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An interview with Ben McAteer

Ben McAteer, opera singer

Ben McAteer has performed with us many times over the years, most recently as Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus at the Grand Opera House in September.  Ben will be singing in our tribute to the NHS and frontline workers, ‘At Home for Heroes’ on Monday 25th May.

Tell us about your involvement with the ‘At Home for Heroes’ concert hosted by Northern Ireland Opera: what made you want to get involved?

When I heard about the concert I immediately thought ‘what a wonderful idea!’ and needless to say, I didn’t hesitate to agree to be a part of it when asked. I’m sure almost everyone knows someone who’s working at the frontline of this pandemic, you certainly can’t miss the stories on the news coming out of hospitals and care homes, showing the stressful and demanding conditions that NHS workers and carers are facing. Not to mention all those keeping supermarkets, pharmacies and other essential services going. I’m just glad to be able to play a small part in paying tribute to these heroes who are keeping us all safe and healthy. It’s their commitment and fortitude that inspire us and will continue to do so when theatres and concert halls are bustling again, so the least we can do is make a little music in our homes and send a huge ‘thank you’ to them all.

When did you first realise that you wanted to become a professional opera singer?

I’ve been singing my whole life, impromptu concerts with my sister in the living room for our beleaguered parents, school and church choirs and the odd appearance at the feis, but it never really struck me as something you could do as a job. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do career-wise when I was getting ready to leave school, so in the end I decided to pick a subject I enjoyed and study that at university, thinking that at least a degree in Chemistry would be useful when I eventually pinned down what it was I wanted to do. As my time at uni went on, I spent more time singing and performing than I did in the laboratory, and it was my singing teacher who suggested applying for music college as a postgraduate, which I did. Ten years later and I’m still singing! So, I’m not sure there was a lightbulb moment for me in choosing to become an opera singer, I followed a passion and consider myself lucky enough to be working at something I love.

What can we look forward to in your performance on Monday next week: tell us about what you will be singing?

Well, I hope we’ve picked pieces that are somewhat familiar, tuneful and hopefully meaningful. It’s tricky actually, finding pieces that work in a virtual environment – David Quigley, our wonderful pianist, obviously isn’t in the room with me when I’m singing, and normally there’s a lot of non-verbal communication going on between a pianist and a singer in a concert. Phrasing, breathing, a little slowing up here or an accelerando there – I’ve actually realised how much we take these things for granted when performing together live. David and I are doing two pieces together – “Non piu andrai” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is a very famous aria that closes Act One of the opera, a catchy military march in which Figaro teases the young Cherubino that his days of chasing the ladies are over and he’s swapping his frills and feathers for a helmet and a rifle and heading off to war. I’m also singing one of my favourite folk songs, “The Salley Gardens,” a song that I’m sure many people will be familiar with.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out in your professional career?

I think I’d have benefitted from someone reminding me to take stock every now and again. It’s all too easy to get swept up in every new job you get, the nature of our work is contract to contract, moving from one city to another and from one role to another. Being driven is important, having goals is great, but I wonder now if I fully appreciated the opportunities I’ve had while I was having them or was I too busy thinking about next season or that audition I did last week. Did I take those moments to look at where I was, what stage I was on, who I was on there with? I’m incredibly lucky to do what I do, I love performing, I enjoy the variety of places I get to go and people I get to meet…I just think sometimes you need to slow down a bit and have a proper look around you, not just snap a picture of the auditorium for social media and head out the stage door. The phrase that pops in my head with increasing regularity is… “if I’d told myself five years ago I’d be doing this, would I have believed it?”

You were our first winner of the Glenarm Festival of Voice back in 2011: what did that mean to you?

I actually can’t believe it’s been ten years since the first Glenarm Festival of Voice! I’ve been back officially and unofficially almost every year and just arriving in Glenarm brings back great memories of that weekend. With it being the first one, I remember there was just such a great collaborative atmosphere and a great buzz about it, indeed there still is. I often said that it didn’t feel much like a competition, and I think that was always an important aspect of the whole weekend, everyone gets something out of it. Winning aside, the whole experience was invaluable – the coaches I met and worked with became friends and very useful contacts for someone making their first steps into the industry, and of course I’ve also been fortunate to enjoy a long and fruitful relationship with Northern Ireland Opera too. I think the festival is also a great testament to the wealth of talent there is in our wee corner of the world!

Join Northern Ireland Opera on Monday 25th May on our YouTube channel and hear Ben performing here as part of our online concert: ‘At Home for Heroes: A Classical Thank You to the NHS and frontline workers.  More details here.

Find out more about Ben’s career to date here.