Belfast Telegraph

The Twelfth: Meet mezzo-soprano who is performing at this year's celebrations

Emma Brown has travelled all the way from Holland to sing at an Orange Order event tomorrow and at the Sham Fight in Scarva on Friday. Karen Ireland hears why the visit is something of a homecoming

Musical passion: Nottingham-born Emma Brown performing on stage
Musical passion: Nottingham-born Emma Brown performing on stage
Musical passion: Nottingham-born Emma Brown performing on stage
Musical passion: Nottingham-born Emma Brown
War tribute: Emma at the Menin Gate memorial in Belgium
Solemn occasion: Emma Brown with a Second World War veteran

Like many other people around the globe, Emma Brown, who grew up in England and now lives in the Netherlands, has never been to a Twelfth demonstration before in her life. But that is about to change over the next couple of days.

This year the 32-year-old mezzo-soprano will be guest of honour at the field in Newcastle today before travelling across the country for the Sham Fight at Scarva on tomorrow.

Check out pictures from last year's marches: Belfast - Annalong - Beragh - Cloughmills - Ballymena - Cookstown - Lisbellaw- Hillsborough Bangor - Kilrea - Ballynahinch - Coleraine - Cullybackey - Clogher Richhill - Newtownabbey - Broughshane - Banbridge Ardoyne

They may be among the more unusual venues she has been asked to perform at but, as she reveals, she is very much looking forward to both events.

Originally from Nottingham, Emma was involved in the music and theatre scene during her school years. Aged 18, she auditioned for the Royal Academy of Music and was offered a full scholarship, but instead chose to study music at the University of Cambridge so that she could enjoy the music and theatre scene in the area.

Along the way she also fell in love with a Dutchman - and ended up falling in love with that country too. Now engaged to church verger Ronald Hartsuiker, she lives in Leiden but interestingly reveals she has rather close connections to Northern Ireland.

"My dad lived in Portstewart for some time and my stepbrother and sister were born there," says Emma. Dad worked as a professor for Queen's University so I spent a lot of time in Northern Ireland when I was growing up. I was always going back and forward for holidays."

It turns out she is no stranger to the province when it comes to performing as well.

"I last visited Belfast when I was asked to sing as part of the Belfast Tattoo at the SSE Arena in 2016. I sang with the Band of Liberation.

"It was amazing - 10,000 people in the audience were singing along to the Wild Rover and singing it back to me.

"It was such a highlight for me and I felt really welcomed. And everyone I met in the pub afterwards was so friendly. I can't wait to come back again this week."

Emma was invited over to sing on the Twelfth by members of the 12th Castlewellan District Office.

She explains: "They heard me sing at the Ulster Tower in the Somme in 2017 to commemorate the 36th Ulster Division who suffered heavy losses in the Battle of the Somme. Afterwards the 12th Castlewellan District Office had a ceremony at the Orange Memorial and I offered to sing for their ceremony.

"It was deeply moving to know that so many people at the memorial were so closely linked to the soldiers of the First World War. I was absolutely delighted when they asked me to sing in Northern Ireland again."

Emma freely admits that she knows little about the Twelfth commemorations other than that they celebrate the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and are a celebration of the Orange and Black orders and unionism in Northern Ireland. However, she says: "I know there will be a big focus this year on the First World War and I am honoured to lead the hymn singing on the Twelfth and to sing again at the celebrations in Scarva on the 13th."

Emma, who started out singing in choirs when she was four, has become well-known all over the word, for singing at Remembrance events and special occasions.

"When I sung in choirs I was told I was too loud," she says. "When I was 16 I learnt that singing solo was different to being in a choir and being loud was not a problem. I studied at the University of Cambridge and then at the Royal Conservatorie in the Hague in the Netherlands."

She goes on to explain how she graduated with a Masters in singing and composition in 2014.

"I started off singing at concerts and in opera before a conductor invited me to go to Normandy for the D-Day commemorations. I found myself singing for real Second World War veterans. I got to meet them and share stories with them afterwards and it was an amazing experience.

"Some of them would say I was very brave to be singing - especially in the rain - and I was blown away to be told this by someone who had fought against Hitler's armies.

"Since then I have sung a lot in remembrance. I've just returned from Amiens, France, where I was singing at a festival with around 400 bagpipers, called United Pipers for Peace.

"A week before that I was singing at the Somme. I've also sung for the anniversary of the Menin Gate at Ypres in Belgium for British, French and American ceremonies in Normandy, and for the New Zealand Embassy of the Netherlands."

Given the nature of many of her engagements, it goes without saying that Emma is now rather familiar with the national anthems of many of the countries she travels to.

"When I come to Ireland or Northern Ireland I always get asked to sing Danny Boy," she jokes. "Over the next few days as well as singing God Save the Queen, I will sing Abide with Me, and a solo of Rule Britannia."

So, what's it like as a solo performer, standing up in front of crowds of thousands with the pressure on to be note perfect?

"I will probably get nervous before I perform here," she reveals. "I always do before I sing."

However, rather touchingly, she also says that sometimes the combination of the material she has been asked to perform and the occasion can make it hard not to be caught up in the emotion of it all.

"The worst thing is if it is very emotional and I am trying not to cry. Crying and singing do not work well together. I find it particularly difficult at remembrance services," she says.

When she is not travelling the world singing, Emma says she enjoys spending time with Ronald and her three cats.

Speaking of their romance, she says: "I met Ronald at the church where he is a verger. I sing there, volunteer and attend church there. He proposed to me in Iceland last January. It was freezing cold and very windy. We were standing on the southern most point of the island looking out at the sea and he asked me. Of course I said yes, I was ecstatic. Then he took a ring out of his pocket which he had been hiding for the whole holiday waiting on the right time.

"We have been together nearly four years. We still haven't set a date for the wedding. It is difficult as I always have concerts and events coming up but we both want the same thing - a traditional church service, followed by a get-together with all our friends and family.

"Ronald has asked me if I will sing at the wedding. Now, that would be very nerve-racking, but if he really wants me to do it I will do it for him."

Although, talking to Emma, it's clear that music is her life's passion, she does enjoy other pastimes.

"In my spare time I love cooking and baking and I love to read children's books as they are so imaginative," she says.

And along with concerts, travelling and planning a wedding, Emma wants to record an album in the not too distant future.

"I want to record an album of songs of remembrance. I think that is the type of music young people like when they hear it but not something which they are used to. I want to bring that back.

"Hopefully I will find the time to do that so."

She adds: "Right now, I am just looking forward to singing in Northern Ireland. It will be like coming home."

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