Q&A: Soprano Máire Flavin on ‘William Tell’, Possessing Different Vocal Styles, Her Favorite Artists
The November 8 performance of Rossini’s ‘William Tell’ at the Irish National Opera will mark the first time in 145 years that opera has returned to Dublin.
This kind of story is not lost on the artists involved, but it has special meaning for Dublin-born soprano Máire Flavin. The soprano, who takes on the role of Mathilde, does not share the lyrical origin story of many of today’s singers. Although she always had classical music in her life, she didn’t know it was her destiny until her university years.
“I’ve always had music, and classical music in my life. My parents loved it and I learned the piano from an early age. I originally wanted to work with children, and I got a degree in music and psychology with the goal of perhaps working with autistic children,” she told OperaWire in a recent interview. “It wasn’t until I took singing lessons at university that I caught the virus. Once I experienced the marriage of singing and acting in the enormous emotions of opera, I was hooked.
What follows is OperaWire’s conversation with Flavin about his career trajectory, his life during the pandemic and, of course, Mathilde in “William Tell.”
OperaWire: What was the pandemic like for you? Your husband is also an opera singer, so was it difficult? How come now you’re back at work after having a baby too?
Mayor Flavin: The pandemic has been trying, as it has been for everyone. Our industry has been decimated and is certainly struggling to recover. We were lucky as we had just moved into our new home on the Fife coast so although our belongings were trapped in France for the first 6 months we were right by the beach so the walks Daily meetings with our then 11-month-old daughter were lovely. My husband took a normal job and I was lucky enough to have a few recording projects that kept me going, mentally and musically.
I was back at work when my daughter was five months old and had two contracts (Wexford Festival Opera and Opera North) before COVID hit. It was definitely a good thing to have quality time with my daughter in quarantine all the time because my diary was very full, so it would have been quite different. She is now three and a half years old and has taken to life as a troubadour and even wishes me you you you before each performance! It is of course difficult to balance parenthood and any career, but it is worth it at every turn. Opera companies are also beginning to realize that the approach to programming needs to change (more advanced) not only for parents, but also so that singers can better plan their lives and professional lives.
OW: You are about to open ‘William Tell’ at the Irish National Opera in a few days. What are the particular challenges of singing the role of Mathilde? How do these challenges compare to other directories you’ve run?
MF: Mathilde is a magnificent role. It’s not like Rossini’s other soprano roles. It’s very lyrical. The two main challenges of the role are the range, it is quite high in voice and with very long sentences. Those two elements mean that it needs a lot of singing, rehearsing, to really get into the voice and the body. It is however a relatively short role so compared to Violetta, Alcina, Elena (La Donna del Lago) who were my other roles this year it is a blessing!
OW: Who do you think Mathilde is? How is she similar or different from you? What identifies you the most with the character?
MF: Mathilde is a strong Habsburg princess in occupied Switzerland who falls in love with her rescuer, a Swiss commoner. Mathilde is compassionate and empathetic with a very strong moral center and she is abhorred by her brother’s treatment of the Swiss people.
I strongly identify with Mathilde’s love and compassion. We are in a difficult world right now with many, many struggles, it can be hard to keep going. The more compassion and empathy we have for each other, the stronger we will be.
OW: Do you have a favorite musical/dramatic moment in this piece?
MF: There is a moment of beautiful stillness where William Tell, played by the phenomenal Canadian baritone Brett Polegato, sings for his son Jemmy before aiming and shooting the apple placed on Jemmy’s head. This moment of love from father to son is extremely moving and I cried every time Brett sings it.
OW: Speaking more generally of your career, were you previously a mezzo-soprano? What was it like switching to lyric soprano and how did you realize it was necessary?
MF: I had always had an easy top as a mezzo and while singing Dorabella for WNO, I started having fun singing Fiordligi and it felt like home. I tried some Mimì and that too came so naturally. I went to trusted coaches and realized that I fit more like a lyric soprano than a high mezzo. It was the best decision I have ever made.
With the support of many great companies I’ve worked for, including Fergus Sheil who gave me my first Mimì, I took the plunge and haven’t looked back since.
OW: What are the main challenges you have overcome to reach this stage of your career? Was there a particular moment/performance that you remember as being particularly formative or essential to this journey?
MF: I think you are still learning and growing in this career. There are endless challenges in this job – it’s not an easy profession to do and if you didn’t have a passion, some kind of professional devotion, you wouldn’t be doing it. I sing such a wide repertoire – Handel, Mozart, Puccini, Rossini, Strauss, Verdi – that a major challenge is to appropriate each style. You have to know what the stylistic challenges are, do the work, be open and flexible but always sing with your voice, your instrument. You also can’t please everyone and you’ll be in knots trying to do so.
I recently sang the title role of Alcina for Opera North. The company, the music staff and the whole crew were thrilled with it and I know I sang it very well but it wasn’t received as well in some reviews. They always say with the reviews to take it with a pinch of salt…you can’t believe the good or the bad as a rabbit hole may be at the end of each one.
OW: Which artists do you admire the most and why?
MF: I admire any artist who is authentic on stage and with their voice. I am inspired daily by the colleagues I work with. It takes a lot to survive in this career and even more to thrive and there are plenty of phenomenal singers who aren’t ‘famous’. In terms of listening to the greats, I like Callas for his connection and his emotion; Contrubas, Scotto, Tebaldi for their phenomenal tone and coherence; Caballé for these piannissimi! Current crushes include Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Lisette Oropesa and Sonya Yoncheva.
OW: What future projects are you looking forward to? What are the dream roles you would like to sing that you don’t have yet?
MF: I’m really looking forward to getting back to some more Verdi next year – Alice in ‘Falstaff’. Can’t say where as it hasn’t been announced yet. I am lucky to have sung most of my dream roles (Violetta, Mimì, Fiordiligi) but if the opportunity arises, I would like to explore Strauss more.