Belfast Telegraph

Singing barrister Karl McGuckin on mixing life in showbiz with the 'theatre' of the courtroom

Karl McGuckin is a man of many faces, as a barrister by day and a singer at night, with his leading role in musical Jekyll & Hyde just the latest in a long line of successes

By Ivan Little

He's the lawyer who's holding court in a very different setting. For talented Karl McGuckin leads a double life as a barrister and a bass baritone and he's rated as one of the finest classical singers in Northern Ireland.

And, somewhat appropriately, he's been starring in the schizophrenic role of Jekyll and Hyde in a major musical of that name.

Karl (30) isn't unaccustomed to swapping his legal wig in the High Court for a theatrical one in the Grand Opera House in Belfast.

And that's where he has been employed by the award-winning Belfast Operatic Company, playing the roles of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in what Karl regards as one of his biggest-ever challenges.

He says: "The musical had always been on my wish list as one I wanted to be in. But I didn't think any company here would produce it because it is such a huge and costly undertaking in terms of costumes and the like.

"And while there are only four main characters in the show, we have a brilliant chorus of up to 50 people around us.

"From my perspective it was a marathon, because I'm never off the stage and I have to develop two contrasting speaking voices and two singing voices to fit the two characters I play."

How Karl makes the transition between Jekyll and Hyde is a secret but the clue is in the hair apparently, for the in-demand singer who is from Edendork, near Dungannon, and who has tackled many of the biggest parts in the musical business which he first entered as an amateur after starting off as a folk singer.

But a teacher and a priest both spotted his potential as a classical soloist and Karl, who was a busy sportsman at the time, eventually agreed to take singing lessons from the renowned opera singer Irene Sandford in Belfast after his mother "pushed me out the door".

But it wasn't until he was 16 that Karl really got the musical bug after he auditioned for Youth Opera Northern Ireland and director Tim Rhys Evans - who went on to find nationwide fame with his choir Only Men Aloud - inspired him to "seek out music as a career".

Karl, however, was torn. He moved to Dublin to study law at Trinity College but later trained at the Royal Irish Academy of Music where he considered turning his part-time singing engagements with a number of companies into a full-blown job.

"But I looked at my debts and realised I needed to get to work, so I went to King's Inns in Dublin to study to become a barrister," says Karl, who returned to practice law in Northern Ireland, basing himself in Belfast where he was called to the Bar.

In order to ensure he could pursue a twin track career, with a musical score in one hand and a legal brief in the other, Karl had to seek clearance from the legal authorities to follow his heart to appear on stage as well as in court.

Musical critics have tipped Karl as a major star in the future and say he has the ability to make it in the West End.

But although he auditioned unsuccessfully for two major parts in London, in Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera, Karl isn't convinced that he will ever bring the curtain down on his legal work.

"I love being a barrister," he says.

"Every day is different and it's theatre in its own way. It's great to be part of our community and I'll be happy to be a barrister until the day I die, though I can't imagine ever giving up my singing."

But Karl knows that one day he might reach a crossroads and have to choose between one strand of his life or the other.

And just a few months from now, a ground-breaking opportunity will thrust him onto a completely new level and into a national and international spotlight.

He can't talk about it or about another job on the horizon.

But suffice to say there'll be little rest for Karl who comes from a musical and sporting family.

His mother Marguerite used to be a showband vocalist and his two sisters are also accomplished singers. Karl's aunt and uncle, Anne and Francie Brolly, are also a well-known singing duo and their surname is the clue to the sporting pedigree in his genes.

Karl's cousin and godfather is Joe Brolly, the former GAA star and commentator who's also a barrister, too.

Karl has always been a keen Gaelic footballer as well and at St Patrick's Academy in Dungannon he was on the team that won GAA's MacRory Cup in 2004.

He also played minor football at county level and captained his university side in Dublin for three years.

Karl was also a rugby player for Dungannon until the age of 18, though his singing was to push sport onto the sidelines until he decided recently to make a comeback with St Brigid's GAC in Belfast.

"Now that Jekyll and Hyde is over I would like to think about something else for a while and get a few pounds off the belly", laughs Karl, who has, in his time, played a host of leading roles including Josef Locke in a musical, Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar, Judd in Oklahoma and the eponymous role in Sweeney Todd.

Karl conceded however that his two careers can put immense pressures on him.

He says: "I'm lucky to be very busy with all my commitments and my weekends are no longer a time for relaxation. I have to stay up late at night preparing for trials and rehearsals for the shows several nights a week are hectic.

"But I try to learn my lines for productions by listening to recordings I've made for the car travelling to and from courts."

Karl's legal work is divided half and half between criminal defence cases and civil actions and he said performing in front of theatre audiences had helped him with his courtroom appearances.

"You do get a confidence from standing on stage and stopping your legs shaking.

"But I get the same nerves before a trial as I get when I go on stage. You have to know your lines and what you're talking about", says Karl, who every Christmas stages a charity show in St Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh where one of his co-stars has been Fra Fee, who's been carving out a significant reputation for himself in England as a singer of late.

Karl and Fra, who was in the film version of Les Miserables, go way back. They met at school in Dungannon and became friends through their love of music.

Aside from the annual Armagh concert, Karl is involved in another charity initiative which serves as a cross-over between his two careers.

The Pro-Bono choir have upwards of 50 solicitors, barristers and judges in their harmonious ranks and regularly raise money for good causes.

"The next big project will be aimed at helping the homeless", says Karl, who is clearly a man in tune with himself.

But he knows his limitations.

He says: "My voice doesn't lend itself to every type of musical theatre.

"I'm not a song and dance man and I will never be able to play anything in Chicago.

"It's always going to be something on the classical edge of musical theatre.

"My voice is heavy and it doesn't lend itself to more popular musical theatre. So I'm always going to be singing something more melodramatic like in Jekyll and Hyde."

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