Mezzo Masterpieces: An Interview with Sharon Carty

Tuesday, 27 October, 2020
Mezzo Masterpieces 31 October

We sat down with Sharon Carty ahead of her live-streamed concert at Castletown House on 31 October.

What first inspired you to become a singer?

Aideen Lane, my music teacher in secondary school was a major inspiration, although it took me ten years to realise this! I had never wanted to be a singer, and I hated the attention of being on stage, but I loved music. Aideen gave me LPs of Janet Baker, and 14-year-old me couldn’t understand why anyone would ever want to sound like that! Now I’m honoured if someone tells me they think I sound like her in some song or aria! Aideen gave me “Voi che sapete” to sing for my Junior Cert practical. I hated it because it was so high! Looking back on it, she quietly and persistently sowed the seeds for me to be able to leave the teaching job I was in, ten years after leaving school, and to go to Vienna to study to become a singer. Aideen was an opera singer herself, before she began teaching, and she sang in the Wexford Festival in 1978, 40 years before my debut there! I’ll be eternally grateful to her for her teaching and support.

How has your voice developed over the years? Have you always sung mezzo roles?

I’ve always been a mezzo. Early on people used to always ask if I was sure that I wasn’t a soprano, because the colour of my voice has always been relatively bright for a mezzo, and I have a good “top”. In the past few years though, it’s become a bit darker with training, but my range has more or less stayed constant. I think the fact that I started so late has also meant that I sometimes sound a bit younger than I am, which has its benefits and drawbacks!

What is your favourite role to sing and why?

Hänsel (in Hänsel und Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck) has always been my favourite role. It’s written so beautifully to allow the lyric voices of the singers playing Hänsel and Gretel to be heard through what is essentially a Wagner orchestra. The structure of the role is really great for the voice as well. At the start the children sing children’s songs and it’s not until the midpoint that the more sustained and demanding singing comes, giving you plenty of time for the voice to ease into the performance.

I think my favourite time on stage ever is the big instrumental “pantomime” after the evening prayer, just before the interval. The children fall asleep after being visited by the Sandmann, and you get to snooze on stage and feel the vibrations of an amazing piece of orchestral music, so you really feel like you’re in the middle of the sound. That’s really special. And the story is just so lovely and appeals to everyone, young and old! My favourite ever Hänsel is Brigitte Fassbender, her dark, clear voice is perfect for the role.

Who is your biggest inspiration musically and why?

I return again and again to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. For me it’s the closest thing to any sort of vaguely adequate expression of something beyond ourselves. The architecture of it is just so perfect, and because of this, his music often works in quite a range of tempi - with different aspects being brought into focus. The music is a complex tapestry, expertly woven together.

It’s incredible to think that even though Bach was working at a time when life expectancy was shockingly low, he was such a prolific composer. He experienced the personal loss of his parents as a very young age and then later his first wife and some of his own children. In spite of this, he composed volumes of incredible instrumental and vocal music of such depth on a weekly basis that still resonates with us today. Extraordinary.

Who is your favourite mezzo-soprano?

This is a tough one, as there are so many wonderful mezzi, but I keep coming back to Anne Sofie von Otter. I got to work with her when I was in the Opera Studio in Oper Frankfurt. She sang the title role in Charpentier’s Médéé – some of which I’ll be singing in this concert, so we have her to thank for that!

I think my favourite recording of hers is from Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium, singing “Schliesse, mein Herze”, conducted by John Elliot Gardiner. I love how she can pare back her sound when it’s needed in an intimate aria like this one, yet still have a warm and supported tone.

Who in your opinion writes best for the mezzo voice and why?

There are so many types of mezzo voice it’s difficult to choose one, but for my type of mezzo voice, I adore how Handel writes. He knows how to exploit the beauty of the middle range of the voice-type he’s writing for, not leaving a singer too long in their passaggio, or in an uncomfortable range, and then choosing to expertly support the singer to soar or plumb the depths of the voice, or use coloratura in a way that never stresses or strains the singer. I suppose when the principal characters in baroque opera could have up to 8 arias as well as a couple of duets, the music needed to be well-written!

What have the last 6 months been like for you and how have you kept your voice in training during lockdown?

They’ve been a bit of a rollercoaster to be honest! The lockdown came just before I was due to travel to Holland for a St.Matthew Passion project, so that was the first devastating blow, and it slowly became clear then that many more projects would be cancelled in the wake of this pandemic. The one positive thing I’ve tried to focus on has been having more time than I usually do to focus on my practice and keeping physically fit, so that’s something which I will be keeping in my routine whenever we come out the other side of this. The 18 months or so prior to lockdown were spent in the process of moving home from Germany and buying a house in Ireland, which took a lot of my time, focus and energy. So, since April I’ve gotten into a good routine of either running or doing HIIT workouts quite regularly and being quite focussed in my daily practice and I’m definitely noticing the difference in my singing. I’m also using the time for the luxury of beginning to memorise a few wish-list opera roles!

What are you most looking forward to when opera houses re-open and audiences can return to the theatre?

Getting back into the rehearsal room and on stage with colleagues to do what it is we’ve spent years training to do! I miss, so much, the team interaction, discussion and experimentation in the rehearsal room to put a show together. Performing with people, whether they be other singers, or instrumentalists, is such an amazing way to commune with others, and I’ve been missing it so, so much. Opera is such an amazing artform in that you have so many different types of people in the room, contributing to the final product, and it’s a huge privilege to share that with an audience. I’ve done two small (for 50 people) live recitals since this all began, and the appreciation of the audience in both cases was so palpable. Audiences need the experience of live music as much as we as musicians need to perform. So hopefully the light at the end of the tunnel will come soon!