How singing star Niall Morris fell for the story of a very special girl called Maria Callas
Ex-Celtic Tenor Niall Morris tells Una Brankin about bringing an iconic diva's tragic tale to life and his roots in Co Tyrone
Tragic soprano Maria Callas died in Paris almost 40 years ago but her memory is being kept gloriously alive on the stage by an Irish opera star with Co Tyrone roots.
Niall Morris - founding member of The Celtic Tenors - is the creative brains behind Callas, the hit stage show recalling the life of the still best-selling operatic legend, through her most famous arias and duets. Performed by the Anglo-Greek soprano Claire Rutter, the musical interludes are interspersed with a screen presentation narrated by Niall and featuring iconic images of the glamorous Callas at various stages of her life, on and off the stage.
Opera lovers can catch the show in Dublin this Sunday ahead of a UK tour currently under negotiation, which Niall hopes will include a Northern Ireland date.
"I'm always delighted to see you northerners coming down to Dublin for the show," he says. "I spent so much time up there in Greencastle with my father's family and my cousin Jimeoin, the comedian, it's my like my second home. My sister and I used to jump about in the silage and the hay barn at my granny's farm in Glenhull with him - he was so funny, he'd make a cat laugh, as they say."
Niall's father, Michael Morris, moved from Greencastle, located between Omagh and Cookstown, to Dublin to work with RTE and was the sound engineer on the first ever Late Late Show. He encouraged Niall to study music at Trinity College Dublin and King's College London, where he won the highest singing scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He went on to star at Covent Garden and Sadler's Wells and created the tenor role in Thomas Ades' debut opera Powder Her Face - based on the 1963 sex scandal of the Duchess of Argyll - which was recorded on EMI Classics and nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Opera category.
EMI Classics swiftly signed Niall and his singing colleagues Matthew Gilsenan and James Nelson to a worldwide record deal as The Celtic Tenors. The trio had their own shows in the US and Germany, and a No 1 and No 2 chart success in the UK, Germany, USA, Ireland and Spain. Niall was invited to perform at Riverdance star Michael Flatley's lavish wedding reception, and also sang with The Chieftains, Phil Coulter, The Dubliners, Air Supply, Dionne Warwick, Sir James Galway and even US President Bill Clinton, who joined him in a duet of Danny Boy.
But Niall - a former flatmate of singer Brian Kennedy - always had a hankering to produce and direct. In 2006, he took the difficult decision to leave The Celtic Tenors to follow his dream.
"How do you leave a successful format which you've spent many years of blood, sweat and tears building up?" he wonders. "It wasn't easy, but soon after I got the chance to direct La Boheme, La Traviata and Die Fledermaus at Loughcrew Festival Opera in Meath and got good reviews in Opera Magazine and The Irish Times. Then I landed myself a job as assistant director at Opera Ireland and set up my singing group The Opera Waiters, which is such fun, especially the time we went incognito as football fans and surprised Giovanni Trapattoni with Nessun Dorma, live on radio at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre. That was the last thing he expected!"
Opera Waiters won the Entertainers of the Year (Event Industry Awards, Dublin, 2012) and became the most successful and prolific private entertainment company of the last decade in Ireland. The following year Niall had something else to celebrate - his marriage to partner Woody, a waiter he met on holiday in Thailand.
"First of all my mum said she wasn't coming to the wedding," Niall recalls.
"She was delighted we were getting married but she was terribly shy about the whole thing and felt that it might be a bit overwhelming.
"So I devised a plot: I emailed her the lunch menu from a restaurant in Dublin which we'd booked, and asked her suggestions on what dishes we should select. With her input, we narrowed it down to two starters, main courses and desserts, with Prosecco and a choice of wines. Then she rang me and said 'It's going to be amazing. I'm coming!' And it was amazing, from start to finish."
The couple live in a penthouse in Dublin, and are considering adopting one day. In the meantime, Callas is Niall's time-consuming baby. The dramatic and moving production was a step in a different direction for him and, with the Republic still in the grip of recession, a bit of a gamble.
