We here, one might ask without, maybe, much hope of a positive response, would one find a prima donna who is also a Pioneer? Well, the answer is actually quite easy. Just go to Caragh, near Naas in County Kildare and there you will find soprano Celine Byrne in the place she loves and lives with her husband, Tom Deans, and their three children, Noël, Ciana and Cillian.
I meet Celine briefly following her recent ‘sold out’ appearance at the National Concert Hall with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Robert Houlihan. She floats into the Hall’s foyer to greet her many devoted admirers who are eagerly waiting to chat and have autographs signed. We agree we should find a more intimate rendezvous for our tête–à-tête and decide on the Café Libro on the first floor of Barker and Jones’ Bookshop in Poplar Square, Naas.Celine is already there when I arrive and I am immediately struck by the warmth of her welcome. Very kindly she plies me with Libro’s excellent coffee and she fills me in on her remarkable career to date. Celine, frank and candid, is refreshingly free of pretentious airs and graces. She makes one feel at ease in her company and I remember the title of one of Micheál MacLiammóir’s shows: I must be talking to my friends.
Celine was born in Caragh, County Kildare some thirty-odd years ago – one never asks a lady her age – and it was there she went to junior school before moving on to the Sisters of Mercy in Naas for her secondary education. Celine’s ancestry is rooted in Caragh, which is also the home of her parents and grandparents.
After her Leaving Cert, Celine went to work as an au pair in Milan and it was there she fell in love with opera seeing her first production in one of the world’s most prestigious houses – La Scala - a place where all the great names of the operatic world found fame, and sometimes fortune, since its opening in 1778 with the now forgotten Europa riconosciuta by Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), Mozart’s rival in Vienna. Celine was bitten and decided, for better or worse, she would follow a singing career. She understood that there would be many obstacles to be overcome, but being a girl with a strong faith in God, she believed she was following a providential route. Completing her stay in Milan, Celine returned to Caragh, where she knew Tom Deans would be waiting for her – she had her first kiss at fourteen!! However, deciding first things first, she and Tom married in Caragh Church. In due course there was further rejoicing with the blessing of their first-born Noël.
After that came the resolution, with Tom’s supportive agreement as well as staunch family back up, to positively pursue her singing career. She applied to the Music Department of the Dublin Institute of Technology and very quickly found herself under the tutelage of Mary O’Sullivan and then of Edith Forrest with coaching assistance from pianist Trudi Carbery.
Although Celine Byrne has not come from a specifically musical household – sport was more the thing as she grew up with her sister and three brothers – she had studied music at school and had a well-founded grasp of its rudiments.
While she was at DIT it was suggested she should enter for Feis Ceoil. She did, taking a significant number of awards for her pains. In 2002, she won the Peter Tattan Memorial Trophy and Bursary for Mahler interpretation. Celine took the Vincent O’Brien Cup for Italian song the following year and the Calthorpe Cup for French song in 2004. In 2005, Celine won the Lieder Prize, the Milne Cup and the Plunkett Greene Cup, also for interpretation.
The Peter Tattan prize brought Celine into close contact with the late mezzo, Bernadette Greevy, who presented the award in memory of her husband who had died in 1983. Greevy, whose own Mahler interpretations had brought her worldwide recognition, took a personal interest in Celine’s career and actually arranged her first public recital in Dublin’s Bank of Ireland Arts Centre in Foster Place. The venue is now the Wax Museum.
Realising the potential of Celine’s God-given gift, Bernadette Greevy encouraged her to continue with her studies and offered all the advice she could give as well as small parts in Anna Livia Opera productions of which Greevy was artistic director. Celine continued her studies at DIT, which she combined with running her home and now rearing children – Ciana had already arrived by this time. Undaunted, and with her sense of determination prevailing, Celine was awarded an honours degree from the Institute.
Many might well consider enough is enough but Celine decided to try for a Master’s Degree at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. This, in turn, brought her into contact with Veronica Dunne, one of Ireland’s best-known singing teachers. They met originally at the Wexford Festival’s Young Artists’ Programme in 2005 when Ronnie suggested that Celine come to her at the Academy.
Ronnie had heard Celine previously and realised the potential of her natural voice. By now though Celine and Tom’s third child, Cillian, was on the way and while La Dunne’s reaction was slightly discouraging she realised the strength of Celine’s sense of purpose. With Cillian safe and sound in his cradle, Celine continued her Masters Degree in earnest. She worked extremely hard with Veronica Dunne and achieved her goal in 2006.
The next year, however, began with a disappointment. Celine had entered the Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition in January reaching the final rounds. Then came a minor disaster when Celine contracted pneumonia. Despite that she struggled on and was awarded the William Young prize in the competition. Later that year she entered another international competition in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands receiving its coveted Brabant Dagblad Press Prize. However, the jewel in the crown came with taking première prix at the Maria Callas International Competition in Athens.
Taking part in these competitions helps young artists to become ‘known’ in the commercial world of artistic endeavour and the Athens prize led almost immediately to Celine being invited to join the French-born Italian tenor Roberto Alagna in concerts in Moscow and St Petersburg and to partnering the Spanish tenor José Carreras on a fairly extensive European tour. More recently still Celine has been touring with the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja.
