Parsing Puccini: Niall Morris plots his swansong

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Parsing Puccini: Niall Morris plots his swansong

Painful falls and the serious illness of an old friend have prompted one of our top classical performers to change gears, writes Donal Lynch


Niall Morris pictured with his husband Woody and their little nephew Hummer at their home in Thailand
Niall Morris pictured with his husband Woody and their little nephew Hummer at their home in Thailand

The entrance hall to Niall Morris’s Grand Canal Dock penthouse is dotted with little mementoes of his glittering music career.

There’s a promotional poster of him looking fresh-faced in H.M.S. Pinafore at Sadler’s Wells in the 1990s. On another wall there is a framed love letter, written by Maria Callas to a fan – a reminder of Niall’s acclaimed show about the life of the legendary singer.

Beneath this is a writing chair, once owned by WB Yeats, where Niall would sit to get inspiration for his own shows. And what inspiration: over a long career he has been one of the more successful stalwarts of the Irish classical music scene, at one point earning a Grammy-nomination on EMI Classics, and for years performing part of vocal group, The Celtic Tenors.

As of later this month, the Yeats chair will have to spur a different kind of creativity, for Niall, after 25 years in the music business, is retiring from writing and performing.

And, he explains, that the catalyst for this life change was a series of unfortunate events: He fell, first in a supermarket, and then onstage, while directing a show.

“I fell (in the theatre) and essentially I spent about five months getting over that, learning how to walk,” he explains. “I thought I’d have it the rest of my life, it seemed so permanent. It also made me realise that I’d put months into the show and it broke my heart and it didn’t break anyone else’s heart. People were getting on and I was just taking loads of painkillers and getting on with it. For the first time in my life I thought this is not worth it. People came along, clapped and then went home to their lives.”

The fall in the supermarket sounds equally traumatic. Niall says he blacked out, but immediately after had the wherewithal to photograph himself while lying on the ground.

“I blacked out from the initial pain, and my leg went out but it went back in again. There were lots of shoppers and they kind of just moved away. I was taken by ambulance to St Vincent’s.”

Financially Niall is OK, he explains. He didn’t spend recklessly during the “years where things were going well” and, having been one of the first people to have been caught up in the tracker mortgage scandal, in which people were wrongly taken off tracker mortgage rates, he came to an arrangement with the bank and is now in a very good position with his apartment.

Last year he appeared on RTE’s main evening news bulletin to talk about his experience.

Niall also owns a house in Thailand with his husband, Woody, who comes from there. They travelled there after the accidents and in the long hot days Niall took stock of his life and his career.

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“I was playing with my husband’s little nephew Hummer and I thought that was something that was more valuable. It was a lovely joyous feeling. It seemed mad to think I’ve put all these years into this ephemeral career and I could have done something so much more: I could have had a child.”

Did it induce a kind of broodiness in Niall?

“I think it’s quite hard to adopt. I think I might be too old now – I’m 52. But I do know some people have done surrogacy and it’s worked out really well for them. Gay adoption wasn’t allowed for a lot of my life and I’d never really thought about it.

“In June we’re going back and we’re going to hang out with Hummer – he’s going to speak baby Thai to me and I speak baby English.”

Niall has noticed that over the last few decades opera has become more difficult to market in this country.

“I suppose I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to make classical music less elitist,” he explains. “Opera is a hard sell in this country; I think it’s fair to say most people haven’t been to see one. My opera shows at the National Concert Hall have been seen by 25,000 people, and Mario and the Singing Waiters (his corporate and somewhat comedic after-dinner act) brought opera to a broader audience.

“There is something in this country that is quite anti-opera, maybe going back to our colonial past. Whereas the Germans have an indigenous opera. I do worry about the future of classical music in this country because most of the audience is 55 and older.”

To finish off his music career Niall decided that his swansong should be a performance of one of his most popular shows – The Puccini Scandal – in a venue he has graced many times over the years – The National Concert Hall.

The plan came to him in his sleep: “I had a dream that I’d do The Puccini Scandal and we’d invite the President of Ireland and the French ambassador. Both accepted.

“I wrote this show at Puccini’s villa in Tuscany. I learned that Puccini, his wife and his son, were buried under the floorboards. And that ties in with the ghost story aspect of the whole thing.

“I wrote Puccini as a sort of flawed character who’s telling us his story – he truly believes his account is truthful and accurate – but the audience can see he’s taking liberties with the storytelling. There’s a lot of laughs.”

Besides the falls, Niall says the shifting dynamic between him and some of his friends was also a catalyst for his change of direction in life.

“I used to have this group of friends and we were middle-aged media types with no kids. We drank ridiculous amounts of wine and had a bit of disposable income. And while we enjoyed each other’s company it was all sort of repeating itself over and over. And then one of them became life-threateningly sick and it was a wake up call for all of us.”

The group has “fizzled out now”, Niall says. “Maybe we all grew up.”

How is his friend doing?

“I hear he is doing very well, which is great, but I wonder would I do so well? If I want to do my bucket list I’d better bloody well get on with it.”

Niall says he also recently realised that his own body was “in crisis”, from drinking. “I started getting palpitations after only one drink. My body was completely rejecting alcohol. The hangovers were three-day events, so I cut it out completely.”

Niall is planning to return to Thailand after his final performance and will take stock of his next moves.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen after I go to Thailand but after we come back from there I’m going to India and Nepal. I have to stop being terrified by the future, because Woody takes on some of the stress. He thinks you should just get on with things or if you’re not happy, do something about it.

“I’m looking forward to seeing our nephew; children live in the present which is a quality we, as adults, have lost.”

And how does he think he will feel when that final curtain falls on that final performance?

“It will be sad to finish, but also a relief. I’m looking forward to what’s coming next.”

‘The Puccini Scandal’, April 24 at the National Concert Hall. Tickets from €20, (01) 417 0000 or visit nch.ie

Sunday Indo Living


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