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Aoife: “I may be an opera singer but I love to put on my wellies”

Belfast-born soprano Aoife Miskelly has graced some of the world’s grandest stages, but she admits she loves nothing more than to muck in with the lambs down on the farm

By Una Brankin

She can do a pitch-perfect imitation of a bleating lamb, and hopes to have her own sheep farm one day — a personal wish that comes well ahead of the ego trip of singing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, or Covent Garden in London.

Belfast-born soprano Aoife Miskelly is a country girl at heart, more comfortable in a pair of Wellingtons than stilettos. And she looks great in both. Tall and lithe, she was stunning in a sample-size white silk halter-neck dress when she strode onto the stage at the Odyssey Arena recently — to a chorus of wolf-whistles — to sing the Monserrat Caballe part in the Freddie Mercury-penned duet Barcelona, with Queen Tribute band Flash Harry and the Ulster Youth Choir.

“Halfway through I felt like a pop star — Beyonce or someone!” she chuckles. “There was fear — I had 6,000 people all focused on me — but it was a laugh. Opera is so formalised but this was quite loose and the audience were well oiled with cups of beer and it was very jovial. I did the same thing two years later in front of an even bigger crowd but once I got onto stage I got over the nerves.”

Dark-haired and green-eyed, the award-winning 32-year-old has a distinctive Cindy Crawford-style mole between her well sculpted eyebrows. Like the supermodel, she resisted suggestions to have it removed.

“I got teased about it in school; it was just one of those things,” she recalls. “I went to see a dermatologist about getting it removed when I was younger, but he said it would leave an even bigger mark, so I left it alone. I’ve just got used to it.”

Relaxed and good-humoured, the opera star is chatting away from her parents’ home in the Glens, ahead of her upcoming performance in the Magic Flute with Northern Ireland Opera next month. The original family home was in north Belfast’s Fortwilliam Park, where Aoife had only to cross the road to her grammar school. She learned to play the piano from age of four with older brother Vincent, but took up the cello after passing a test set by the Belfast School of Music for primary school pupils.

“My poor Auntie Bridget always used to have to carry it to school for me when I went with my cousins — there would be five of us girls walking to school together with her. I’m quite a slight build but I’m five foot nine, so it never swamped me, but Bridget carried it anyway!

“I'd had double piano lessons with my brother, as he’s only 14 to 15 months older than me — I loved them because we always got a Mars bar. Then when the Belfast School of Music tested us to see who could learn an instrument, I was offered a stringed instrument — I didn’t know what they were but chose a cello.”

It brings to mind an anecdote about the legendary cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who died of multiple sclerosis at 42. At the age of four, du Pré is said to have heard the sound of the cello on the radio and asked her mother for “one of those”. An admirer of the tragic star’s unique melancholic style, Aoife hadn’t heard of her until she began to study the instrument in earnest, eventually to degree level at university in Cork. She’s the only musical one in the family; her older brother Vincent Jnr is accountant, her younger brother Stephen is a barrister. Dad Vincent is a retired civil servant, while mum Anne used to teach at St Kevin’s on the Falls Road, which she had attended in her youth.

“Mum and dad weren’t musical at all but they wanted us to have the opportunities they didn’t and to learn to play instruments,” she explains. “They both came from humble backgrounds — mum was one of eight children. There are only three of us so things weren’t as tight for us. I have the most supportive family — mum and dad have travelled all around Europe to see me performing. I couldn’t wish for better parents.”

Strong family ties to the Glens and Ballycastle eventually brought the Miskellys to Cushendall, where they live opposite Liam Neeson’s sister, Agnes Agnew, and often see the actor’s lofty frame from their window as he goes about his business, uninterrupted, during his summer visits. Ahead of the Magic Flute, Aoife has brought home her co-star Ruth Jenkins, from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, for a sightseeing tour, including a trip to the Giant’s Causeway.

But first on the to-do list was a visit to her best friend Anne McCambridge’s family farm, Aughalum, two-and-a-half miles up a dirt road in Carnlough. Aoife has a deep fondness for sheep — the McCambridges have hundreds of them — and a special soft spot for a pet lamb called Coco, whose mother died.

“Coco is very unusual as she was born so late in the season — we named her Coco after a coconut, because she’s so white,” says its adoring minder. “She was cowering under a sheet of metal when I was up there yesterday because it was so blustery. There are two pet lambs in a pen together — Coco’s really sociable and affectionate; the other’s really anti-social but they make a good pair. Yin and Yang!”

After spending two hours in merciless rain last Sunday trying to round up some particularly dopey sheep that had broken out on my aunt’s land in Portadown, I find this affinity puzzling. Doesn’t she mind those never-ending mounds of pellets they leave in their wake? “They are quite messy and need a lot of care,” she admits, “but I’ve just always loved little sheep. I’ve always had cuddly sheep toys and stuff. I’m quite ashamed to admit that I still do at 32! I always had that fondness and I’ve always helped out on the farm when I’m back home — and I’ve been away a lot since I went to study in Cork at 18.

“I love getting on my welly boots and mucking in at lambing season. The wee lambs are up walking around in no time from birth. They are a bit wobbly at first, then they realise they have four legs and can walk on them.”

Her first experience of lambing came abruptly, after celebrating her birthday one Easter at her local, Johnny Joes.

“The next morning I’d popped up to the farm, still in my dress and heels but planning to get changed and give them a hand, but Anne’s dad stopped us on the land and said he already had one sheep in distress and needed us right away,” she says, imitating the farmer’s Glens lilt. “We were a wee bit fuzzy from the night before and we didn’t get back to the farmhouse until five or six that day — covered in all the elements that come with lambing — but the wee lambs can’t wait once they’re due. They sheep don’t need much human interaction with the birth; they’re hardy and resilient creatures but you need to be there.”

She agrees too that some of the animals are not the brightest.

“There was this one who thought she had already given birth and was chasing us away but she was still pregnant with twins! It’s very physical, time-consuming work. They’ve to be fed, kept clean, given medication and their wee cords have to be treated with antiseptic.

“The McCambridges have a maternity wing in one of the big barns on the farm now and they were lucky during the bad snow last year — they managed to get them all indoors. Other farms had to get airlifts.”

So are we to take it lamb’s off the menu, then?

“I would never ear lamb, ever, My Aunt Joan tried to give me lamb moussaka once and hid the Marks & Spencer carton in the bin, but I tasted it and immediately asked her if there was lamb in it. She was all, ‘Oh, I don’t think so ...’ but I knew rightly. I didn’t feel sick or anything but I definitely couldn’t eat any more.”

Footloose and fancy free, the nearest this very striking girl has got to going up the aisle was as bridesmaid at her brother’s recent wedding in the Glens.

“Getting married and having children would be up there in my personal ambitions,” she admits. “I’m not the type of singer who has to star at the Met or Covent Garden. I just want to remain artistically satisfied in my work. And I wouldn’t mind having my own sheep farm one day, maybe ...”

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