Specimen Diva: Soprano Orla Boylan
The lights that shone on Irish soprano Orla Boylan’s formal training were not in a conservatory of music, but in a lab — she studied for a PhD in electron microscopy. “Basically sitting in a very small room with a very large machine under a green light taking photographs endlessly of specimens that take six months to prepare,” she says.
These days, Boylan pours hours of preparation into enormously challenging Wagnerian roles. She sings Senta this month in the New Zealand Opera’s The Flying Dutchman, a part she has also recently performed with the English National Opera, Opera Kiel in Germany and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Each production, she says, is different. This performance is in German, the opera’s original language, and has nudity. She will share the stage with a group of body-painted men, the cursed crew of the Dutchman, Senta’s love interest.
Hey, it’s opera — don’t expect a happy ending. “Most of the operas I do I’m dead or I’m dumped or I kill somebody else,” says Boylan, with a chuckle.
Her career shifted course when an anonymous donor paid for her to go to London to compete in a singing competition. She won, and soon found herself performing at La Scala in Milan, where her science-garb jeans and sweatshirts were at odds with the Italian look. “They were so stylish. I’m sitting there like an Irish potato,” says Boylan. “But I seemed to be good at it so I kept going.”
The 42-year-old has been performing professionally for 14 years. When we meet in the lobby of an Auckland hotel, the sweats have been replaced by a chic draped black dress.
This year, Boylan has spent just two months at home in Dublin. Following this season, she will be taking her Senta to Oslo. “It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of loneliness. It’s a lot of heartache. Sometimes I don’t know why we all stick at it.”
Every bar of the Wagner, Boylan says, contains a challenge. “There’s no coasting. It’s full on. It’s thrilling for me when it goes well — and hopefully for the audience too.”
First published Metro, October 2013. Photographed by Steven Boniface.