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Northern Ireland opera singer Rebekah Coffey on balancing work and family life

Rebekah Coffey, one of Northern Ireland's best-known opera singers, is starring in a moving new drama based on the diaries of Anne Frank. She tells Karen Ireland about balancing work and family life with her violinist husband Danny and their two young sons

Life for Rebekah Coffey is now a delicate balancing act. She is back doing what she loves best - being a professional opera singer - but she is now also a busy mum to Noah (4) and Joshua (3).

Rebekah (39), who is married to Ulster Orchestra violinist Danny McCann-Williams, says juggling the two aspects of her life isn't always easy.

"Being a mum is my number one priority and the children are the most important thing in our lives. This is a difficult industry to be in when you are a mum.

"Some of the jobs I am offered involve months away from home which I would previously have done on tour, but I no longer have that option as I don't want to be away from my boys for that long, so I am looking for projects closer to home," she explains.

In a bid to find the holy grail of balancing work and home life, Rebekah has a variety of roles.

As a vocal coach, she works with singers who require tutoring for TV and radio appearances, and for external choral organisations which includes group singing lessons, solo lessons and soloist preparation.

She is also a vocal coach at Queen's University Belfast and is a judge on the BBC Radio Ulster School Choir of the Year competition.

"That keeps me busy in between times, but I am also very keen to get back to singing and to doing what I love and what I do best," Rebekah explains.

Life in the Coffey/McCann-Williams household naturally revolves around music. The couple have their own studio in their Belfast home - and the younger members of the family are also keen to get involved.

"We built our own studio which is great for working from home. It can be difficult at times as when we are working one of the boys will burst in and start saying - 'I want to sing too!' So, we find we get more work done when they are out of the house or sleeping," Rebekah says.

She explains that she was always singing from an early age at home in Newtownards. "I grew up in school choirs and taking part in school plays," she says. "My mum was always very supportive of me and attended all my performances and was supportive from the sidelines and always there for me.

"If this is a road which our boys decide to go down when they are older, we will support them 100% too. We will always encourage them in whatever they want to do.

"When I was younger, I loved music and decided to study it at A-Level. I then went to Queen's and studied music for my degree. It became obvious I was headed down a performance route."

Following university, she went to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester to study for a postgraduate degree in vocal diploma. It was there that she met her future husband, Danny, and the pair married 10 years ago.

Rebekah's musicality has won her a number of prizes including awards from the Countess of Munster Musical Trust, the Peter Moores Foundation, Doyle Carte Opera and the Lawrence Atwell Charity, and she was a recipient of the 2004-2006 BBC/Arts Council of Northern Ireland Young Artist Platform Scheme.

"We returned to Northern Ireland when Danny was offered a job with the Ulster Orchestra," Rebekah says.

"There might not be as many opportunities for me over here as there would be if we had stayed on the mainland, but we love living in Belfast so I just make it work for the whole family."

Rebekah was offered her first professional job shortly after university with an English touring opera, playing Flora in The Turn of the Screw.

Since then she has gone on to perform with many operatic companies and orchestras including the Ulster Orchestra, Ulster String Quartet, RTE Symphony Orchestra, QUB, Opera North, Lyric Opera and English Touring Opera - and in many of the major venues and cathedrals in the UK including York Minister, Durham Cathedral, Belfast's Waterfront Hall, Grand Opera House, the Ulster Hall and Hillsborough Castle.

Her operatic roles to date include Gretel and Sandman/Dew Fairy (Hansel und Gretel) and Despina (Cosi fan tutte).

Rebekah appears regularly with two contemporary music ensembles in Ireland. For the Brian Irvine Ensemble she has performed the title role in The Tailor's Daughter at the Belfast International Festival at Queen's and in Irvine's opera Dumbworld. And for the Crash Ensemble, Dublin, Rebekah has appeared in Michael Gordon's Van Gogh at the Canberra International Music Festival in Australia.

"I have been very fortunate and played some amazing parts over the years," she says.

"It is difficult to pick out highlights as my career to date has been so varied, but I loved doing BBC Proms in the Park. I've also performed for BBC Radio Two and Radio Four and have taken part in many religious and classical concerts.

"As I said, roles which allow me to juggle time with the boys are more difficult to find now, so I need plenty of variety in my work.

"It isn't easy balancing this career with motherhood as if you are working on a specific piece it can take months of rehearsal and that is difficult to fit in around the family and a job. Getting time to practise is the most difficult thing. Friends and family are very supportive in helping out with the boys when we are both working.

"There is always music on in the house and the boys have probably been exposed to classical music at a younger age than most children, although we do listen to a variety of music including pop.

"We try to take them to as many family-friendly performances as possible and we go to shows such as The Snowman together. If, when they are older, they show an interest, we will definitely get them music tuition."

At the moment Rebekah is working towards her next show, taking place this Sunday, which is a one-woman operatic performance of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Composed by Russian composer Grigory Frid in 1969, the work recreates the world of 13-year-old Anne in hiding, living in hope and longing for normality for herself and her family. The opera uses Anne's original words including her joy over a glimpse of blue sky and her humour and resilient hopes for freedom.

"This is a very dramatic and moving performance," Rebekah explains. "It has been written using the words of Anne's diary and is very emotional. It is a 50-minute performance and is taking up a lot of my time and energy at the moment, but I am very excited to get the opportunity to perform it.

"I am working with a fantastic pianist at the moment and then the conductor will come on board and the other musicians.

"I am very nervous about it as it is a big piece and very powerful, but I am excited about it as well."

And despite her impressive repertoire, Rebekah admits that she still gets nervous before a show.

"I don't think you ever stop being nervous," she says. "It is all part of performing. Nerves are weird. I can perform in front of thousands of people and be fine and then perform in front of a small intimate crowd of just around 30 and be really nervous. It just hits you when you least expect it."

However, she is excited about taking to the stage at the Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC), in Belfast on Sunday for this moving opera.

"It is vivid and insightful, and I will perform the songs in English," Rebekah explains. "The score will be brought to life by a vibrant Rio Ensemble. The concert is taking place in conjunction with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, who I received an ACES award from."

The Awards under the Artists Career Enhancement Scheme (ACES) are made annually to professional artists working in music, visual arts, drama, dance, literature and participatory arts and are among the most prestigious awards bestowed by the Arts Council.

"This allowed us to pursue the ambitious project of Anne Frank," Rebekah says. "It has been a massive challenge, but it is extremely rewarding, and I want this to become an ongoing project. I will record it on the day and then hopefully sell it on to festivals and events as that is the sort of work I can combine well with family life."

Life is far from dull in Rebekah's life - when she does get some time out, she likes nothing better than to head off on her bike with her husband and children.

"I don't get much free time between work and family, but I like to get outdoors with the boys as much as possible," she says.

"I also enjoy going out for meals and spending time with Danny as much as our schedules allow.

"I am a member of a book club and I enjoy dinner out with my girlfriends when I can. And I enjoy getting away for a spa break with my mum and sister.

"Life is hectic and it is a constant juggling act, but I wouldn't have it any other way."

The Diary of Anne Frank (monodrama) by Moving On Music takes place this Sunday at 3pm at Sonic Arts Research Centre, Cloreen Park, Belfast. To book tickets (£12/£8) visit www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-diary-of-anne-frank-monodrama-tickets-48948963668

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