Had fortune smiled more sweetly on Celine she might well have been Puccini’s Mimi in La bohème to Calleja’s Rodolfo in Covent Garden in May and June of this year. Unfortunately a chest infection struck during rehearsals and Celine was forced to pull out of the production. But she is her usual philosophical self about the episode. In a way this is ‘the shoe being on the other foot’. Earlier this year Celine was ‘covering’ the title role in Dvorák’s Rusalka at Covent Garden when, during the performance on March 6th, Finnish prima donna Camilla Nylund became ill and decided she was unable to continue. Celine Byrne was relaxing in her hotel when the phone rang, “Can you be here right now, please? We need you on stage immediately”.
Jumping into a taxi, with hardly time to bless herself, Celine was on stage with the dynamic young Canadian conductor Yannick Német-Séguin in the pit. Her reception at the end was tremendous. Interestingly Rusalka was being staged at Covent Garden for the first time in its history since its première in Prague’s National Theatre in 1901. The new production was far from traditional with the director and designer being loudly harangued by the first-night audience on taking their curtain calls. But contemporary settings do not unduly upset Celine. ‘One does what one has to do, and one sings what one has to sing!’ Celine’s appearance in Scottish Opera’s La bohème last year is a case in point. The production, having toured extensively in Scotland and to Belfast, came to what was then Dublin’s Grand Canal Theatre – now Bórd Gais Energy Theatre – and was the first operatic presentation at this terrific venue in the south-side Docklands.
Puccini’s setting was moved from 1830s Paris to 2000s New York. The bohemians’ atelier was more like a commodious penthouse. So much for penury! Christmas Eve at the Café Momus became the opening of an art exhibition. Yet, I personally found the production, while adverse to Puccini’s ideas, was not out of place in the theatre’s modern Dublin location and Celine Byrne was certainly not out of place as Mimi. Reviewing in the Irish Independent I wrote “Musically, however, matters have an appealing freshness and the production brings a youthful cast handsomely led by Celine Byrne’s Mimi and Alessandro Liberatore’s Rodolfo. Byrne’s attractive
soprano has a creamy foundation and she manages effortless tone with alluring definition”.
Celine will be returning to Covent Garden next year when the house celebrates the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth with a new production of Parsifal . She will be one of the Flower-maidens who attempt to lure the hero away from his virtuous path and his quest in seeking the Holy Grail. Frankfurt Opera is also calling on her for a revival of Rusalka in its 2013/4 season while later this year Celine will be the Klagenfurt State Theatre as Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischutz. The soprano admits her German is not as good as her French, Italian or Spanish so her Agathe will need a little brushing up!
Familiar to audiences at home, Celine has also appeared in New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2007 and in 2009 she toured in the US with the reconstituted Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Dublin-born US-domiciled Derek Gleeson. In 2010 she was in China with the same orchestra and conductor. There were five concerts in all – at the Shanghai World Expo; in the concerts halls of Suzhou and Changchun and two programmes in Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts. Both of these Beijing events were televised to over 200 million people nationwide as well as being seen on over 100 giant TV screens in shopping malls, squares and other Beijing landmarks.
Celine will be back at the National Concert Hall in November for Mahler’s Rückert Lieder with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and she will be in Klagenfurt in August with Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. Celine is currently being coached in Vienna by the exceptionally renowned and redoubtable Christa Ludwig.
A woman of strong Catholic faith, Celine Byrne likes to visit Lourdes every year – twice if she can – and she is also devoted to Our Lady’s shrine at Medigorje. In 2008 she had the honour of taking part in the first World Apostolate Congress on Mercy in Rome, which had been commissioned and officially opened by Pope Benedict. As well as singing for the Holy Father, Celine gave the first performance of a new presentation of the Divine Mercy Chaplet in the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli and sang both Ave Maria and Panis Angelicus at the International Mass in the Basilica of St John Lateran.
Invited to be part of the closing ceremonies and Mass of the 2012 International Eucharistic Congress in Croke Park, Celine follows in the footsteps of another great Irish artist, John McCormack, who sang at the 1932 Dublin Congress and as she herself believes she has been ‘following God’s providential path’.
With that Tom and Cillian appear.
“You know we have to collect Ciana and you have to be at the K Club?” We bid farewell but not before I ask her if she has a favourite role. “Nedda” [in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci ] “She’s feisty like me”.
“And a role you would like to sing?”
“Butterfly particularly and Carmen, but unfortunately she’s really not for me. Not the right voice”.
“Is any of the family musical?”
“Ciana is learning violin and piano but she is not going to be forced into music. As a mother, I believe one should never live one’s life through one’s children. Hence, I would never steer my children to follow in my footsteps but to lead their own lives. Divine providence will show the way!”
“Do you say the Pioneer prayer?”, I ask. “Of course I do, and a few more besides”.
I say good-bye to a truly remarkable personality who, while flying high, has her feet firmly on the ground and safely in her loving family’s embrace.
(Celine Byrne’s album For Eternity [RTÉ fm CD 128] with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marco Zambelli is available from music shops.)
Pat O’Kelly is classical music reviewer for the Irish Independent