Gavan Ring sees the funny side of The Barber of Seville
The Kerry baritone brings energy and a touch of John Cleese to the role of Figaro in Rossini’s classic opera
Gavan Ring on The Barber of Seville: “To sing Rossini, I tell ya, you’d be sweating at the end of it”
Mezzo soprano Tara Erraught, who is coming home to her first complete opera role in Ireland
In the taxi on the way to meet baritone Gavan Ring (28), from Kerry, I find myself telling the driver who I’m off to see. “I don’t believe you,” he says, delighted. “I’m married to a woman from Cahersiveen. Gavan does a lovely version of O Holy Night in the church there at Christmas.”
Ring came to opera at an early age. “My earliest memory was when myself and my mother were driving home from Killarney – I think I was five years old – and she stuck on the Three Tenors in the tape deck. I was captivated. The following morning I was up out of bed trying to imitate their sound.”
In earlier years Ring’s focus was on traditional music, which provided a firm foundation. “The sort of improvisatory style of traditional music lends itself to a flexibility of thought when it comes to dealing with classical music.” It’s something he still returns to reflexively. “Whenever I’m at home singing to myself or in the shower, it’s invariably a traditional song.”
He credits his mother, a teacher, with pushing him in the right direction. “She saw that I had a little bit of a flair, so she nurtured it. I started piano lessons, I started studying classical flute.” At the age of 12 he got a scholarship to study at Schola Cantorum at St Finian’s in Mullingar, where “everything went up a gear”.
His foray into opera singing came about “oddly”, he says. “I was in an organ lesson and my teacher, Shane Brennan, said: ‘Let’s see where you’re at, singing-wise’. We did a few scales and he took me up the octaves. ‘That’s really interesting,’ he said.”
After school Ring moved to Dublin to study teaching at St Patrick’s, Drumcondra. He felt a career in music “would be a secondary thing . . . The idea of a professional classic musician in Ireland, and especially an opera singer, is sort of greeted with a little bit of incredulity.”
He recalls his mother’s “trepidation” and her saying “you’d be better off now to get a solid job under your belt first”.
At the coalface
After St Patrick’s came a master’s at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and Opera Theatre Company’s Young Artist Programme, “ a real coalface exposure” to the profession. “I was under the impression that it was a bit laissez faire, you know? ‘Sure we’ll rock up to rehearsal 15 minutes late.’ By God was that quickly booted out of me.” He went on to study at the National Opera Studio in London.
His career is steadily gathering momentum. He describes a “wow moment” in 2014 when he performed for the first time at Glyndebourne. Ring was covering one of the major roles in Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera. On the opening night, he had a stroke of luck. “At about 3.30pm, the phone goes off. The Romanian baritone Gyula Orendt, who was playing the role, had taken sick all of a sudden – some allergy had flared up.”
I accuse him of foul play, a scene worthy of an opera.
“It is a bit of a Salieri thing going on,” he laughs.
Orendt walked the role but Gavan sang it from the side, “in full view of everybody”.
“At the end of it, the roar that went up in the opera house . . I woke up the next morning with Nicola [his wife] and I said, ‘Did that really happen yesterday?’ ”
He acknowledges some people find opera daunting. “It’s a question of education. Of exposure. There’s maybe an association, one that’s been broken down now, that opera is an elitist thing. In Ireland, because of the cultural polarisation in history, we have a sort of hangover of association with classical music as elitist, colonial, Anglo-Irish. That’s being eroded away.”
On the subject of crossover artists, such as Katherine Jenkins and Il Divo, Ring becomes animated. “The general man on the street, if you ask him about opera, they’ll probably mention someone like Katherine Jenkins or Il Divo first before they’ll mention someone like Renée Fleming or Juan Diego Flórez. It’s sort of undermining the art form slightly. They are singing operatically but it’s not opera.”
