Glyndebourne Opera Features Belfast Singer

Una McMahon joins the chorus of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg  

In the beginning there was Oklahoma. Until she starred as Curley in a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's great American musical at St Louise's College, Belfast, Una McMahon had never remotely thought of singing as a career possibility.

A sharp-eared member of the audience advised her mother that McMahon's voice had special qualities, and needed proper training. Nothing happened, though, and when McMahon took the leading part of Freddy Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady a year later, she was still singing for her own personal pleasure.

‘Being in an all-girls school, I ended up playing a boy in every single show I did.' she remembers, laughing. ‘Good grounding for a mezzo.' Formal lessons eventually started when McMahon was 18, relatively late for a singer. Fortunately she was a quick learner.

Originally intending to study medicine at university, she quickly switched to a music performance degree at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin. That was followed by four years of postgraduate work and opera school training in Glasgow.

Professional engagements came relatively quickly, first a year with the chorus of Scottish Opera, then the parts of Maddalena in Verdi's Rigoletto and the title role in Rossini's La Cenerentola, both with Clonter Opera in Cheshire. ‘A real baptism of fire’, recalls McMahon.

Reaching the semi-final of last year's BBC Radio 2 Kiri te Kanawa prize was also excellent publicity, though like many singers McMahon has reservations about the whole idea of public vocal competitions.

‘It's a very different atmosphere, a different environment to walking out onto a platform to perform in an opera, or do a recital, because you realise that people are pitting you against somebody else,’ she comments.

‘If you can deliver the goods under difficult circumstances such as a competition, people will think that you are going to be able to deliver the goods under nerve-wracking circumstances on stage. This doesn't necessarily always hold true.

'You can train up really hard to learn three or four arias and blast people out of the water in a competition situation. It's very different when you have to walk into a rehearsal room and go with the whole arc of an opera.'

McMahon will shortly be seen performing in her native Belfast, not in a competition or on an actual concert platform, but at Queen's Film Theatre on June 26, when the new Glyndebourne staging of Wagner's comic masterpiece Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is streamed live from the famous opera house in the Sussex countryside.

To those unfamiliar with the career trajectory of aspiring opera singers, it might seem an unusual move for a performer already used to taking principal parts to spend the summer working in the relative obscurity of an opera company's chorus, watching other soloists enjoy the limelight. Not so, according to McMahon, who is hugely benefiting from her participation in the Glyndebourne chorus this season.

‘Glyndebourne is one of the most prestigious companies in England,' she comments, ‘and the quality of the productions and the music-making there are just incredibly high. It's one of those perfect steps for someone in my position who's not long out of college.'

Central to the Glyndebourne experience for young singers is the unusually long period of detailed rehearsal devoted to each production. ‘From the first day of rehearsal to the opening night of Meistersinger was ten weeks,' an unimaginable luxury for most opera companies.

And there's more, as she explains: ‘Glyndebourne has a system whereby those who are in the chorus actually get to audition to be covers (i.e. stand-ins for the main soloists), or you might get small parts. Then of course there's the Glyndebourne tour, which happens in the autumn.'

The tour is where aspiring young soloists from the chorus can gain experience of big solo parts away from the intense international spotlight of the summer festival. Small wonder, then, that so many ex-members of the Glyndebourne chorus graduate to highly successful careers as soloists – Gerald Finley, who returns to sing the huge central role of Hans Sachs in this summer's Meistersinger, is one eminent example, and there are many others.

To those who might feel daunted by the name of Wagner and the sheer size of Meistersinger (one of the longest operas ever written), McMahon has encouraging words to offer for those considering attending the QFT live broadcast.

‘It's Wagner's lightest opera, it's a comedy, with some great comic moments in it, coupled with scenes of great intimacy, very beautiful music and beautiful singing. And then massive spectacle. It's a feast for the eyes, with almost 140 performers on stage in the last scene: chorus, principals, circus performers, dancers and actors.'

Not to mention, of course, the refulgent splendours and subtleties of Wagner's masterly orchestration, superbly realised in Glyndebourne's production by the London Philharmonic and conductor Vladimir Jurowski.

All this coming to a cinema near you... For those who feel like attending, Moët et Chandon offer a glass of champagne to get the festive pulses racing before the broadcast explodes live onto the big screen at the Queen's Film Theatre.

And, somewhere amid the teeming on-stage activity, there will be a Belfast girl who once sang Curley and Freddy Eynsford-Hill at St Louise's, now rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest singing actors of our generation. And – who knows? – quite possibly on the path to operatic stardom herself.

Check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On Guide for more information about Queen's Film Theatre events.