"I wanted to take a different approach," he says. "I felt that the arias and duets most associated with Callas actually fitted so well with her own life story. For instance, in Un Bel Di Vedremo from Madame Butterfly, Butterfly is waiting for Pinkerton to return on his ship, and I thought how similar that was to Maria waiting for Aristotle Onassis to come back to her on his yacht, The Christina.
"Then I went further with that and found all these other parallels in Carmen, Norma and La Traviata - Onassis and Callas were introduced at a grand party, just like Traviata's Alfredo and Violetta. And when Callas sings Vissi d'Arte from Tosca: 'I lived for my art and I lived for love, and you have rewarded me like this', it fits perfectly with her reaction when she hears that Onassis has married Jackie Kennedy behind her back."
Niall initially named the show Casta Diva, after the aria from Bellini's Norma, one of Callas' most memorable roles. His inspiration for the production came from a very unlikely source, however, far removed from opera - and featuring some of the worst singing (that includes you, Pierce Brosnan) ever committed to the big screen.
"Yes - I got the idea from Mamma Mia!" says Niall. "Only so far as in where the song lyrics tell the story. Maria's life was such an opera in itself that it all just fitted."
After six sell-out shows in Dublin in its first run in 2012, Niall decided to expand the production to include the big-screen narrative, which adds poignancy and brings the story of Callas alive for the audience, fans and opera first-timers alike.
"I sat down and wrote what you might call a docudrama," he says. "The story is told by a voiceover with images from the life of Callas on a big screen while all the music scenes are dramatised, and set in Maria's apartment in Paris. It's this intimacy that has audiences transfixed because they feel they are getting a look inside her private world.
"And we were so lucky to get the spectacular British soprano Claire Rutter for the role. She bears a striking resemblance to Callas and has sung her repertoire all over the world. Her grandparents are Greek and it's her life's ambition to play Callas on the stage."
Onassis is played by the critically-acclaimed tenor James Edwards, direct from his huge success as Rodolfo in La Boheme in London earlier this year.
"Vocally they are pure gold and I am happy to say they have become my friends too," says Niall. "They love this project and are behind it 100%. That is the kind of commitment you need in this business to get something from the germ of a good idea all the way to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall."
- Callas: The Life, Loves & Music of Maria Callas comes to the National Concert Hall, Dublin this Sunday, November 16, at 8pm. For details, tel: 003531 417 0000 or visit www.nch.ie
The struggles and scandals of star...
"I am not an angel and do not pretend to be. That is not one of my roles. But I am not the devil either. I am a woman and a serious artist, and I would like so to be judged." - Maria Callas
- Tall, graceful and exotic, Maria Callas was one of the most exciting opera singers of all time. She died at 53 of a heart attack at her home in Paris on September 16, 1977, just as she was preparing to write her autobiography.
- While her career was marred by disputes and legal action, her private life was just as chaotic; she was famously left heartbroken when her lover Aristotle Onassis married Jackie Kennedy in 1968, but had the last laugh when the Greek shipping tycoon reportedly tired of Jackie's endless shopping and reignited his affair with his "singing budgie", as he nicknamed Callas.
- Born in New York City and raised by an overbearing Greek mother, Callas received her musical education in Greece and established her career in Italy. Subjected to wartime poverty and afflicted with myopia that left her nearly blind onstage, she endured struggles and scandal over the course of her illustrious career.
- A chubby teenager, she transformed herself after a dramatic mid-career weight loss, which many around her believed was the result of an eating disorder, and which could have contributed to her vocal decline, health problems and the premature end of her career. Throughout, her allegedly temperamental behaviour made headlines and reports, focusing on her supposed rivalry with Renata Tebaldi and her love affair with Onassis, the rumoured father of a son she gave birth to in secret. The child died in infancy and Callas became increasingly reclusive.
- Although her dramatic life and personal tragedy have often overshadowed Callas the artist, her artistic achievements were such that Leonard Bernstein called her "the Bible of opera".
- Still one of classical music's best-selling vocalists, she is soon to be honoured in her parents' homeland, following a Greek National Opera concert at the foot of the Acropolis in memory of the soprano, which raised almost £8,000 for the creation of an academy of lyrical arts named after her, in the building in Athens where she once lived. If she had lived, she would have been 91 on December 2.