Catherine Hayes - The Irish Nightingale


The Irish soprano Catherine Hayes was born in Limerick in 1818 and established a career in France, Italy and England, as well as far-flung touring activity. She merits two columns in the Dictionary of National Biography, where she follows a Mrs Catharine Hayes, "murderess". Her voice was summed up there as being "of the sweetest quality, and of good compass, ascending with ease to D in alt. The upper notes were limpid, and like a well-tuned silver bell up to A. Her lower tones were the most beautiful ever heard in a real soprano, and her trill was remarkably good."

She still rates a mention in The New Grove, which quotes the Musical World's obituary to the effect that she was "a true soprano, with more than an average share of the middle voice, which enabled her to sing music beyond the means of ordinary sopranos". The first edition of Grove, published in 1879, was more critical, concluding "Her voice was beautiful, but she was an imperfect musician, and did not study."

Interest in her life and work will be stimulated by a new biography by Basil Walsh, which seems to have itself prompted Sunday's celebration at the University of Limerick, headed by another Limerick soprano, Suzanne Murphy, with tenor Evan Bowers, the Voices of Limerick and the RTE Concert Orchestra under Proinnsias O Duinn.

The pieces chosen ranged over the singer's favourite repertoire. She preferred Bellini and Donizetti to Verdi, but place was found for all three, as well as material that evoked the atmosphere of a Victorian parlour. Strangely, for an evening celebrating the work of a soprano, the finest contributions came from the tenor, with Evan Bowers showing a restraint and exercise of good musical taste that's all too rare these days in Donizetti's Una furtiva lagrima.

Suzanne Murphy was her usual intelligent self, but never really got into gear as a singing actress.

O Duinn's accompaniments were on the stiff side, and the Voices of Limerick showed an enthusiasm which didn't readily translate into the requisite rhythmic adaptability.