On Tour with
Orla Boylan

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May 2018

Words by
Emer Nestor

Photos by
Frances Marshall

Here, Irish Soprano Orla Boylan gives us a candid and humorous insight into her life on tour, the preparations behind her recent role in New Zealand Opera’s production of Tosca, and her love for the music of Richard Strauss and Britten. We also get some thoughtful tips for early-career singers.

If you could share the stage with any artist/s tomorrow, who would it be and why?

It would have to be John Vickers. There was something visceral about his legendary performance in Peter Grimes that was so utterly striking. You could almost see the blood and bones of his character as he sang. I love a performer who is not afraid to so inhabit the role that the tone and beauty of the voice may even be sacrificed in conveyance of truth. There is nothing as boring as a performance that is so contrived in the achievement of perfection—in ‘the voice’. Give me a person that stands there and says: “this is humanity in all its frailty”.

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Top 5 items that you can’t live without when on tour?

1. A kitchen with a decent set of utensils, pots and pans.
I hate hotels. Hotels are for holidays not work. Always having to go somewhere to eat instead of being able to cook at leisure…I can’t stand it! There’s nothing like my own porridge in the mornings…made with water and floated in the milk. A kitchen always makes things more homely when you’re away for long periods of time.

2. Parks and outdoor areas.
I’m continually trying to get back to running, well, jogging really. However, I have always been told that a good brisk walk is equally as good. In cities, it’s hard to find a nice open space to breath and walk, and to clear the head of nasties. I have endless possibilities to get outside where I live and to get fresh air but it’s not so easy when I’m away. I’m not a city girl.

3. Good internet.
I’ve got to be able to be in touch and to tune out with a good series on Netflix. I’d love to say, “with a good book” but recently I’ve found books completely soporific, so they’re more likely to be used for jet-lag purposes. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall has been started and re-started about 6 times! The internet is indispensable for my media feeds but I fully admit to hating Twitter, and the only thing I do on Facebook is share animal rescue stories and videos that have made me laugh…hopeless!!

4. A lightly packed suitcase.
I usually fail miserably at this and over-pack every time.  If I could employ someone to pack my bags for me I would. Predictably, I forget to pack something essential and fill the case instead with clothes that I never get around to wearing. People may think it’s a glamorous life but most of the time you are using old t-shirts and leggings so you can roll around on the dirty rehearsal floor 6-8 hours a day! These all get put in the nearest bin by the time I’m ready to come home. 

5. All my pin codes.
When I’m away for long periods, inevitably some renewal notification will arrive, and I’ll have to get it done online. I must have changed pins a million times—my house name, my role names, my dogs’ names etc…. That ‘change your password’ page must be the most visited site on my lap-top. What are you supposed to do?! It must be my age…32…ahem! 

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The last time I was there, I was throwing myself from a 7m-platform onto a bed of cardboard boxes in front of the All-Black rugby team..."

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You recently appeared in the title role of Tosca last March—take us through your process in the lead up to the performance.

I flew the day after a concert in Dublin to Auckland via Dubai. It took a whopping 29 hours of travel. I landed and was collected by the NZO company manager and brought to the residence (yes, it had a good kitchen and good Wi-Fi, and it was near the water!). I started work the very next morning, despite jet-lag, and at about 4pm I was asleep on my feet during the first day of musical rehearsals. 

No rest for the wicked though! I was brought to a warehouse the next morning to begin my stunt refreshment training. With that great Tosca-leap at the end of the show, I needed it.  The last time I was there, I was throwing myself from a 7m-platform onto a bed of cardboard boxes in front of the All-Black rugby team who happened to be doing some training that same day. It was very nice to get a round of applause from them…not bad to look at either!!!

Two weeks of intensive rehearsals followed before the whole kit and caboodle was flown to Christchurch for stage rehearsals, and our first meeting with the orchestra. We premiered only a short week later. All this was intermingled with sponsorship and Friends of NZO meetings, costume fittings, and appearances on radio and TV for promotional purposes. It was a hectic time as we did work a 6-day week to fit it all in. Sundays were for rest…mostly. I’d love to say that I saw the country while I was there but there’s little or no chance. However, I knew that there were 3 days in between the second and third show so I hired a car and drove away into the wilderness to cram in some sightseeing and caught up with friends I’d met there over the years. There’s never enough time for it though. By the morning after the last show, the Tosca score was at the bottom of the over-packed case, and it was straight to the airport to head home…and yes I had wine on the flight!

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As an internationally respected interpreter of the works of Richard Strauss and Britten, what excites you about the music of these composers?

One of the things I love about this music is the challenge in learning it. It always amazes me how the notes on the pages, which at first make very little sense, begin to merge into meaningful phrases. Strauss and Britten have a great way of illustrating an emotion or a sense of place and time in their music. I couldn’t tell you why. I’m sure a musicologist could explain it. It’s just a feeling you get. Those soaring lines of Strauss are a dream to sing as a soprano and the thrill of getting with the orchestra for the first time on a piece such as Elektra (favourite and dream role), is what makes it all worthwhile.

 

What advice would you give early-career singers who are setting out on a career in performance?

Look after your head while those around you are losing theirs. Mind yourself and listen to your body and your voice, and what it’s telling you. Stay grounded. It’s not life or death. It’s music. Live as normally as you can in the spaces. Keep connected with friends and family. Their lives go on busily while you are away, so it’s up to you to get in touch when you get home. Always have a listening ear to check in with every so often, whether it be a teacher or a vocal coach. They hear you much better than you do yourself. Enjoy it!!

To find out more about Orla Boylan see: www.orlaboylan.com

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