Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Simply divine diva: Irish opera star Celine Byrne

Irish opera star Celine Byrne tells Una Brankin about why her faith plays such a big role in her life

Centre stage: opera singer Celine Byrne will sing alongside Jose Carreras in Belfast

Celine Byrne is offering to pose naked on her hotel bed for photographer David Fitzgerald, famous for his spectacular 'Flying Orangeman' shot from the summer parades riots.

With her smooth olive skin and curves in all the right places, it would make another eye-popping picture for the 23-year-old freelancer, but unfortunately for him the sassy soprano isn't serious. They go up to the roof of the Europa instead and brave the high winds, chatting about the superstar DJ Calvin Harris and his gig that Celine's attending with her teenage son Noel.

It's not the type of event where you might expect to see Ireland's leading opera singer, but Celine Byrne is full of surprises. For all her earthy humour, she is a religious Pioneer (teetotaller), who helps with the sick at Lourdes twice a year and makes regular pilgrimages to Medjugorje in western Bosnia and Herzegovina, where six local children have reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary since June 24, 1981.

Ms Byrne isn't among the percentage of the 30 million pilgrims to Medjugorje since 1981 who have reported visual phenomena such as the sun spinning in the sky or changing colour, or figures such as hearts and crosses appearing around it.

"Mary appeared to those five children – I don't have to see to believe," she says in a warm Kildare brogue. "I'm wary about talking about my Catholicism in Belfast but my faith is very important to me. My life changed through divine intervention and I firmly believe that my singing gift is God-given."

She's in town to promote her appearance with legendary Spanish tenor Jose Carreras at the opening concert of the 2013 Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's next month. Over tea in the Europa's bright upstairs lounge, the sunlight glints off the thirtysomething's tiny diamond nose-stud and the bigger (real) ones in her ears. She's stylish in a draped Libra Designs dress – "it hides the tummy" – and she is an entertaining conversationalist, being indiscreet about a certain well-known singer.

Ms Byrne discovered opera in Milan while working as an au pair and was immediately hooked. The venue was none other than La Scala, one of the world's most prestigious opera houses, which opened in 1778 with a now forgotten composition by Antonio Salieri, Mozart's bitterly envious rival in Vienna. From a sporty family with no classical musical leanings, Ms Byrne admits she had no idea about Mozart or what opera was until that evening.

"I don't even know which opera it was but I knew immediately I wanted to sing like that. I knew I could sing, but not like that. From that moment on I knew that was the way I could express myself. And I always listen carefully to my intuition. Good things have happened to me as a result."

She proceeds with a burst of intuition that stops me in my tracks. I'm busy scribbling down notes when, out of the blue, she asks me directly if I have a certain (invisible) affliction. She is so inexplicably spot-on I wonder, astonished, if she is psychic.

"No, but I am very intuitive," she smiles. "I do get a feeling about things. That's why I moved to the seat beside you (from the seat opposite). My conscience, for me, is God, so I never ignore it.

"I'm a firm believer in karma and divine providence. I made my debut because someone was sick, and last year when I had a chest infection, somebody else made hers. I was glad for her."

Home is near Naas in Co Kildare – Christy Moore country. Ms Byrne has three children, Noël (16), Ciana (11) and Cillian (7) by her husband, fitter/engineer Tom Deans, who was her first kiss at 14. They hooked up again when she returned from her au pair stint in Milan at 18 and eventually settled in her hometown of Carragh.

With Tom and her family's support, she decided to pursue her singing career and enrolled at the Music Department of the Dublin Institute of Technology. While studying, she won several awards at various festivals and prestigious competitions, which brought her to the attention of the late mezzo, Bernadette Greevy, who took a personal interest in her career and arranged her first public recital in Dublin, in a venue that now houses the Wax Museum.

Realising Ms Byrne's potential, Greevy encouraged her to continue with her studies and gave her small parts in Anna Livia Opera productions. She graduated with an honours degree and went on to study for a Master's Degree at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. This brought her into contact with Veronica Dunne, one of Ireland's best-known singing teachers.

By that stage Cillian was on the way and while Dunne's reaction was "slightly discouraging" she realised the strength of her student's determination. After getting her Master's in 2006, disappointment was to follow. A bout of pneumonia prevented her from winning the important 2007 Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition, but she went on to take first prize at the subsequent Maria Callas International Competition in Athens.

Anyone who has heard Ms Byrne's spellbinding performance of the Vissi d'Arte aria from Puccini's Tosca (available on YouTube), has to rate it up there with that of Callas, even if the legendary American-Greek diva was accused of sometimes being shrill in her interpretation.

"Maria Callas wasn't perfect but she was amazing. She's my idol. No-one interprets like her. She was shrill at times in her career – she had personal tragedy in her life and she lost weight, which affects the voice. Mine certainly wasn't the same when I did. I hadn't the same energy."

Ms Byrne's weight loss occurred when she had keyhole surgery for cervical cancer two years ago. Her best friend had died of the disease at 33. Her own operation was curative but the procedure left her unable to conceive again.

