ONE OF the star names in this year’s Music for Galway Midwinter Festival, Swansong, is internationally-feted Irish soprano Ailish Tynan, whose glittering career has taken her all the way from Mullingar to Milan’s La Scala and established her as one of today’s finest opera singers, recitalists, and recording artists.
Tynan will be taking part in Swansong, which will be held in the Town Hall Theatre from Friday January 18 to Sunday 20. This year's event will focus on compositions written towards by such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Shoskatovich, Schubert, and Schumann, towards the end of their lives. Other performers at Swansong include ConTempo Quartet, baritone Henk Neven, clarinettist Michael Collins, and composer John Kinsella. Ahead of her Galway, visit Tynan spoke with me about that career and the pieces she will be singing in the festival.
The image of a star soprano might conjure up thoughts of regal hauteur or prima donna airs but Tynan is utterly the opposite. While deeply knowledgeable and passionate about her art, she exudes warmth, earthiness and humour - and her hometown accent remains clear as a bell. So how did a girl from Mullingar, a town better known for Joe Dolan than Jussi Bjorling, become a classical soprano?
“It was a case of it being the only thing I could do well so it chose me rather than me choosing it,” Tynan replies matter-of-factly. “I never listened to classical music growing up. I only saw my first opera when I was 25 so I was a late bloomer, but a lot of opera singers come to it late in life. Luckily enough a voice is something you are either born with it or not – it’s not something you have to be practising since you were three years old like these fabulous violinists or pianists.
"When I was at school the nuns noticed I had a nice voice and I used to sing solos at Mass and all that kind of stuff. Later, I went on to qualify as a secondary school teacher but after two weeks teaching I thought to myself ‘Oh Lord, no!’ I take my hat off to teachers, they’re saints! I thought then ‘What else can I do?’ and people had always been saying I should follow the singing but, coming from Mullingar, I never imagined opera singing could be a realistic career choice. I was proved wrong.”
'Strauss’s wife was a soprano and a hard taskmaster. Maybe that is why he lived so long - he wasn’t going anywhere with her around!'
I ask whether she found it daunting embarking on opera singing as a ‘fallback’ career choice? “Not at all, because I’d never had an aspiration to be a singer,” Ailish asserts. “When I made my debut at La Scala, I remember a year before I went there someone saying to me ‘I bet you can’t wait to go to Milan’ and I replied ‘Milan? Why would I be going there?’ and they said ‘That’s where La Scala is!’ I was never chasing some golden rainbow, I always took it as it came and enjoyed everything I was doing at the time without worrying about what was going to happen next.”
One of the signal accolades Tynan has received is when leading composer Judith Weir wrote a piece specially for her, 'Nuits d’Afrique', which premiered at Wigmore Hall in 2015. “That was amazing,” she admits. “Judith and I had worked together on a few collaborations; I had recorded a lot of her symphonic works and songs so we knew each other. We also both have little terrier dogs and we bonded over our love of terriers. Wigmore Hall asked her to do a recital and said she could do whatever she liked. Then the piece arrived with a dedication ‘to Ailish Tynan’ and that was an amazing honour. When I see a piece by Debussy and it is dedicated to someone I wonder who they were, so maybe in a hundred years’ time, people listening to 'Nuits d’Afrique' will wonder who I was.”
Moving onto Music For Galway’s Swansong, Tynan is enthused about working again with MFG director Finghin Collins, who’ll accompany her for all the pieces she will sing in the programme. “I love working with Finghin, he is a fantastic pianist and also comes up with great ideas. We have worked a few times together so he knows what I am capable of. I have recorded Schubert’s Shepherd on the Rock a few times and Strauss’s Four Last Songs are also a staple of my repertoire. Finghin found the Schumann songs I’m doing and the gorgeous Mozart songs as well. When he suggests something to me I don’t even need to look at it, I just know it will be fine.”
Over the weekend’s three concerts Tynan will sing Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs (Friday 18 ); Chausson’s Chanson Perpétuelle (Saturday 19 ); Schubert’s Shepherd On The Rock, Schumann’s Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart, and Mozart’s Three Songs, K596, 597, 598 (Sunday 20 ). I remark that of those five composers, only Strauss did not die young.
'The way Strauss wrote for sopranos, it just soars out of your body. It lifts the rafters off a concert hall, it raises your soul. I love singing it'
“You’re dead right! I think a lot of them had syphilis so I suppose at least they died from having a bit of craic,” Ailish answers with a laugh. “Schumann did have syphilis and his wife Clara’s father knew that when Schumann was marrying her. Lots of people talk about the love Schumann had for Clara but there was also this foreboding that he could have been infecting her and their children, and a lot of their children did die young. The Gedichte/Poems of Mary, Queen of Scots are quite dark yet they are very spiritual, they are short but really pack a punch.”
Tynan has previously spoken of her passion for French music and Chanson Perpétuelle will enable her to showcase that. “It takes ages for me to learn French music because the language is so delicate, it is like no other language,” she reveals. “Its delicacy requires a lot of hard work at the ground level in order to be able to let it fly but then when it does fly it is magical, it is like silvery threads and you are playing them very delicately. Chanson Perpétuelle is a new one for me and I am still getting to grips with it.”
Our chat concludes with Ailish’s insights on Strauss’s Four Last Songs. “They are out of this world. His wife was a soprano and she was a hard taskmaster. His opera Intermezzo is supposedly a caricature of his own life with his wife; she was a tough woman who would not take any nonsense. Maybe that is why he lived so long - he wasn’t going anywhere with her around! He used to accompany her on piano and she would stand in front of him while he was playing but she must have been a good singer because he wrote brilliantly for her.
"The way he wrote for sopranos, the music fits perfectly and it just soars out of your body and allows you to do fabulous things. It’s not easy to sing and you have to have done your homework, but when you have done all that it does feel effortless and it is very uplifting. It lifts the rafters off a concert hall, it raises your soul, it is transcendent and really beautiful. I love singing it.”