Smitten by a love of opera
When she had to choose between science and singing, Orla Boylan knew there was always going to be one winner
ORLA BOYLAN strolls into a Dublin hotel, wearing a black parka jacket, casual trousers and shoes. Refusing a coffee or tea, she sits and smiles and begins to tell the amazing story of how she moved from the botany lab at University College Dublin to singing in some of the world’s most famous opera houses.
Growing up in Skerries, Co Dublin, the youngest of three children, she got a good Leaving Certificate and went to UCD to study science. “I found biology and chemistry easily accessible subjects. That you are given a list of subjects when you are 14 and you’re supposed to know what to choose still amazes me,” she says.
Graduating with a first class honours degree four years later, she stayed on at UCD to do a PhD in her chosen speciality, botany. “It just seemed right to go on to study cell biology after the results I got,” she explains.
Like many young people, Boylan had taken music lessons as a child. “I tried the piano for about a week, then the recorder and almost started the oboe, but all fell by the wayside,” she explains.
At the age of 12, she began singing lessons with music teacher Mary Brennan. “I was alright, nothing special,” she says modestly. “But somehow I kept it up through school and college.” Both her parents had good singing voices, her mother was in the local amateur dramatics society and her aunt had been a folk singer.
Boylan (38) admits now that she often sang at parties, but says she hated singing for anyone or in competitions. That changed when she got a part in the musical, Showboat.
“I began to meet people and like them. And that was how I got a taste for the stage. It was the other singers in the show who planted the seed for what I was to become, and they are my dear friends to this day,” she says.
And so the die was cast. What followed is an extraordinary period of success that forced Boylan into making a choice about where her future lay.
“I entered the first Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition and won it. I found myself singing with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra live on television and radio with not a nerve at all. It was very strange.”
The year after, she entered and won an international competition for young opera singers, the prize for which was the opportunity to tour with her peers in the opera houses of northern Italy.
“I was at the finals of the competition in La Scala in Milan with Mary Brennan and I didn’t have a word of Italian or know anything about opera, so it was only when people started congratulating me did I know that I had won,” she says.
Immediately, London musicians’ agency Harrison-Parrot called to sign her up. It was at this point that she had to make up her mind between science and singing.
“I had been three years into my PhD and my professor offered to help me to finish it quickly, but instead we let it die quietly. He said, ‘You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do’.”
Within three months of living in Milan, she could speak Italian and was singing in opera houses in Pavia, Bergamo and Como. From there, she won another competition to work in an opera studio in Manchester and then she was selected by German opera director Nikolaus Lehnhoff to play Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Oneginin Baden-Baden in Germany and later in Paris. This led to her first major professional role as Tatyana with the English National Opera in London.
“Suddenly I was no longer a young opera singer. I had an agent. I had concert dates, dresses and a repertoire. It hit me like a ton of bricks. What was I doing singing to a 2,000-seater house in London, travelling on my own with no access to my teacher or mentors? I had been carried along on a wave which began to drown me.”
And so, she crashed. “It was two weeks before I was about to do Verdi’s Requiemin Finland and I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t eat, which is extraordinary for me. I did the concert anyway, but when I got back to London, I had a complete meltdown. My doctor said that I had an acute attack of anxiety and depression. I took medication for a month to get back on my feet.
“At the time I didn’t know what was happening to me. I could barely pick up the spoon to feed myself porridge in the morning. Now, I realise what happened was completely normal. It’s the overstressed and overstretched disease of the self-employed person.”
From that time onwards, Boylan began to accept the highs and the lows of her life as an opera singer and make a special effort to look after herself.
“The minute I start to perform, I’m in a different world. The trick is to leave that world on the stage and not to take it home with you. The outlet is so short and intense that the exhaustion after a performance can feel like being hit by a bus.”
She bought a house in her home town of Skerries and cherishes the contact with her friends back in Ireland when she’s here.
“It’s by no means an easy life but with the help I’m given and the help I seek out along the way, I manage life just like the next person,” she says.
Orla Boylan sings Strauss’ Four Last Songswith the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gabriel Feltz, at the National Concert Hall on Friday