Orla Boylan and her singing teacher sat laughing in disbelief in the La Scala opera house waiting room. It is 1995 and the Irish cell biologist had just won Milan’s prestigious ASLICO singing competition.

“I had never imagined a career as a singer,” the down to earth diva say\\SLs. “It was only a hobby that suddenly became more serious. I’m only just now believing it possible.”

Now in her forties, Boylan is relaxing in front of the fire enjoying a moment at home in Skerrie, north of Dublin. Despite her lack of institutional training as a singer (her university degree is in science) Boylan has achieved impressive results as a lyric soprano and is now moving into the vocal fach of a dramatic soprano. Her hectic freelance schedule this year involves reprising Senta (The Flying Dutchman) in various corners of the globe including Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Russia and Taiwan. This week she is in Perth for a lieder recital and orchestral performance with the WA Symphony Orchestra.
Borlan’s first visit to Perth was for La Boheme with WA Opera in 2002 and she returned as Procne in Love of the Nightingale (which won her a Helpmann Award), soloist in Britten’s War Requiem, Ellen in Peter Grimes and Chrysothemis in Elektra. Borlan’s penchant for hefty roles and dark subject matters comes as a surprise given her bubbly personality. 

“I like the dark characters,” she admits. “It is about expressing things everyone has inside but you don’t usually get to show. It’s quite cathartic.”

Boylan will perform in a more intimate setting when she launches WASO’s new international recital series at the Government House Ballroom on Monday. The recital will give Perth audiences a chance to see principal conductor Paul Daniel performing on piano, an instrument he studied parallel with conducting at the Guildhall School of Music. Boylan and Daniel often worked together during Daniel’s tenure at the English National Opera but this is their first time together in recital. The repertoire includes songs by Sibelius, Barber, Richard Strauss, Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and a scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

The Masters Series orchestral concert this weekend will feature Boylan singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs, pieces she has been singing since she was 23.
“I heard the Four Last Songs on CD and took the music to my singing teacher and said ‘I want to learn this’. How precocious wanting to sing Strauss in my early twenties! But that was how I learned the repertoire, by finding recordings I liked.”

Her first performance of the songs with orchestra was in 1995 for Ireland’s VeronicaDunne Singing Competition with Joan Sutherland as one of the judges. Boylan won the competition and afterwards met Sutherland.

“She was this major megastar talking to me like she was my grandmother. She said, ‘Marvellous breath control, how do you manage it?’ and I said, ‘You’re asking me?’”

Boylan has since performed the songs with La Verdi under Xian Zhang, the Sinfonieorchester St Gallen under Jiri Kout and the Halle Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder.

“It is beautiful music to sing, like floating on honey. The orchestra is like supportive air beneath, keeping you buoyant. I am so grateful to Richard Strauss for writing so beautifully for voice and I’m so grateful to be a soprano.”

Boylan’s gradual transition into the dramatic repertoire of Wagner and Strauss has met with critical acclaim. The Times reported a “radiance and warmth in Strauss’ lines that is matched by tender insight in the word-painting”.

Boylan says the repertoire is a constant challenge. “It takes all my strength, energy and focus. It is a challenge to technique and to stamina; you are singing with your entire body and there is no settling for mediocrity.”


This article copyright The West Australian 2013