Radio review: Irish mezzo Naomi O’Connell’s quick trip to a hall of fame

Radio

Stage school: mezzo Naomi O'Connell singing in New York. Photograph: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Stage school: mezzo Naomi O'Connell singing in New York. Photograph: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Sat, Apr 27, 2013, 06:00

It’s a joke so old that a congratulatory birthday telegram from the President is probably due any day, but here goes anyway. A guy gets into a taxi in New York. “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” he asks. “Practice, practice, practice,” replies the cabbie. Cue groans.

It may not be funny any more, if indeed it ever was, but it is still true if the experience of Naomi O’Connell is anything to by. Last month the young Irish mezzo soprano made her first headline appearance at the storied concert venue (albeit in Weill Hall, a smaller recital space within the building), an event that formed the cornerstone of The Lyric Feature: Naomi (Lyric FM, Friday). And if Doireann Ní Bhriain’s documentary on the Burren native had one message, it was that the journey from Co Clare to Carnegie Hall takes a lot of hard work.

As Ní Bhriain followed O’Connell’s upward-to-date trajectory, there were many glimpses of her versatile vocal talent, from renditions from German song and Italian opera to sparky poems set to music specially for her landmark recital.

By and large, however, actual singing took a back seat to detailing the singer’s achievements: given that her career is still in its infancy, this placed a great deal of emphasis on her education and training.

This focus highlighted the dedication that took O’Connell from choral lessons as an adolescent to attending New York’s prestigious Juilliard School as a postgraduate student: even as a 13-year-old, her work rate was striking, said her first mentor, Archie Simpson.

But while meticulous and produced with authority, the programme was also slightly arid at times, dulling the luminosity of O’Connell’s gifts. In mitigation, she did not always come across as flamboyant; “such fun” was a standard exclamation of genteel delight.

In performance, however, the singer exuded a far more mischievous side. Instead of aspiring to the standard mezzo’s goal of opera stardom, her Carnegie Hall show, entitled Witches, Bitches and Women in Britches , was as much cabaret performance as song recital, speaking of an outre creative sensibility. If O’Connell’s path to Carnegie Hall followed a well-worn blueprint of endeavour and application, her future seems less predictable but all the more intriguing.

A musically gifted individual was also the subject of last week’s Drama o n One: The Short Biography of Denis O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday), though Paul Meade’s play was more concerned with the fictional protagonist’s height than it was with his instrumental ability. The third instalment of Drama o n One’s scientifically themed “What is Life?” season, inspired by the titular series of lectures given by Erwin Schrödinger 70 years ago, Meade’s drama took its cue from genetics, albeit obliquely.

Framed as a mock radio documentary, the play opened with ominously foreboding reminiscences about Denis’s birth from father Donal (Enda Oates) and mother Doreen (Karen Ardiff). These dwarf parents of dwarf children – their own terms – recounted conceiving Denis, their youngest son, through IVF, only for the gene containing dwarfism to be removed during preimplantation.

Consequently, he was the odd one out – “He stood out at home and we stood out everywhere else,” said his brother Séamus (Joe Hanley) – marked not just by his stature but also by his introspection and his talent on the piano.

As a wide cast of characters gave subtly differing accounts of Denis’s life, it became clear that he had suffered some untold fate.

The absence of the central character’s voice lent a dark patina to a potentially farcical premise, which in turn inexorably pulled the listener in. But the drama’s denouement, involving a murky stay in Argentina, did not quite live up to its promising and vaguely transgressive set-up, the somewhat perfunctory conclusion leaving several narrative and thematic strands dangling.

Even so, this was an absorbing piece of radio drama, deftly touching on ethical issues and featuring some enjoyable turns, particularly Peter Hanly’s as a self-important music teacher and Gerry McCann’s as a gormlessly boozy old pal.

And in evoking the insecurities and disappointments that beset most musical careers, Meade’s play was as vivid a snapshot of the artistic life as any documentary.

An apparently lost art was featured on The Right Hook (Newstalk, weekdays), when the stand-in host Bobby Kerr spoke to Martin Brady, a lecturer at University College Dublin, about falling standards in grammar. Discussing moves to reintroduce grammar tests in British schools, Brady lamented the way the syntactical horror show of the internet had destroyed this vital communication skill. Kerr concurred.

“If someone has a typo in a sales presentation, that’s unforgivable,” said the businessman and sometime Dragons’ Den star, his eye firmly fixed on the big picture.

Still, it was refreshing to hear such passionate, and immaculately articulated, advocacy for a vital, supposedly “old-fashioned” discipline. But as he asked his guest about common grammatical mistakes, there were signs that Kerr might have skipped the odd lesson himself: “What sort of things do you see that abhors you?” Ouch. Must try harder, Bobby: practice makes perfect.


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