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The singing group that's hitting all the right notes

As St Agnes' Choral Society prepares for its latest show, Una Brankin talks to three members about life in a choir

Being a member of a choir is widely acknowledged as a conduit to happiness in our increasingly impersonal, rushed world. Recent TV series such as the Bafta-winning The Choir, and the uplifting All Small Things, starring Sarah Lancaster as a choral leader, have sent memberships soaring, while the Glee phenomenon has re-ignited a world-wide appreciation of musical theatre.

The multi-award winning St Agnes' Choral Society is, of course, a rich part of our cultural fabric, as buoyant as ever after more than 50 years performing popular musicals all over Northern Ireland.

Its members range in age from teens to pensioners, all committed to weekly rehearsals, and each highly appreciative of the sense of belonging to a creative unit and the camaraderie involved.

Society members will be letting their hair down at the Grand Opera Opera next month with Hairspray, the smash hit Broadway show set in the Sixties, and they're currently auditioning for roles in the musical's famous Black Chorus.

Before that, the society will be preforming at the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year awards next Thursday.

Meanwhile, three busy members took time out from rehearsals to talk about what makes the 'Aggies' team so special.

Hairspray runs at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, from April 28 to May 2. For further details go to www.goh.co.uk

‘It’s impossible to leave rehearsals unhappy’

Jenny Coates (18) is studying for her A Levels at Belfast Royal Academy. She joined St Agnes’ Choral Society at 16, to play one of the orphans in their production of Annie. Jenny will play the role of the socially awkward Penny Lou Pingleton in Hairspray.

She says: As soon as I turned 16 I auditioned to be a member of the company and I haven’t looked back since. I enjoyed every second of performing with the ‘Aggies’ crowd on the Opera House stage and immediately caught the performance bug.

My first performance was as Pepper in Annie. I remember every nerve being concealed with excitement and adrenaline. Lying on the beds, listening to the overture play and waiting for the curtain to rise at the top of act one, has been one of my favourite moments on stage. Not only does being part of a choral society boost your confidence, but I have also gained so many new friends and have become much closer with old friends.

Hairspray is also such a fun show to be part of. It is so energetic and high-spirited that it is impossible to leave the rehearsal room not feeling happy.

We rehearse every Tuesday night — however, coming up to a show we rehearse three times a week or sometimes even more. Whenever I am feeling particularly lazy or I’ve had a bad day, the camaraderie between the cast and the mutual support of the creative team never fails to perk me up.

I do feel that the company is gaining a new contemporary audience, as Hairspray is unlike any previous show.

This attracts a new generation to our productions.

I also really enjoyed being part of the chorus in The Sound of Music in 2013.

Getting to know members of the company and watching the principals do their thing every night in Annie was so inspiring. It was a fantastic show to make my official ‘Aggies’ debut in.

I also love doing the concerts coming up to Christmas; they never fail to put me in the festive mood.

I’d encourage anyone to come along and join us. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming.

You will have a great time and be part of an amazing show, which is an added bonus.”

‘It’s an oasis of calm and enjoyment’

St Agnes’ Choral Society chairperson Fiona Keegan was singing at a funeral in 1992 when one of the founders of the group approached her and asked her to audition. The primary school principal, who lives alone in Belfast, plays the role of the ambitious Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray.  She says:

My first performance on the Grand Opera House stage was in a production of The Gypsy Baron in 1993, a splendid show which sadly isn’t often performed any longer. That first show holds many wonderful memories for me — and I’m delighted to say I’ve performed there every year since that first tentative step onto the boards all those years ago.

I consider myself truly blessed to be a part of the St Agnes’ family. I joined the society 23 years ago and from that first rehearsal I have never looked back. Not only have I nurtured my love of musical theatre and been given the opportunity to play the leading lady in a variety of fantastic shows and concerts, I have made life-long friends. St Agnes is committed to providing high quality performances for the enjoyment of our audiences but I firmly believe that the secret to our success has been more than half a century of dedicated friendships — friends who are there for each other, come what may.

