Pioneer magazine

Celine Byrne - Prima Donna and Pioneer

2012octobercoverWe 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 grandcelinebyrne3parents.

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 celinebyrne2 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  Liedecelinebyrne1r   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