With this production of The Barber of Seville, is Wide Open Opera aiming to make opera more accessible? “All opera companies are going down that route, and that’s the way it should be. Fergus Sheil is director of both Wide Open Opera and Opera Theatre Company, and he has tremendous artistic integrity, but he’s incredibly pragmatic as well from a business point of view. He gets the two hats that you have to wear in order to have opera survive and thrive.”
Figaro in The Barber of Seville has long been Ring’s dream role. At the Opera Studio in London, “that was my number-one core role because I just felt vocally, dramatically, it suited me very well.”
He’s drawn to the comedic elements. “It’s a bit of craic, like.” His moves on stage have been compared in reviews with John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. “I was very proud of that because I love Monty Python and John Cleese is a hero of mine.”
The production in April will be Ring’s first major performance in Dublin, “a homecoming in a way . . . my saying ‘this is what I have to offer now’, so hopefully I’ll be able to do it justice”. The home crowd is still the one that brings out the nerves. “You’re talking about O Holy Night down at the church in Cahersiveen – I swear to God I never get as nervous before performance than I do in that church.”
He’s excited about the new show. “I’ve worked with the director before, Michael Barker Caven. He is fantastic.” Many of the performers are Irish, including Mary O’Sullivan, John Molloy, and mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught, the last of whom has a growing international reputation and is coming home to her first complete opera role in Ireland.
Like the clappers
Ring believes the Barber is definitely the one to see if you’re wavering about opera. It “is a romp. It just goes like the clappers from start to finish. It’s a comedy, but it’s a romantic comedy as well . . . Rossini sort of composed in a style that was all flair. It’s really vocally athletic and spectacular.”
He has to stay fit for his work. Gaelic football helps. “To sing Rossini, I tell ya, you’d be sweating at the end of it. The physical side of things is incredibly important now.”
Gone are the days of larger girth and limited movement. “That’s the exception now. As a singer now you’re required to be a good actor, to be fit, to look good, obviously to sing well. So you’re juggling a whole load of different things. With Arts Council budget cuts and struggling audience numbers, marketing is a huge part of any opera company’s portfolio nowadays.”
Ring travels frequently. He has been in the UK since August, performing at the Edinburgh International Festival, then performing Il Barbiere and then Mozart’s Cozi fan tutte for Opera North. There are a few roles he has his eye on. “There’s the Count in Marriage of Figaro. I’ve covered it but I’ve never performed it. Billy Budd – I’m covering that in the autumn and performing a small role, but the title role is something that I’d love to do.”
His wife, Nicola Mulligan, also trained as a singer but has moved to teaching. When we meet their baby is due shortly. So how will he combine operatic life with fatherhood? “An awful lot of people tell you, ‘You’re having a child now, your life is over.’ But I don’t see it that way at all. Maybe that’s pre-parenthood naivety. It’s going to form the central nexus of my life for the rest of my life, so for me that’s nothing to dread; just embrace it and roll with it.”
- Gavan Ring stars in The Barber of Seville at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre for three performances, on April 20th, 22nd and 23rd. Tickets from €15. bordgaisenergytheatre.ie
THE BARBER OF SEVILLE: A BLUFFER’S GUIDE
- The plot: The dashing Count Almaviva falls in love with the beautiful Rosina. To ensure she falls for him and not his wealth, he disguises himself as a poor student and serenades her, but to little success, thanks to Rosina’s guardian, Bartolo, who keeps her under lock and key. The Count enlists the help of the scheming barber, Figaro, to help him win the heart of the fair lady.
- The composer: Italian composer Gioachino Rossini, nicknamed Signor Crescendo for his music’s frenetic rising pace, composed the piece in 13 days.
- The big hit: “Figaro! Figaro! Fig-a-ro!” Figaro introduces himself in act one with one of opera’s most famous numbers, Largo al Factotum. It was parodied in the 1945 Loony Tunes cartoon The Bunny of Seville, and was performed by Robin Williams’s character in Mrs Doubtfire.