Subscriber OnlyStage

Cara O’Sullivan’s Irish opera legacy: ‘An almost mythical figure, tall, imperious – and hilarious’

Late soprano’s contribution to music is remembered in Cork Opera House’s Cara O’Sullivan Associate Artists programme

“Things came to a gradual stop at Christmas,” Christine O’Sullivan says of the final public performances of her mother, Cara O’Sullivan. The renowned Cork-born soprano had been diagnosed a couple of months earlier with a form of early-onset dementia, yet was able to fulfil all her seasonal engagements before a normal break lengthened to a natural end in 2018. “She was very accepting of that. The timing worked out well, which was lovely.”

O’Sullivan died in January 2021, at the age of 58, during a Covid-19 lockdown, so a funeral that would normally have been a huge celebration of her life was attended by 10 people. A few months later, to help mark the singer’s achievements, Eibhlín Gleeson, chief executive of Cork Opera House, arranged a series of outdoor operatic performances to inaugurate the Cara O’Sullivan Associate Artists programme.

The series of two-year residencies, which aim to help guide opera singers through the early stages of their professional careers, “came from a conversation which happened when Cara died: our questioning how to ensure her legacy, how to establish it in some enduring way”, Gleeson says. She and the others involved in establishing the programme, which is now in its second cycle, shared her conviction that Cork Opera House was in a unique position to appreciate the way the people of the city felt about O’Sullivan. “We wanted to do something which would have a long-term impact. We understood the way she would wrap her arms around the opera community in Cork, and how influential she was with other singers. We just wanted to harvest that, to harbour that. And, I think, to capture some of the energy she brought with her,” Gleeson says.

A semi-staged, abridged version of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute at the opera house in October was a joyous event. The soprano Kelli-Ann Masterson, the tenor Dean Power and the bass-baritone Rory Dunne represented this year’s cohort of associate artists; the soprano Emma Nash represented the inaugural group. Directed by Davey Kelleher and adapted by John O’Brien, conductor of Cork Opera House Concert Orchestra, the production blended the fun and satire of the libretto with a score that sounded so fresh it might have been a premiere.


Dunne recalls O’Sullivan warmly. She “was adjudicating a vocal competition where I was singing lieder. She asked me to repeat my song, and not only did she give me first prize: she gave me later a big list of things she thought would be of use to me”. He believes the Cork Opera House scheme has an international relevance. “The main thing is that it gives you the experience of roles that you’ve never sung before,” Dunne says. “It gives you a confidence as a singer, and there is a currency that comes with that, because you realise others believe in you, which bolsters your self-belief.”

Dunne, who is also an alumnus of Wexford Festival Opera’s Factory academy and of Irish National Opera’s Studio scheme, says that his two-year Cara O’Sullivan residency included meeting people like Ashling FitzGerald, “a producer who’s great at knowing what’s good for you as a singer. She understands how our careers work, how to get the best out of our performance, and wants to know how the scheme can help get you where you want to be”. Being involved in events such as Wexford Festival Opera can be crucial – some performances can be like auditions, as conductors from home and abroad are in the audience and can hear singers at work.

The soprano Majella Cullagh, who teaches voice at Munster Technological University Cork school of music, describes the associate-artists scheme as “an opportunity platform, scant in this country”, which gives singers the chance to experience being part of a company with orchestra, conductor and director, as well as to learn more about their voices – a singer stays a student forever, she says. Cullagh was very good friends with O’Sullivan. “We both trained initially with Bobby Beare,” Cullagh says, referring to the late teacher. “He used to tell me stories about her: she seemed an almost mythical figure, tall, imperious – and hilarious.”

Cullagh, who sang with O’Sullivan in The Magic Flute, among other productions, adds: “Cara and I shared a repertoire. She created a supportive environment as we took the bus to Dublin for general auditions. We took Cara’s first car to Wexford – we felt so grown up. It did feel like the beginning of a journey. And it was.”

Cork Opera House, which is funded primarily by the Arts Council, pays for the associate-artists scheme from its regular budget. “We are able to maintain an output of six to eight projects a year,” Gleeson says, “with an orchestra of professional musicians and with the objective of invigorating our artistic programme, but we have to be innovative and we have to have public support.”

The theatre’s history includes the tradition of Early Doors, where the opera-loving public would take gallery seats in the gods, right at the top of the auditorium, and entertain themselves with songs while waiting for curtain-up. “That’s the history we’re trying to protect and to enhance,” Gleeson says. The impresario Barra Ó Tuama, who died earlier this year, fed Cork’s appetite for opera through his years of promoting concerts – one of which, in 1998, included O’Sullivan as guest singer with the Argentinian tenor José Cura.

Cullagh watched O’Sullivan’s funeral with the soprano Mary Hegarty. All three had remarkable, sometimes intertwining international careers. “Through all of that the three of us had been good friends. It was heartbreaking to say goodbye in such a weird way,” Cullagh says. “When Cara’s close friend Fiona O’Reilly sang at the funeral it was as if she was singing for all of us.”

Hegarty, who teaches vocal studies at MTU’s school of music, still finds it strange to be talking of O’Sullivan in the past tense. “She had a beautiful, beautiful voice, and what she did with it, and with her gorgeous pianissimo, was amazing,” Hegarty says.

Within their own expanding professional worlds there had been shared events such as singing together in Mozart’s Il Seraglio at Garsington, the English summer opera festival, or in John O’Brien’s production of Dido and Aeneas at Cork Opera House in 2011. “It gets to you. It’s great now to have her name associated with this programme for young singers. They’ll be heard by the right people. They’ll be taken care of when they need care. It’s such an important way to remember her. There was no one better than Cara in bringing the music home.”

Cullagh and Hegarty saw O’Sullivan’s sheer artistry bring her through her performance at the Lord Mayor’s Gala Christmas Concert in Cork five years ago this month. For Christine O’Sullivan, it will be her mother’s singing that final Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, at St Francis Church, that will be the unforgettable memory, the packed church moved to silence by the impact she had on ordinary people. It is a remarkable legacy to leave. “I think she did that all on her own,” Christine says.

The Cara O’Sullivan Associate Artists will take part in the Cork Opera House Christmas concerts on Monday, December 18th, and Tuesday, December 19th