"They got rid of it all with that so I didn't have to have any more treatment but I can't have any more kids," she says calmly. "I'm grateful for my babies but you don't like to hear you can't have any more.

"Cervical cancer is far more common nowadays; I think it's something to do with what's in the food we eat, more than anything."

Rave reviews from all over Europe led to appearances in New York's Carnegie Hall in 2007 and tours of the US and China with the Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra. As someone who believes she has been "following God's providential path", she was thrilled to be invited to sing at the closing ceremonies and Mass of the 2012 International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin's Croke Park. Following in the footsteps of Irish tenor Count John McCormack, she sang Schubert's Ave Maria absolutely beautifully to a live audience of thousands and to millions of television viewers from all over the world.

Unpretentious and frank – the only thing she won't give away is her age – the success obviously hasn't gone to her head. Instead it has brought on some fairly serious lows. Rather than wallowing, she adheres to Winston Churchill's famous advice to fellow depressives: when you're going through hell, walk faster.

"My life is glamourous to a certain degree – you perform live in front of 55,000 people and you're elated, your adrenaline's flying. Then you're alone in your hotel room, with your family back home. It's a tough job but you just get on with it," she says.

"I don't mean it's right to say 'snap out of out' – that's the worst thing you could say to someone with depression. I was at rock bottom with it. I used to get extremely anxious over things. I took Prozac, which helped, but in the end I prayed and prayed my way out."

Her mettle was tested last year when she was the stand-in for the title role in Dvorak's Rusalka at Covent Garden. During one performance in March, Finnish prima donna Camilla Nylund became ill and decided she was unable to continue. Ms Byrne was relaxing in her hotel when the phone rang and she was given 15 minutes to get to the theatre.

By all accounts her reception at the end was tremendous, and she denies Daily Telegraph critic Michael White's claim that she looked "petrified" when she came on stage.

"No it didn't bother me – he just needed an angle for his piece," she scoffs. "I'm never daunted on stage, whether it's in front of half a dozen at home or in front of thousands in Covent Garden. I sing the same for everyone, no matter who it is. I'm there to do a job.

"Yes I only had 15 minutes' notice but I don't panic over things I've had worse crises in my life – I've given birth three times. I get more worked up at Kildare matches. I'm big into GAA and my daughter and son both play. I get very passionate and involved but I can't scream and shout; have to mind my voice. I have to take care of my instrument – my voice and my body – but I don't follow any mad diet. I like my food."

Conscientious, she trains her voice daily and tries to learn something new every day. She's fluent in French, Italian and Irish and is currently learning German. Having languages has helped her career abroad and her continued success internationally has led to tours with the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja and with Carreras, one-third of the phenomenally talented and successful Three Tenors, who had his own experience with cancer.

"He had leukaemia and had all the conventional therapies and treatments, and the thing is they didn't affect his voice. He's blessed. He is a gentleman on stage and off. Handsome too," she says.

As Ireland's foremost soprano, Ms Byrne has performed for world leaders and has been invited to sing at the White House on St Patrick's Day next year.

"I've sung for President Obama before. He's a fine thing, and Michelle is lovely, very elegant. He's nice, charismatic but he's aware of who he is and I don't know if I met the real thing," she says.

"Michael D Higgins is the real thing – he's my president.

"He's a genuine supporter of the arts. Desmond Tutu's lovely too – and the Pope's nice. I didn't get an audience with him but I could see he's got the Holy Spirit oozing out of him."

Much in demand, she lives her life at breakneck speed and feels fortunate to have a stay-at-home husband.

"I'm privileged to be able to work in these times and very lucky that Thomas can stay at home and look after the kids. He's a great man – mind you, I do all the DIY," she says.

"I'm away half the year but I like travelling and I study on the plane. I do make time for Lourdes, though. It's lovely. I go to help out with the invalids. Even if you do one good thing for somebody anywhere, like buying the bread and milk for the person in front of you in the shop – even if they think you're mad – it will make you feel better."

Does she believe there's someone up there looking after her?

"Of course – I believe in angels," she answers without hesitation. "I believe in the archangel Gabriel. It follows that if you believe in God you believe in angels. I believe I have an archangel who looks after me who makes sure I'm being a good girl."

With that she's off to meet Barry Douglas – "handsome and crazy; always on the go" – for coffee. Definitely not for a glass of wine.

"Oh I'd accept a glass of Champagne if it's offered after a show but I won't let it touch my lips. I'm not just a teetotaller – I have taken the Pioneer pledge for life. Being a Pioneer is a conviction."

Her ambition is to keep going in the one direction, and to take on Puccini's Madame Butterfly along the way. Already a hit as Mimi in La Boheme, she leaves me in no doubt at all that she will succeed beautifully.

Jose Carreras and Celine Byrne, the Waterfront Hall, Thursday, October 13. For tickets tel: 028 9033 4455 or go to www.belfastfestival.com

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