I believe that a healthy work/life balance is very important in today’s busy world. St Agnes’ Choral Society offers me an oasis of calm, enjoyment and release from my busy role as a principal of a large primary school.

We rehearse every Tuesday evening during our concert season. However, as we are working towards our annual show, rehearsals have increased to Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday — it seems a lot, but time flies when you are having fun.

Like every organisation St Agnes’ is ever-evolving — welcoming new members each year. However, I believe that the backbone of the society is the ongoing commitment and dedication of established members, including some founder members, who constantly strive to uphold the high standards set by the company and pass this enthusiasm and drive onto the new members. Our hard-working committee oversees everything with a passion for excellence and a genuine interest in the success of the company. St Agnes’ is truly like a family — older generations passing virtue and wisdom to the new generation — who ultimately are the future of our company.

Obvious highlights for me have been the many opportunities to perform lead roles in wonderful classic shows such as Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun and The Sound of Music, to name a few. Enduring friendships have also been a highlight as I find myself surrounded by many caring, enthusiastic and, of course, talented people of all generations.

I encourage anyone interested in joining us to be courageous and go for it. You won’t regret it! Even if you don’t believe yourself to be a natural performer, when surrounded by the right people and atmosphere — anything is possible. Of course, there is always place for non-playing members of any company who work tirelessly backstage but play an equally important role to the success of any company, particularly in St Agnes’.

When I first joined I was amazed by the confidence and charisma of the company. Of course, certain people stood out, but in St Agnes’ everyone plays an important role in the overall success of our company. It is my great privilege to now be the chairperson of this extraordinary company and I will endeavour to ensure we continue to move forward from strength to strength."

‘The cast becomes one big family’

Matthew Campbell (19), from Downpatrick, is studying music at Queen’s University Belfast. He’s the newest member of the choral society, having joined last September. Matthew is playing Baltimore’s budding Elvis, Link Larkin, in Hairspray. He says:

If you like to sing, then being a member of a choir or similar organisation is a great advantage, mainly as it is a social outlet. You get to meet so many others who share your interests in music and in many cases develop some great friendships.

As well as that, you are in an environment where you can just go and relax doing what you enjoy.

My first performance was a concert in the Belvoir Players Theatre.

Initially I was nervous, as I had never performed with many of the members before, but I settled very quickly and was made to feel very welcome. At the minute we rehearse three days a week.

However, as the show approaches rehearsals will be increased. Naturally, putting on a show like Hairspray on such a big scale requires a lot of hard work. Sometimes a three-hour rehearsal after a long day in university can seem a bit tedious, but there is a great energy in the rehearsal room and once you begin to focus on the dance or scene you may be learning that evening, you quickly forget about everything else going on and just get on with it.

If I had to pick a single highlight, it would be the great friends I have made. One thing that can be guaranteed when working on a production like this, is that the whole cast really does become one big family. I am learning so much by working on the show but it’s the friendships that I have made coming to rehearsals each week that make it so enjoyable.

I’d say, don’t give it a second thought if you want to join us. Come along to a rehearsal — you will be made to feel so welcome and even if you don’t want to be involved in the yearly production, there are smaller concerts which take place throughout the year and at Christmas time that you can get involved in.” 

Book your place for a memorable awards night

Entries for this year’s Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards may be closed, but you can still book your place for a memorable night of celebration.

The awards, held in association with The OUTLET, are taking place with a glitzy gala ceremony at the Ramada Plaza Hotel next Thursday, March 19, hosted by the BBC’s Wendy Austin.

This year’s guest speaker will be Jo Fairley, co-founder of the famous Green & Black’s organic chocolate company. As a journalist, author of the bestselling Beauty Bible series and one of the youngest-ever editors of You Magazine, she will be giving an insight into how to create, launch and grow a brand.

 Tickets cost £60, plus vat, and include a pre-dinner drinks reception, four course meal, wine on the table, entertainment and a goody bag to take home. Payments can be made by credit or debit card, simply contact Michael or Heather on the Belfast Telegraph’s front counter on, tel: 028 9026 4003, Monday to Friday 9am-5pm. Tables of 10 are also available at £600, plus vat.

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