When Naomi O’Connell left Ireland for New York’s Juilliard School to carry on her operatic studies, she could never have known that the next time she returned across the Atlantic it would be to make her professional debut opposite Tyne Daly in the Maria Callas bio-show Master Class. The young mezzo soprano talked to Charlotte Marshall about theatrical superstitions, working with Daly and why she’s not nervous about stepping on to the West End stage.
Where did you grow up?
Ballyvaughan [in Ireland]. It’s a really beautiful area, which of course I didn’t realise when I was growing up there. It’s a really great town, fantastic people; they come out in spades to support you. I love it.
What first got you interested in opera?
I started singing when I was 13 with my teacher Archie Simpson. My mother said would I be interested in starting [Simpson’s] choir so I said ‘Yeah grand’ and that was fantastic fun and then I started taking voice lessons with him. I just enjoyed it so much and looked forward to it the most out of every week and then after about a year I said that’s what I would like to do.
Why did you decide to study in America after your degree at the Royal Irish Academy of Music?
I was interesting in developing the whole performance and I thought that America does it very well. There’s something very clear and honest about the singing and the dramatic approach.
At Juilliard I’ve met some incredible coaches and teachers, really wonderful people and I don’t think I would be where I am today without them. Stephen [Wadsworth], the director of the show, was my acting teacher for the past two years so I’ve learnt so much from him and to be directed by him in my first job is the dream, it’s really wonderful.
Is that how you got the role in Master Class?
Yes, he asked me to audition for it. I’m a mezzo soprano and this is a big dramatic, soprano aria and I didn’t think I would be able to sing it when I first looked at it because there are two big high c’s in it. I was with a new teacher at that point, Dr Robert White, so we worked on it and suddenly this sound came out that was different from what it had been before. In learning the aria and then learning to study for this role, it’s been a big eye-opener for me.
Who do you play in Master Class?
Sharon Graham. She’s a great character.
Is Sharon a fictional character?
A master class did occur at Juilliard; Maria did give lessons to several students in New York over a few weeks, but my understanding of it is that Terrence McNally took that idea and went with it. So I think she is a fictional character, but there are so many similarities coming out of a conservatory [Juilliard] and playing this part. I have been – never with a teacher as vicious as Callas is to this character – in master classes where you play the part and you grin and bear it when the teacher makes a little jibe at your expense to make the audience laugh. A master class is more for the benefit of the audience than the student, it can be terrifying, and with the wrong person in charge up there it can be a horrible experience. I have seen some really disgraceful shows of ego in master classes [laughs]. Any opera singer who comes to this show is going to go ‘Oh my God, I’ve seen parts of this before’.
Did you see the show on Broadway?
I didn’t actually, that’s the funny thing. I arrived the day after it closed on Broadway which in a way I’m glad of because I didn’t have any preconceptions coming to it and so the interpretation of it is coming purely from working with Stephen and Tyne [Daly]. It’s exhilarating and I’m very, very excited to do this.
Is it very different rehearsing a show like this to an opera?
Not extremely different, no. I’ve been directed by Stephen in opera before and he’s a very talented opera director so when you’re directed by him it makes all the difference because there’s a realism he searches for and an honesty in performance that is very special. I love to find honesty and expression everywhere, that’s my big thing. What I would like to be is the most honest performer that I can be and he and Tyne Daly are all about that.
I suppose the big difference is in opera a lot of the choices are made already by the music. What’s lovely about singing this aria, with Tyne as Maria interspersing these little comments and jibes, it spurs us on, it gives everything a new colour and a new meaning. And that can change from day to day with the energy in rehearsals, I’m sure it will change in front of an audience. I find my first entrance is a lot more nerve racking because I don’t sing! It feels much more naked for me to stand in front of an audience just speaking with my personality.
Are you nervous about making your West End debut?
I’m really excited. Of course a little bit scared but I think more excited to get this show in front of an audience and see what people’s reactions are because the audience are such a big part of it. They’re brought in from the very first line of the play. She [Daly, as Callas] says: ‘You’re not in the theatre, this is a classroom. We’re here to work’ and from that moment on they are accomplices in this, the audience are involved from the very beginning which makes the stakes so much higher towards the end. Actually I’m not even scared I just can’t wait to get in front of people and see what they think of it!
Would you call yourself an actor or an opera singer?
I suppose my preferred term would be singing actor. I don’t think you should take the two away from each other. I think too often we say that but I think the two should be the same. People shouldn’t go to an opera and excuse bad acting, that is what kills opera, for me anyway.
Do you have an essential dressing room item or routine before a show?
I always have water and I’ve asked them for a little keyboard just so I can warm up and do a couple of scales before I go on.
I’ll tell you one thing that I do, if someone sends me a text message to wish me good luck I never erase it until after the performance. I don’t know why I started doing that [laughs]. I have got socks that I always wear when I fly in a plane that have pigs with wings on them; those are my two little weird things that I do. Other than that, I try and stay away from superstitions but I’ve been told by Tyne I’m not allowed to whistle in the theatre, it’s bad luck. That’s terrible for me because it’s a big habit of mine, I whistle to save my voice and I always have a tune going around in my head so I have to get out of that habit.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
There’s this wonderful coach in Juilliard called Margo Garrett and she has inspired me from the day that I met her. She’s a beautiful lady, she’s always immaculately dressed with this gorgeous white hair and she knows everything about music and is constantly learning herself. She said so many different quotes that I gathered them all together and put them on a little cup for her as a goodbye present. But once she said what she wished she’d been told when she was younger was the words ‘I am enough’ and we don’t think about that a lot. We’re always striving to become better and what not, but to know that who you are is enough for the world and for the job and that you can learn and grow and whatever but that the essential part is enough, I think is extremely good advice for anyone.
What would you be if you weren’t an opera singer?
If you’re going to be an opera singer as your career you know at some point you’ll have to stop, probably before retirement age, so I do have a dream that if I have enough money I want to open a café bar somewhere. I don’t know where – New York, Dublin, London, who knows – but the idea of it is people can come in and have whatever they want. There’s a chocolate stall, somewhere you can get pastries, and lovely coffee – my doctor tells me I can’t drink coffee anymore which is terrible. It would have little tables but also a performance area so there would be cabaret aspect to it; opera one night, jazz the other, live music always.
Master Class is quite a good name for a café too…
Well, you never know it could be. You’ll have to get some of the cuts of the profit if that’s the case [laughs].