This month, celebrated mezzo-soprano Ann Murray shares her early musical influences and the advice she would give to singers working today.
What are your earliest musical memories and who are your singing inspirations?
Having noticed I had a voice as a toddler my mother took me for singing lessons when I was four. Like the Eisteddfords in Wales, the Feis Ceoil was a central part of Irish culture and I was taking part in competitions from five years of age, like most children at the time. Aged seven, I was one of the founding members of the Young Dublin Singers Cantairí Óga Átha Cliath and went on to St Louis boarding school, Monaghan, where I joined the choir and took part in various school productions.
As I tended to imitate what I would hear, I rarely listened to records…which were expensive to get hold of in any case! In earlier years I therefore had less access to opera and was more exposed to live performances of Lied and Oratorio. While at University College Dublin, however, I was cast as the Shepherd Boy in Rome Opera’s 1968 concert performance of Tosca, which was touring Ireland with the wonderful Magda Olivero in the title role and which she went on to sing as her MET Opera debut aged 65 in 1975.
At that time, I was competing in the Feis Ceoil and the adjudicator suggested I might consider pursuing a career in singing. One thing led to another and I auditioned for the Royal Northern College of Music and was invited to study with Frederic Cox, recognised as one of the finest singing teachers of the twentieth century. He had a great knowledge of the repertoire and encouraged an easy technique with no unnecessary pushing. Some of his other pupils included Elizabeth Harwood, Rosalind Plowright, Ryland Davies, Paul Nylon and Dennis O’Neill. At the time the RNCM were presenting an exciting range of repertoire including Lohengrin, Peter Grimes, Norma, Verdi Requiem and Werther, but no one was damaged vocally, and all were encouraged to sing healthily.
I have always learned something from the people I work with and believe that singing with great colleagues raises your own game. Two singers I particularly admire are Edita Gruberová and Margaret Price and have been lucky enough to sing with them both.
What are the realities of maintaining a successful career and what advice would you give to singers working today?
The cruel reality is that you will have already spent a large portion of your fee before even leaving the house (tax/NI, agent’s fee, travel, concert dress/dry cleaning, scores, music/language coaching etc). As a freelance artist you must take all this into account and ensure that suitable financial provision is made for yourself.
Work abroad often involves long periods of repertoire preparation for the next contract, and this must be factored into your free time, as well as time for children and family commitments. Do not underestimate the preparation time required to learn a new role. You may find additional pressure not to be ill, absent or under prepared if understudies have not been contracted.
Dull discipline is the foundation of any successful career. You cannot fly on stage if you’ve not done this work in advance.
Don’t feel you need to sing all the time in your own practice – read the libretto, look at how important you are in other character’s lives. What are they saying about you? Be inquisitive. Become a detective and think of imaginative backstories you can draw on…regardless what a director may ask you to do on stage. Don’t see this as an onerous commitment. It should be an ongoing process, letting your imagination run free and enabling your performances to become as unique and creative as you are.