Arts

Newtownards-born opera star Fleur Barron on Rigoletto and her famous dad

Internationally acclaimed mezzo soprano Fleur Barron is starring in Verdi's Rigoletto at the Grand Opera House in Belfast. David Roy spoke to Newtownards-born Barron about her connection to Northern Ireland and the influence of her famous father on her globe-trotting career as a budding opera star

Opera singer Fleur Barron has made her northern debut in Rigoletto at the Grand Opera House

OPERA star Fleur Barron was born in Newtownards, making her only the second internationally known musical export to hail from the Co Down town after former Almighty and Thin Lizzy frontman Ricky Warwick.

However, Fleur only actually lived in Northern Ireland for a couple of years: her father was legendary BBC war correspondent Brian Barron, whose job as a broadcast news journalist brought the family here in the mid 1980s before quickly taking them on to pastures new.

Raised in Hong Kong, London and New York, the award-winning London-based mezzo soprano is performing in the north for the first time as 'femme fatale' temptress Madallena in NI Opera and Ópera Nacional de Chile's co-production of Verdi's Rigoletto.

According to Fleur, she feels an odd connection to the land of her birth despite having left at such a tender age.

"I'm really so happy to be here and singing here," the singer tells me of the Walter Sutcliffe-directed Rigoletto, which opened at the Grand Opera House on Sunday evening and features BBC Good Morning Ulster presenter and Belfast Philharmonic Choir member Noel Thompson in its chorus.

"I was just turning three when we left Northern Ireland, so it's really been a while! But it's been nice to come back because, even though I don't have vivid memories, I do feel a sense of rootedness here that I wasn't expecting.

"I travel a lot and I don't often feel a sense of connection to place or people. But here, I really do feel a sense of 'home' here. It's kind of an intuitive thing."

Fleur adds: "I was born in Newtownards and it's been so nice to meet all these people who've been like, 'Oh, I'm from Newtownards too!'"

Indeed, Manhattan School of Music-trained Fleur regularly performs all over the world – recent appearances have included Baba the Turk in The Rake's Progress at La Monnaie in Brussels, Balkis in Offenbach's Barkouf with Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg and a stint as artist in residence at the Ojai Music Festival in California – a globe-trotting lifestyle which mirrors that of her late father Brian, who died in 2009.

The award winning BBC journalist covered the conflicts in Yemen, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Rwanda and Iraq, serving a stint as Belfast-based Ireland correspondent and taking on foreign correspondent assignments in cities such as Washington, New York, Hong Kong and Rome.

This may well be where Fleur picked up the travel bug – but, despite accompanying Brian and his cameraman Eric Thier into the field as an apprentice boom mic operator on safer occasions, she was never tempted to follow directly in his esteemed footsteps.

"Absolutely not!" Fleur exclaims. "That's kind of amazing to me, because I grew up with war correspondents and their teams – people like Kate Adie, John Snow and Martin Bell.

"But I do think that my background kitted me out well for this life. When you finish your young artist training, everyone in school has the same dream – to have an international career.

"Some people quickly realise it's not for them: it's very tiring, it can be very lonely and there's a lot of uncertainty involved. But I've found that I really thrive, I think because of my dad's job.

"After I was born, my parents moved around a bit less than before, but there was still a lot of travelling and I sometimes went with him on assignment.

"So for me, the experience of a new destination is always exciting."

While Brian was an opera lover, as a youngster Fleur preferred pop hits to the classical arias her father would listen to at home.

She has always been focused on performing, but the singer's teenage dreams of a career in musical theatre on Broadway were cruelly dashed when her dance skills were deemed sub par and her voice was 'diagnosed' as being more suited to opera than showtunes.

It was only during a seven-year break from singing, which saw Fleur graduating from Columbia University with a BA in Comparative Literature, that she discovered the raw emotional power of opera while attending productions at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Now an award-winning up-and-coming opera star in her own right, those who have followed her career from its inception could not be more proud.

"Eric Thier has flown in from New York to see tonight's [Tuesday's] performance," reveals Fleur. "He was my dad's long-time BBC cameraman and he is a huge opera buff. He actually brought Kate Adie along when I did a performance in London last year.

"It's so nice that he's here as he's somebody I've grown up with. I still do feel connected all of these people who were part of my dad's life."

Now that we've claimed her as 'one of our own', Fleur tells me that she hopes to return to the north again soon.

"I would love to come back again, the Grand Opera House is a fantastic venue," she enthuses.

Over to you, NI Opera.

:: Rigoletto, tonight and Saturday October 6, Grand Opera House, Belfast. See NIopera.com/events/rigoletto for tickets and show times. Find Fleur online at Fleurbarron.com.

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