From party pieces and Sir Henry’s to mighty opera

Opera singer

Growing up, at the drop of a hat I would sing. In those days, gatherings – weddings, funerals, visits to a neighbor – invariably turned into songs. It’s a shame that he is disappearing. Everyone had their party piece. There was a rule of honor not to learn someone else’s song. The first song I learned – when I was three – was “Over the Rainbow” in my sweet little blue Alice dress. That’s when they found out I could sing in tune.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

I’ve always loved – with my mother – watching musicals on TV, especially Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I have seen all these films. They sparked my imagination. When you watch Fred and Ginger waltz, you come out of yourself. You are almost there with them. It takes you to worlds. When Fred and Ginger flew to Rio it was about as far as you could get from my life in a duo, duo with a toilet in the backyard in Blackpool with gray skies and rain falling from the roof. It was almost as if I had these experiences because I felt them so strongly.

West Side Story

When I first saw West Side Story – the original with Natalie Wood – my jaw dropped to the floor. It was so powerful. There were gangs and they killed each other, people hated each other. I had this thing when I was a kid: why do people hate each other so much? It really upset me. I spent a lot of time crying over musicals. The end in West Side Story particularly struck me, more than others, which were often light and fluffy and bouncy as West Side Story was the drama and it appealed – the combination of singing, but also drama. The two connected really got my tractor going. I’ve been in choirs and I’ve sung, performed songs, but it never gave me the same thrill as when I’m a character performing a scene: acting and music combined.

Spring Opera Season

My other bawling moment growing up was going to the opera with my dad from about 11 years old. He took me to see Verdi La Traviata. I cried all the way back in the car. My dad swore if it bothered me that much, he’d never bring me back [laughs]. The Dublin Grand Opera Society would come to Cork with its spring season. I sat there with dad at the Cork Opera House watching all those operas, shutting up people who opened their box of Cadbury chocolates during the opening.

Pullquote option: I used to sit there with Dad at the Cork Opera House watching all those operas, shutting up people who opened their box of Cadbury chocolates during the opening.

Opera for “all men”

When I went to England to study to be an opera singer, I was amazed at the elite label opera had in England. The man who owned the largest collection of classic opera records in Cork was a dockworker. You would see all sorts at Cork Opera House go to the opera in their Sunday best. Opera was for everyone in Ireland.

Majella Cullagh, playing with Irish Army musicians at the opening ceremony of the IMART Mixed Ability Rugby World Cup at Musgrave Park, Cork

Tommy O’Brien

On Sundays, we always listened to Tommy O’Brien on RTÉ radio. He was a man from Tipperary. He had this amazing program called Your choice and mine. Anyone who loved classical music in Ireland listened to Tommy O’Brien. I loved hearing Tommy O’Brien, with his fat Tipperary accent, pronounce — with delight — the names of all these foreign composers. It wasn’t a hindrance that it was the fact that every Italian name was Tipperary-ized. Before playing the song, he would tell you a bit about opera or the stage. He had it set up. He was fascinating.

Buskers on Princes Street

Cork has always been great for live music. I used to go to Sir Henry’s, which was a rock bar in the early 80s. What attracted me there was a band called Princes Street, made up of buskers who were playing in Princes Street in Cork. It wasn’t just passion and fame, they were very good musicians. I think there was an American guy involved with them who got them back in shape. I liked them. When I left school, I got a job as a dental nurse downtown. At lunchtime, I stood in the street eating my sandwich listening to them playing in the street, and other buskers. I loved live music. If there was live music, that’s where I was going to be.

Dance set

Friends of mine brought me to dance. There was an incredible man, Timmy ‘The Brit’ McCarthy. He lived in Ballyvourney with his wife Rhona. It was a light bulb moment in my head. I loved the music. Dancing with Timmy The Brit was like dancing with Fred Astaire. He was like an Olympic athlete when it came to dancing. The decorations were magnificent. There were all these different dance patterns. It was a social thing because you weren’t dancing alone, like in discos. You were in sets of eight – “in and out, around houses, watch out for the dresser” scenario. After a set-dancing session, we went to The Gables pub on Douglas Street. We would do a few more sets in the smallest backroom imaginable. We would swing. You would become what they call “a tidy dancer” because you couldn’t kick north, south, east and west because you would kick somebody one in the shins. It served my technique very well.

Maria’s Estuardo by Donizetti

When I started working, my voice was more suited to the bel canto repertoire so I ended up singing a lot of Rossini and Donizetti — and especially Donizetti because I had a fuller voice. There was a role that I sang over and over again that ticked all the boxes because it was historic – because I love history – and it was tragic and dramatic. It was María Estuardo, playing Mary Queen of Scots. He became drawn to me rather than me being drawn to him, but he had an influence.

Verdi and Puccini

Mr. Verdi and Mr. Puccini were masters of the theater. Not only did they write the most stunningly beautiful music, but the dramatic intent is in every note. There is no foreign music. They are storytellers. They are demons because they push all the emotional buttons. They elicit such an emotional reaction. It always comes down to that combination of singing and acting for me.

  • Majella Cullagh grew up in Blackpool, Cork. In 1993, she graduated from the prestigious National Opera Studio in London. His discography includes dozens of recordings on the Opera Rara, Chandos and Naxos labels. She has performed at the Royal Albert Hall and in the most important opera houses in Europe.
  • She plays in the opera of John O’Brien and Éadaoin O’Donoghue Morrigan, Cork Opera House, 8pm, 28 July and 30-31 July. See: corkoperahouse.ie