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A conversation with David Corr, NI Opera Studio member and Festival of Voice finalist

David Corr, a baritone, is a current member of the Northern Ireland Opera Studio and has just been named as one of five finalists for our annual singing competition, The Festival of Voice taking place from 28-30 August in Belfast.  We thought it would be useful for younger singers, who might be thinking about a career in opera, or just starting out in theirs, to hear from someone who is a little further into their professional career. Over the next few weeks we’ll be posting several features from our NI Opera Studio members giving different insights into their experiences at this stage in their careers.

Can you remember the first piece of opera you heard which inspired you?

This may not be the answer you expect but it is a fact!  As a young child I watched the Looney Tunes cartoons and it was these that introduced me to opera!  The piece that comes to mind which I still remember vividly was the overture of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser and also the overture to Rossini’s Barber of Seville.  I remember I was fascinated by the music. It caught my attention so much it inspired me to explore both of these operas more.

When did you realise that you wanted to be an opera singer?

It was a gradual process that happened in my last few years of school before starting college. In transition year when I was 15, I learned my first aria for a grade exam Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja and loved it and wanted to learn more. Another defining moment for me was singing the Pearl Fishers Duet at a competition. I was really starting to enjoy opera singing and this sowed the seeds for me pursuing a career in opera.

At what age did you begin singing lessons?

I was ten when I started formal singing lessons. I auditioned for a leading children’s choir, and when I was accepted, I took formal singing lessons for the first time. My time with the choir was very exciting as a young singer, with opportunities to sing on radio, TV and lots of venues throughout Ireland.  I made lots of new friends and being part of this group offered great social events and camaraderie.

Is your family musical?

I am the only family member who has made music my career but there was music in my home for as long as I can remember. All family gatherings and parties revolved around music, influenced hugely by my Granddad, on my mother’s side.  He was a singer and a self-taught accordion and harmonica player.   When the family got together everyone did their party piece. My siblings and every one of my cousins played an instrument or sang which is a huge testament to his influence. Parties were great fun with a huge mix of genres!  I have a brother Cathal and sister Aedin and from a young age we were all encouraged musically: I played the French horn, my sister the violin and my brother the cello.  My first music lesson was when I was three and did Kodály sessions with my mother.

Was there anything else that influenced you choosing a career in opera?

Yes: the teachers I have worked with along the way. By the time I reached secondary school, music had become a huge part in my life. The school I attended couldn’t have been better in bringing me to the next stage. I continued my singing lessons under Helen Roycroft of the King’s Hospital. There was a very strong music department in the school, and I sang regularly as part of the school choir and also at school performances. When I left school, I did a BMus and continued with voice lessons under Emmanuel Lawler who has encouraged, mentored and supported me for the full duration of my degree and beyond. It is crucial to have a connection with your voice coach. Also, the role of your répétiteur is so important and I am so grateful to my répétiteur Aoife O’Sullivan for her guidance and amazing accompaniment.

Did you enter any singing competitions when you were at school and if so, what was the experience like?

I entered singing competitions when I was at school, both solo and choir competitions and they were always a positive experience no matter what the result. Preparing and practising your repertoire, getting up in front of an audience and adjudicators really builds your confidence. The feedback from the adjudicators was always constructive, encouraging and positive. I still have some of the mark sheets from those days. It is amazing how a positive comment can spur you on and ultimately make you a better performer. To this day I remember specific feedback from adjudicators I really admire as singers themselves. It stays with you.

 How many hours do you practise each day?

I practice roughly 2 – 3 hours every day and longer if I am preparing for a performance or competition. Singing is like a professional sport. You need to practice your technique to stay on top of your game but like an athlete, rest is just as important. The time spent on practice all depends on what performances are upcoming and sometimes I have to put in more hours. It works best for me to break up my practice with half hour focused practice through the days with breaks.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given in singing?

I have received great advice over the years but probably to follow your own path, to enjoy the experience and importantly not to abandon your technique, which I feel you can do easily when you are preparing for auditions and performances.

Who is your opera singing hero or heroine?

Without a doubt the ultimate femme fatale Carmen. I love the passionate impetuous, hot-tempered character.

 What is your dream opera role?

 It would be amazing to sing a title role and the one that comes to mind is Figaro in The Barber of Seville. I always wanted to sing this role ever since I heard one of the most famous baritone arias ‘Largo al Factotum’. I have always been drawn to opera buffa roles and I also think Bel Canto style suits my voice.

Do you think opera is accessible to younger people?

 I think this is really improving and more can, of course, be done. Young people can have the wrong impression of opera and think it is boring or stuffy. It is only through education and outreach programmes that they get to understand it and see how much fun it can be! What NI Opera is doing in terms of an outreach programme, is, in my opinion, a fantastic way to break the barriers and introduce opera to young audiences. Also, events that the whole family can enjoy together should be encouraged. It was great to see schools attend the big stage events we were involved in like Rigoletto and to hear some of the pupils comments afterwards., There is no doubt these events start to open up an interest in young people, especially when they are given a talk or workshop on the story  behind the opera.

What has your experience of being in the Northern Ireland Opera Studio been like in this very unusual year?

I feel so lucky to be part of NI Opera Studio. I was born and raised in Dublin, but my Dad is from Tyrone and my mother’s grandparents originated in Derry, so I was delighted to become a studio artist in Northern Ireland where I have friends and family. I joined the studio last September and the performance and career development opportunities given to us as studio artists is fantastic. I would encourage any budding opera singer to audition for this programme in the future as it really assists in developing you as a singer. Understandably we were all disappointed when our performing opportunities were curtailed with lockdown. My last live performance, in March, was a recital as part of the Walled City Music Festival in Derry. We sang in the Great Hall in the Magee Campus with the rising star pianists from Arizona State University. I had been preparing for a role of Nélée in Rameau’s Nélée et Myrthis which was to be performed in June and this could not go ahead, but all musicians have been badly hit. We continued to do some “virtual” work like the recording of Mozart’s ‘Soave sia il Vento’ in support of the NHS and the outreach work with Botanic Primary School in Belfast. We were also given the opportunity to develop our language skills by taking a German course  with the Goethe-Institut which was very beneficial.  We also participated in a talk with Nathan Morrison of Askonas Holt. Askonas Holt is one of the world’s leading arts management companies, specialising in the field of classical music. All of this activity helped me keep focused during lockdown.

You have recently reached the final of Northern Ireland Opera’s Festival of Voice: what are you looking forward to about being part of this competition?

I am delighted to have reached the final. I am really looking forward to singing “live” again but most of all is to have the opportunity to work with prestigious vocal coaches in the build-up to the Competition Finale. This is an amazing opportunity for any singer to be coached by Kathryn Harries and Ingrid Surgenor.

Find out more about the NI Opera Studio programme here

Detail of the Festival of Voice 2020 here.