Opera singer Ellen Mawhinney: Mozart arias and lunch in your teeth don't go so well together

Gail Bell asks experts and people in the public eye what keeps them going. This week: Award-winning soprano, Ellen Mawhinney, Annina in NI Opera's production of La Traviata

Gail Bell

Up and at it - what is your morning routine?

Well, my slumber is normally rudely interrupted by my alarm playing Mumford and Sons. I'm a 'straight to breakfast' sort of gal, otherwise I've been known to be only slightly irritable...


What might you eat in a typical working day for...Breakfast?

I have a three-drink situation every morning: water, orange juice and (for some people) a completely unacceptable milky tea. Currently, I'm having eggs on toast every morning so that I'm properly fuelled for La Traviata rehearsals with Northern Ireland Opera.


I pack a yummy, summery salad each day to enjoy outside during our lunch breaks at rehearsals. I have discovered how nice orange segments and sunflower seeds are in salads – a revelation.

Evening meal?

For the Mawhinney family, it is still barbecue season, so some evenings include barbecued chicken skewers with the classic barbecue salad bits.


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

I am constantly so thankful for my health, so I feel health supplements are something I've never had to consider. I find that a balanced and varied diet, with a variety of plant-based foods, works for me and my body.


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

Oh, for sure, but honestly, I've found that the balanced life just works so much better for me. Once I start restricting myself, food becomes more of a burden rather than something awesome.


Weekend treat?

Who said treats are only for the weekend?


How do you keep physically and mentally fit?

In some ways, the introduction of only getting to go outside for an hour for your lockdown walk had its advantages. I guess I've tried to continue that now in life. It still surprises me how better I feel after just getting outside for a walk and perhaps listening to a podcast. Getting outside every day has been really important for not just my physical health, but also my mental health and overall productivity.


Best tip for everyday fitness?

I follow The Food Medic (Dr Hazel Wallace) on Instagram and mostly everyday she posts a story asking if you've been able to move your body today. What is so comforting about this, is that she is not making sure you have completed structured exercise or worked tirelessly on your personal fitness, but just in your own way, are finding movement in your day.


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

We won the U15 Hockey Cup at School (Go Ballyclare High), but shortly after that my not-so-ambitious hockey career ended and I chose Saturday morning orchestra instead. I kept up my Irish dancing (which I started around aged eight) until I went to university and it holds some of the best memories of my childhood. It was such an awesome community filled with great people. Even now, we still all look forward to meeting up every Christmas for excessive amount of giggles and fun.


Teetotal or tipple?

Oh, I'd dabble in a tipple for sure.


Stairs or lift?

Mostly stairs, but if I'm on my way up to an audition, I take the lift to check I have nothing in my teeth. I've made that mistake before. Turns out Mozart arias and lunch in your teeth don't go so well together.


What book are you currently reading?

I'm currently reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I have also just recently finished the Midnight Library by Matt Haig. The reviews did warn me, but it turns out I literally couldn't put it down. Such a great idea and an interesting lookout on life.


Best Netflix?

So, I completely jumped on the Bridgerton train when it came out. I loved the balance between period context and quirky modernisms, such at the various balls and dances, there were girls in stunning gowns dancing with their suitors to string quartet covers of modern day chart hits. Loved it.


Most surprising thing you've learned about yourself over the pandemic?

That I'm not the most patient person in the world and I love being outside.


Any new skills or hobbies?

I became a lockdown runner and have, surprisingly, kept it up. I couldn't run the length of myself and now I feel slightly strange if I haven't been out for a run during the week.


How do you relax?

Honestly? For me, you can't beat a cup of tea, in bed, watching Grey's Anatomy.


What are your goals for 2022?

One of them was to be able to perform in a live production and I'm so thankful to be performing as Annina in Northern Ireland's Opera's production of Verdi's La Traviata at the Grand Opera House from this Saturday. It's a homecoming for opera to this iconic venue with such a great pool of Irish and international talent and I'm really excited to be part of it.


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

With concerts and rehearsals, bedtime varies, but I do try to opt for eight hours of sleep. But, if you know me, I'm very good at sleeping. Some would say too good...


Biggest gripe?

I guess this is actually very common, but I cannot cope with people eating with their mouth open. The noise honestly goes through me and out the other side. Because of this I really struggle travelling by train without headphones. Those train journeys have been some of the longest journeys of my life.


Have your priorities in life or perspectives changed?

I would say not necessarily changed but maybe strengthened. They definitely have more significance to my life and the way I want to live my life.


Has coronavirus changed your attitude towards your own mortality?

I just feel so grateful to be able to get up each morning and to be able to create music every day.

Ellen Mawhinney makes her role debut as Annina in at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, from September 10-17. More at