowed her hair to go white: “Like my mother and grandmother, I’ve had white hair since I was 25. The advice from my hairdresser is to go natural.”

It sounds like Majella is having a whole new lease of life.

For tickets and more on the Cork Orchestral Society’s programme see www.corkorchestralsociety.ie

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