From pursuing a degree in psychology to a career as an opera singer seems an unlikely move. But that's exactly the leap Sinéad Campbell Wallace made. "I had been singing from the age of 10 with a nun called Sr Mary Walsh in the Loreto in Wexford. She has a whole list of singers to her credit, including the tenor Eamonn Mulhall and the mezzo-soprano Lynda Lee. We were all students of Sr Mary back in the day."
But when she went to college it was to study psychology at TCD. “The psychology was okay. I was enjoying it to a certain extent. But it was very mathematical, and this wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I was more into it as part of the arts and humanities, whereas in Trinity they tend to do a lot of statistics in first year. I think, in hindsight, it’s to sort out the wheat from the chaff.”
She had kept up the singing, and was studying under Mary Brennan, who said to her, "if you're not happy, why don't you come and do the performance degree at the College of Music. That was the first time I actually realised you could do it as a profession, as a college course. I thought that sounded great. So I kind of fell into the actual degree."
Being from Wexford, she had been going to the opera there “from the age of 11. I remember looking up at one point, I don’t remember the opera. But there was a soprano in the lead role and it was all very melodramatic. She was at the front of the stage, and I remember vividly the emotion I felt. But I didn’t know why. From that moment there was a definite emotional connect with the artform. I carried that with me through the years.”
From Dublin, she went on to the National Opera Studio in London and when she started singing professionally, “I was doing a lot of Handel, Mozart, a little bit of bel canto.” But she got married, wanted a family, and “actually stepped out of the career, left my agent, felt it was time to focus on something else”.
“I wasn’t active for about five years. I was still keeping in touch in Dublin, doing little recitals and a couple of smaller-scale things. But I took a full-time job, teaching in the DIT Conservatory of Music, which is now TU Dublin. That became my career. I was very happy. I had two children. My husband [the countertenor Stephen Wallace] was also teaching at the conservatory, so it was a very different life.”
People who heard her perform encouraged her to reactivate her career. One day she was working in the conservatory with the pianist Aoife O’Sullivan – “a very dear friend of mine” – and she remembers bringing up the subject of getting back to the singing. “Aoife sort of laughed and said she had been waiting for this day. She knew it was coming. And, looking back now, I can see of course it would have come. It’s in my bones.”
Her warning was that it was going to be very, very difficult. You've been off the scene so long, nobody remembers who you were. But I still took it on
Getting back into the profession was not a straightforward proposition. Not least because her voice had changed, signalling a move “into the heavier-lyric, dramatic repertoire. I spoke to people who had helped me early on in my career, a woman called Sarah Playfair in the UK. She’s a fantastic consultant. Her warning was that it was going to be very, very difficult. You’ve been off the scene so long, nobody remembers who you were. It’s going to be an uphill battle. But I still took it on.”
Campbell Wallace is grateful to Scottish Opera. “They were were very good to me. I covered Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos for them, and it was through them that I got my new agent, and things started to grow. That was about four years ago. I did a Musetta [in Puccini’s La bohème] for Opera Theatre Company. That was my first job here, post-hiatus.”
And Sarah Playfair got her an audition with Vladimir Jurowski, whose international career grew out of his Wexford Festival debut in 1995 and who has since had long associations with the Glyndebourne Festival and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. "I went on to do Helmwige in Wagner's Die Walküre for him in London, and subsequently have done a lot with him on various roles, and understudied with him. He's been a mentor."
She rather glides over the change in her voice, though it’s actually a major issue, involving learning completely new roles and repertoire, and figuring out how to manage a different way of singing. When I ask her about it, she says “It’s kind of like driving a very different car. That’s how I feel it in my head. You’re still driving, but what you’re working with, the machine, if you like, feels – and is – quite different.” It’s probably better not to think of changing a family car, in her analogy, but rather the far more demanding world of a Formula 1 driver. “There is a re-training there, definitely.”
She explains, “I would have been singing more light-lyric kind of repertoire. Luckily for me, I still kept that sort of ability. But when I went back to sing that sort of repertoire, it just felt like . . . going back to the car analogy, the revs were different, the gear-changing was slightly different. When I then took out some heavier Puccini or something like Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio, or lighter Wagner” – she does air quotation marks for “lighter” – “I felt, ahh, this is much more comfortable. I just took it from there, then. It was a re-adjustment. I maintained my range, but the middle and lower register just expanded. The colour was different. It was a case of getting used to that and, through vocal coaches, finding the right way to articulate it, and slotting it into the physiology of singing.”
It was, she says, “very interesting for me, also because I had taught for those five or six years. It was just such an interesting process for me. I had learnt a lot, actually, in terms of technique and the physiology, from teaching, from my students. It was amazing to put all that into practice on myself.”
I think there's also an emotional and psychological thing involved as well, whereby your mindset shifts, I think, once you have children
Does she have any theory on why the change happened? “A lot of people would look at motherhood,” she says. “It’s probably right. Physically you’re completely different after having children. Your body changes completely. Your hormones are involved in that change. How I would describe it is you just feel a bit more solid, a bit more grounded. That definitely comes into it, in terms of the muscular difference, or the body shape difference.”
But it’s not just physical. “I think there’s also an emotional and psychological thing involved as well, whereby your mindset shifts, I think, once you have children. It’s not that singing became less important, at all. But I had a different perspective on it. At the start it was more like a journey or an investigation or an adventure, exploring what I had now or what I was now. There was no real pressure.
“Early in my career I really did feel that pressure. I think as a young singer you feel your career has to gain momentum very quickly. In my case, psychologically and emotionally, I wasn’t ready for that at the time. Whereas now I’m much more able for that. I’m older and very different in myself. That actually helps this whole process. If anything, you’re taking it more seriously, it’s more important, but in the right way. The music is important, and how your voice is working. The career is there, but in the background. That new outlook has really helped me.”
She makes her Irish National Opera stage debut as Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio, and says the challenges of the role are many. “First of all, it’s a big role, you’re on stage virtually all the time, singing all the time. It’s very lyric. A lot of the role lies in the middle register, particularly early on in the opera. And as you get towards the end, in Act II, it just explodes at the top. You need real stamina. Within that, there’s also some coloratura, some versatility. As only Beethoven could, he really tests your mettle with the role. For me, it just fits. It’s like putting on a glove. It’s a joy to sing it.
Leonore, she says, “is before her time, really. She’s such a strong character, so resourceful. She’s infiltrating a prison system to look for her husband who’s a political prisoner. In this production we’re thinking she’s very much part of the movement that he’s also involved in.
“It’s a tricky one, because I want it to be like a feminist piece, championing this incredible woman. The fact of the matter is she’s doing all of this to find her husband. I think it’s more that she’s so determined and resilient. It’s the love. She wants him back in her life, and she will go to the ends of the earth and take some serious risks to achieve that. It’s timely. The world that she’s in is completely male-dominated, and she disguised herself as a boy to infiltrate this world. It’s an empowering role. Definitely.”
Sinéad Campbell Wallace is Leonore in Irish National Opera’s new production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, directed by Annabelle Comyn, at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre on Sunday 7, Tuesday 9, Wednesday 10, Friday 12 and Saturday 13 November.