Miriam Murphy obituary: Internationally acclaimed opera singer whose voice soared

Kerry-born soprano performed at some of the world’s most famous opera houses


Miriam Murphy
Born: August 9th, 1971
Died: July 10th, 2020

Miriam Murphy, the internationally acclaimed Irish opera singer, has died after falling ill suddenly in her London home.

The Kerry-born dramatic soprano performed at some of the world’s most famous opera houses, including the Opera National de Paris, the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Seattle Opera, Wexford Opera Festival, ABAO Bilbao Opera and Opera de Lille.

She also performed at the Edinburgh International Festival and the BBC Proms as well as singing regularly with the Welsh National Opera and Wide Open Opera, the Irish opera company which is now part of the Irish National Opera.

Murphy made a sensational debut at the Royal Opera House in 2006 when taking over the role of Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth when Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana fell ill. Other career highlights include solos in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and Verdi’s Requiem. The Royal Opera House director of opera, Oliver Mears, described her as having been “gifted with an extraordinary voice, but also the personality to make it count”.

Miriam Murphy Miriam Murphy for Dervan opera piece for arts
Miriam Murphy Miriam Murphy for Dervan opera piece for arts

Murphy made operatic history in 2012 when she performed as Isolde in the first Irish performance in over 60 years of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. In that role for Wide Open Opera at the Bord Gáis Theatre in Dublin, she became the first Irish singer ever to sing Wagner’s Irish princess. The opening night was livestreamed and watched in over 50 countries bringing her accolades from Wagner fans the world over.

Irish National Opera artistic director Fergus Sheil said that Murphy’s voice had seemingly endless reserves of power, strength, musicality and finesse. “Miriam had the unique capability to totally captivate an audience as if she owned everybody in the hall. Her ability to cast a spell and command attention was unparalleled.”

Simon Taylor, the CEO of the NCH, said she was a true Wagner soprano. “Those of us who heard her voice soar thrillingly above the orchestra in the Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde will never forget it.”

Her close friend and singing teacher of 10 years, Neil Baker, who is the professor of voice at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, said that as a dramatic soprano, Murphy’s best years were yet to come. “She had tremendous resilience of voice and she never tired even after a long Wagner opera.” She was nicknamed “iron chords Murphy” a title which she was proud of.

In 2018, Murphy sang at the Irish National Opera’s inaugural Big Bang concert. In spring 2020, she performed as the mother in the touring production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel which was an English language co-production between the INO and Theatre Lovett.

National Concert Hall (NCH) audiences will also remember her strong contributions to Veronica Dunne’s 90th birthday celebrations and the concert celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Great Exhibition (an occasion for the building which subsequently became the NCH), with the RTÉ National Symphony orchestra and violinist Maxim Vengerov, in May 2015. She often said that the NCH was her favourite place to perform as she loved both the acoustics and Dublin audiences.

Kerry school

Growing up in Caherslee, Tralee, the younger of two children to Marie and Frank Murphy, Miriam Murphy’s talent was first spotted by Sr Eileen Carew when she sang in the Bon Secour Hospital choir in Tralee. She then started singing classes with Audrey O’Carroll at the Kerry School of Music.

While still in Tralee, she sang in a masterclass for Dr Veronica [Ronnie] Dunne. Director of the Kerry School of Music, Aidan O’Carroll recalls: “I will never forget the look on Ronnie’s face when Miriam sang. She told her there and then to cancel any other plans she might have – that she was coming to Dublin.”

Murphy subsequently studied under Dunne in DIT College of Music (now TU Dublin Conservatoire) and later at the Leinster School of Music.

During these years, she won the Joan Sutherland Trophy in the Dr Veronica Dunne International Singing competition, the Gervases Elwes Cup at the Dublin Feis Ceoil, and the Yamaha International Foundation Bursary. She sang with the National Chamber Choir (now Chamber Choir Ireland) and in the chorus for productions by the DGOS Opera Ireland.

Murphy moved to London in the mid-1990s after she was awarded a scholarship to study opera at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She was later thrilled to gain a place at the elite National Opera Studio in London.

In 2006, Murphy had a major international breakthrough when she won first prize at the inaugural Seattle International Wagner competition and subsequently returned to Seattle to perform in Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Generous spirit

Murphy was much appreciated in the opera community both for her incredible talent, her infectious laughter and her generous spirit. Her colleagues adored her and she was patient and kind to younger singers, giving free master classes in both Ireland and England. When not working, she loved to travel and spend time with her close friend, South African soprano, Amanda Echalez and her children, Tristan and Eva in Sante Fe in New Mexico, USA.

For all her achievements, Murphy remained loyal to her home county of Kerry, returning every Christmas to sing with the Kerry Choral Union. She also performed with Paula Murrihy, Tralee-born, Frankfurt-based mezzo soprano, at the National Concert Hall to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Kerry School of Music in 2012.

Miriam Murphy is survived by her mother, Marie, brother Seán (John), extended family, and many friends and colleagues. Her father Frank pre-deceased her in 2018.