‘I love the logic and strategy of chess’ - Mary McCabe

Gail Bell asks experts and people in the public eye what keeps them going. This week: Downpatrick’s award-winning opera singer, Mary McCabe

Mary McCabe photo by Neil Harrison
Co Down opera singer Mary McCabe confesses to being more of a night owl than an early bird (Neil Harrison)
1. Up and at it - what is your morning routine?

I think I chose the right profession because I’m not really a fan of sticking to routine - as an opera singer, no two weeks ever look the same. This month I have a morning recital with Northern Ireland Opera, so leading up to that, I’ll try and get in the habit of getting up earlier, making sure I make time for breakfast and getting my body used to performing early.

2. What might you eat in a typical working day for...

Breakfast? If I have time, I’ll grab some Greek yoghurt, raspberries or blueberries and then some milled flaxseed and nuts. If I’m ‘on the go’, then I’ll just grab a banana or croissant. The absolute necessity for me in the morning is coffee… a day just doesn’t seem to start right without it.

Lunch? If it’s a performance day then I’ll avoid any foods that will give me acid reflux, so I’ll eat something quite plain like a wholemeal bread sandwich with boiled chicken or ham and cheese.

Dinner? Again, it depends if I have a show on… one of my favourite dinner dishes is spaghetti Bolognese. I absolutely love Italian food… pesto, pasta, truffle, olives, focaccia… heaven.

3. Is nutrition important to you – do you take health supplements?

When I remember to, I’ll take vitamins and supplements. Nutrition is important to me, but I work unusual hours and sometimes I forget to eat at certain times, or I grab whatever is available to me, regardless if it’s healthy or not.

4. Ever been on a diet – if so, how did it go?

I tried the keto diet last year and found it really successful in losing weight quickly. Not all of the weight has stayed off, but it really was worth it. Now I just try not to eat too many carbs in general, but I’m not strict about it at all.

In recent years, my priorities have shifted. I’ve come to realise that at this moment in my life, my singing career needs to be my main focus and I no longer feel guilty for putting my career before finding a partner or having a family

—  Mary McCabe
5. Weekend treat?

One weekend in a month, I’ll indulge in a pizza…

6. How do you keep physically and mentally fit?

Two years ago I started the NHS Couch to 5k app and worked up to doing 5k three times a week. The benefit I felt in my lung capacity for singing was amazing. Unfortunately, I haven’t kept up the habit in recent months, but I’m determined to get back at it, or at least get out walking more. Keeping active does tend to also help mental health, but other useful methods of keeping mentally fit is to open up during the more stressful times and set time aside to unwind.

7. Best tip for everyday fitness?

I’d imagine most people find having a routine is helpful for this and finding the point in the day when you have the right amount of energy for fitness. Again, it’s possibly due to my profession, but I have the most energy in the evening. When I was running, I would be out in the late evening, whenever my schedule allowed.

8. Were you a fan of schools sports/PE or do you have a memory from those days that you would rather forget?

I absolutely hated sports in school. I always tried to schedule my cello, piano and voice lessons to be at that time.

9. Teetotal or tipple?

I was teetotal until the age of 21 because I had decided that that was a sensible age to start. My favourite tipple now is port, but when I’m out with friends, cocktails or prosecco.

10. Stairs or lift?

Lift… I’m always in a rush.

Mary McCabe photo by Neil Harrison
"Chess is something I turn to more often. I love the logic and strategy required," says singer Mary McCabe (Neil Harrison)
11. What book are you currently reading?

I am re-reading Pushkin’s novel in verse, Eugene Onégin, as background study for Northern Ireland Opera’s production of the opera. I will play Tatyana and reading the source material helps me bring a deeper understanding to my interpretation of the work.

12. Best Netflix/streaming TV?

I’m a big Star Trek fan and in general I tend to veer towards fantasy.

13. Any new skills or hobbies?

Chess is something I turn to more often. I love the logic and strategy required.

14. How do you relax?

Once in a while, I’ll treat myself to a hot stone massage.

15. What would you tell your younger self?

That all the work, sacrifice and dedication will eventually pay off.

16. What are your goals for 2024?

To work harder than ever to deliver my best.

17. What time do you get to bed and do you think you get enough sleep?

When I have time off, I could sleep for 10 hours, but when I’m working a lot, I’ll maybe get seven or eight. After shows, I sometimes find it really difficult to sleep because of all the adrenaline.

18. Biggest gripe or regret?

I wish I had trusted myself more in the past.

19. Have your priorities in life or perspectives changed?

In recent years, my priorities have shifted. I’ve come to realise that at this moment in my life, my singing career needs to be my main focus and I no longer feel guilty for putting my career before finding a partner or having a family.

20. Has coronavirus – or any health epiphany or life event - changed your attitude towards your own mortality?

One of the biggest life events for me was my father’s death eight years ago. His passing put everything into perspective. I could have completely crumbled under the tragedy of his death, but after a year or two, I felt an urge to really seize life again and make the most of it. He was one of my biggest supporters and I know how proud he would be of me now for having pushed through in my career. I always remind myself of how fleeting our time on Earth is… it’s a terrifying but also incredibly motivating thing to remember.

Mary McCabe will be performing the principal role of Tatyana in Northern Ireland Opera’s production of Eugene Onegin at Belfast’s Grand Opera House, September 14-21.