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Rachel Dean's Big Ask: Classical soprano Margaret Keys on regret her dad died before her performance for Pope Francis


Classical career: Margaret Keys stopped teaching to become a singer

Classical career: Margaret Keys stopped teaching to become a singer

Margaret and late dad Bill

Margaret and late dad Bill

Margaret with mum Mary

Margaret with mum Mary

Margaret and twin sister Rosemary

Margaret and twin sister Rosemary

Star attraction: Margaret Keys with Penny Lancaster and Rod Stewart

Star attraction: Margaret Keys with Penny Lancaster and Rod Stewart

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin


Classical career: Margaret Keys stopped teaching to become a singer

In this week's interview Rachel Dean talks to Margaret Keys (35), a classical soprano who has performed with the world's leading orchestras and topped the official classical chart with her latest album The Gift of Music. She spends a lot of time in London for work but is back home in Londonderry for lockdown.

Q. Tell us about your childhood.

A. I grew up in Derry with my parents, my twin sister Rosemary, sister Tina and brother William. We are a very close-knit family and growing up we lived next door to my maternal grandparents.

My mum Mary was a civil servant and my father Bill, who passed away a few years ago, was chairman of the Northern Ireland Fire Authority and also served for many years as a local councillor. My grandparents owned several businesses within the town.


Margaret and twin sister Rosemary

Margaret and twin sister Rosemary

Margaret and twin sister Rosemary

Our lives were full of music and I do believe that influence came from living so close to my grandparents.

We all played piano and my sisters and I all sang, but I showed the most interest in it. We had a really happy childhood.

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. I think I'm most proud of taking certain chances in life to pursue a career in music. I initially trained as a teacher but always knew deep down that I wanted to have a full-time career in music. Whilst at times it had its challenges, I am so glad that I followed my dream.

I am also proud to have topped the official UK Classical Charts with my latest album The Gift of Music. And I have performed in some of the world's most iconic venues, including Carnegie Hall in New York.

Q. The one regret you wish you could amend?

A. That my dad died too soon before he could get to see me perform in Carnegie Hall and for Pope Francis. I know he would have loved those occasions and I do believe he was there with me in spirit.


Margaret and late dad Bill

Margaret and late dad Bill

Margaret and late dad Bill

Q. What about phobias? Do you have any?

A. Rats and pigeons.

Q. The temptation you cannot resist?

A. Probably the same as most people - chocolate!

Q. Your number one prized possession?

A. My piano. I've had it since I was 12 years old, so it's been with me a long time and I've played many a note on it. I would also have to mention my little dog Dora.

Q. The book that's most impacted your life?

A. It's hard to pick one because at every stage of your life you look for different kinds of inspirations. The Outsiders by SE Hinton is relatable no matter where you are in life. It shows how dark and harsh the world can be, but also that there are good things and good people if you stop to appreciate them.

Q. If you had the power or authority, what would you do?

A. I know power and authority are needed in the world, but it wouldn't be something I would crave. I suppose what I would really like is for everyone to be treated fairly and have equal opportunities.


Star attraction: Margaret Keys with Penny Lancaster and Rod Stewart

Star attraction: Margaret Keys with Penny Lancaster and Rod Stewart

Star attraction: Margaret Keys with Penny Lancaster and Rod Stewart

Q. What makes your blood boil every time without fail?

A. Arrogance and selfishness. I think it's nice to have confidence in life, but there is a fine line between that and arrogance.

Q. Who has most influenced you in life?

A. My parents were always there and were very constant in all our lives. They showed us perpetual love and instilled a great work ethic in me and all my siblings. They made sacrifices for us. They were our parental taxis when we needed it and they were selfless in every way. We are incredibly fortunate to have had them as our parents.

Q. Your top three dinner party guests, dead or alive, and why?

A. I would have to invite the late Audrey Hepburn. She is my style icon. She was a lady of sheer class and was also a great activist in her later life. She has such a wonderful life story and of course her movies Breakfast at Tiffany's and My Fair Lady will never age. We would have a lot to talk about.

I would love to have my dad over for dinner because I miss him greatly. He was a real people person and I just know that the chat would be endless with him there. He would also have me tortured to sing a few numbers.

Finally, I would invite business magnate Bill Gates. He has such a wonderful mind and is a great philanthropist. I think he would be an interesting conversationalist and no doubt we would end up talking about his philanthropic activities, as well as Audrey's.

Q. The best piece of advice you ever received?

A. Nothing ventured is nothing gained. Sometimes you just have to give things a go in life and remember that the worst thing you could be told is no.

Also, it's nice to be important but more important to be nice. There are many people that you can meet on the way up, but you will always meet them on the way back down again. So, just be nice.

Q. The unlikely interest or hobby that you love?

A. I have a keen interest in Zumba and dancing. I attended two or three Zumba classes a week before lockdown. Now, with everything going on, I walk and run daily and I do an online Zumba class once a week.

During lockdown I have been trying my hand at baking - trying! I never seemed to be able to find the time before.

I have now conquered hazelnut meringues. I was really shocked at the amount of sugar that's needed, so I should maybe look at a healthier option for my next baking task.

Q. The poem that touches your heart?

A. Digging by Seamus Heaney. It tells of the influence his upbringing had on his creative work. He spent his childhood on his parents' farm in Derry and this inspired much of his poetry.

In Digging, Heaney compares his pen to the farmer's spade. He struggled with his decision to break with the family tradition and instead decided to 'dig' with his pen as a poet. It's a really endearing poem and is, in my opinion, one of his finest.

Q. The happiest moment of your life?

A. There are two - the day I signed a recording contract with Universal Records and the day I performed in the presence of Pope Francis.

Five years ago, I sang for Pope Francis at the World Meeting of Families Festival in Philadelphia, joining big names such as Andrea Bocelli and Aretha Franklin.

It was an honour to be asked to represent Ireland at this world event.

I thought I'd be incredibly nervous but surprisingly there was a great sense of calm and peace throughout. I was humbled.

Q. And the saddest moment of your life?

A. The day my father passed away. He died very suddenly of a heart attack when he was still in his prime.

He played a huge role in all our lives and he is greatly missed. When I think of my father, I just think of him laughing, which is a lovely way to remember him.

Q. The one event that made a difference in your life?

A. Travelling to New Zealand and performing at the Rotorua Proms. There were record industry bosses in the audience and that would lead to my record signing.

After my performance, I was approached by the director of Universal Records.

He asked me to record a demo that very next day in the studio to hear how my voice would record.

On hearing it, and after a small meeting with a few of the Universal team, I was offered the contract.

I was actually teaching at the time, so I decided to take a career break from that to pursue singing.

It all happened unexpectedly, but I knew that I had to take this opportunity. I loved teaching, but I knew that I could always teach whenever and wherever in the world. I only had one shot at entering the music industry professionally, so it really was a no-brainer.

Q. What's the ambition that keeps driving you onward?

A. To keep creating, singing and entertaining. I still don't believe that I have reached my creative potential and I just really love what I do. Yes, it is an ambition, but it's also a sheer passion too.

Q. What's the philosophy you live by?

A. Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone. I love to laugh and would generally like to think that I'm quite a positive and upbeat person.

Q. How do you want to be remembered?

A. That I was a decent human being and good company to be around.

Margaret has been streaming live concerts, called Song and Conversation, on her social media platforms. To find out more, follow her Facebook page (Margaret Keys) or visit margaretkeys.co.uk

Belfast Telegraph