Newry Singer wins Chance to Duet with Kiri Te Kanawa

Ben McAteer wins the Northern Ireland Opera's inaugeral vocal competition

'It's no secret the Irish are singers', says Mark Chambers, curator of the inaugural Northern Ireland Opera Festival of Voice, which came to a thrilling climax in Glenarm last Sunday evening. 'But I think in the past perhaps we've fallen at the final fence of producing that last, top level of opera singing'.

Few would disagree with Chambers' assessment. Northern Ireland has occasionally produced internationally famous opera singers, such as the wonderful Heather Harper and (going further back) James Johnston, Belfast's 'singing butcher'. But they've been few and far between.

It's partly to address that scarcity that Northern Ireland Opera, in its first full season, has mounted a vocal competition to identify and nurture the region's operatic talent of the future.

Five finalists were selected to attend a three-day residency in the tranquil coastal setting of Glenarm, attending sessions in Italian diction, recital programming, the audition process, and the use of somatics.

Individual voice masterclasses were provided by renowned soprano Kathryn Harries, director of the National Opera Studio in London, with further expert coaching and advice on offer from top pianist-accompanist Iain Burnside, soprano Ailish Tynan, and conductor Nic Chalmers.

The aim, says Chambers, was 'to give these young singers the opportunity to be exposed to the absolute best coaches in the world, a real panel of experts, to see just what it takes to achieve at the highest possible level of opera'.

And how did the five finalists respond? 'The standard of the singing, communication and drama', enthuses Chambers, 'the standard of their attention to detail in the sessions with the coaches, it's been staggering'.

Chambers, himself an acclaimed counter-tenor, was careful to avoid the crudely gladiatorial nature of the TV talent competition, arranging the gala final in a way which mingled the singers together (with duets as well as solo items included), rather than cordoning them off in separate, self-contained recitals.

'More like a performance, a sharing of what they'd learnt', as Chambers puts it, 'rather than fighting it out as a battle of the voices'.

Chambers is glowing in his assessment of what the individual singers brought to the closing concert. 'They are international standard voices', he comments. 'If we play a part in making sure they continue in that upward direction, then that is what this competition is about'.

It was also, inevitably, about impressing the competition jury, comprising Harries, Chalmers, Burnside, and NI Opera board member Fionnuala Jay-O'Boyle. Separating the singers was unenviably difficult, but eventually Newry baritone Ben McAteer emerged as winner, with a £2000 cash prize, and a date in his diary to partner Dame Kiri te Kanawa in her Belfast Festival concert on October 30.

How, I ask McAteer afterwards, does he feel about duetting with the legendary Maori soprano? 'Amazing!', he replies. 'It only really sunk in after I got the trophy'. Is he worried, I wonder? 'I don't know if worried's the right word', he chuckles.

'Apprehensive maybe, but in a really nice way. I'll just make sure I know every note, every word, what I'm supposed to be saying. And hope that in the short time I'm sure I'll have to work with her we can get it together!'

Remarkably, McAteer (24) only really started singing seriously a year ago, when he finished a Chemistry degree at St Andrew's University and began an MMus programme at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. He points out, however, that St Andrew's was fertile territory for a budding amateur singer.

'It allowed me to do a huge amount of performing', he recalls. "Probably more than I would have done had I gone to a music college. I was hugely involved, did a lot of oratorio with the local choral society, and was president of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society. I was on the stage two or three times a year with them, and also did recitals and concerts'.

McAteer clearly flourished in the relaxed, supportive atmosphere of St Andrew's, a sharp contrast with the pressurised environment sometimes encountered in more specialised academies of music. 'In a place like St Andrew's', he comments, 'they foster talent, they want people to get up and sing to them. It's not a dog-eat-dog world like London can be'.

McAteer, who sang at the final concert with impressive power, subtlety and engagingly mature stagecraft, unquestionably has a major operatic career in front of him. In the meantime, though, it's back to full-time study in London. 'I'll be institutionalised for another couple of years', he laughs, 'doing an opera course at the Guildhall'.

Describing himself as a 'stage animal', McAteer is convinced that opera is indispensable to the career of a modern-day classical vocalist. "The days of recital work paying the bills have gone by the wayside', he explains. 'You can't sustain a good quality of life as a singer if opera doesn't form quite a bit of your job'.

McAteer has clear ideas about how he sees his own operatic future developing. 'I'd relish really delving into the Mozart baritone repertoire', he says. 'They just jump off the page at me, the Count in The Marriage of Figaro for example, it's just amazing. Further down the line I'd love to be thinking along the lines of the great romantics, like Verdi. But I'm happy to jump into anything - I'll give anything a go once!'

Food for thought, undoubtedly, for Oliver Mears, artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera, and an absorbed observer at the Festival of Voice's closing concert. 'I think Ben is extraordinary', Mears comments. 'He's very new to opera, and yet the sound that he creates is that of someone who is much further down the line.'

'I think he's got a great career ahead of him. I have absolutely no qualms about him sharing a platform with Kiri te Kanawa, it's going to be a very exciting evening. I think for someone who is at that stage of development, at his age, it really is something quite special'.

Ben McAteer will be singing with Kiri Te Kanawa at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's on Oct 30.