From Farm Chores to Swiss Chorus

She has sang for the Pope, has had the honour of  accompanying  big names like Celine Byrne and Andrea Bocelli and most recently sang in the Swiss Chorus of William Tell with the Irish National Opera. Meet Niamh Sheehy, a farm girl by day and an Operatic Diva by night.

The first time I heard the wonderful Niamh Sheehy sing was at the local secondary school’s annual talent show, “Grennan’s Got Talent”. To say I was floored by the power of her voice is an understatement. She held the whole audience captive as she sang a beautiful rendition of Defying Gravity from the musical Wicked.

When the pandemic hit, and we were all thrust into lockdown restricted by the 2km rule, Niamh entertained her Instagram followers with a nightly song sung by the piano. At home with her parents, two brothers and a vulnerable uncle, Niamh was farm bound for the duration. As the restrictions went on with no end in sight, Niamh’s love for performing was not dampened and she continued to wow the masses with videos of her singing. As she worked on the family farm, helping look after sheep and cattle, she literally never stopped singing, often sharing images and videos as she went. Niamh Sheehy singing on her tractor are some of my fondest memories from what was a very scary time for everyone. It was clear then, she was in the business of bringing joy to others.

Fast forward a couple of years, a lot has happened in the world of Aidona Photography and the world in general, but so much has happened in the world of Niamh Sheehy, too! I was delighted we got the chance to meet up, take some photos and chat all things singing, Opera and life in general.

As we took a stroll down by Woodstock Waterfall the chat flowed easily. It turns out Niamh has sung her whole life. She talked about being part of a musical family and how when sharing a room with 2 of her sisters growing up, they were always singing, naturally harmonising with each other. It was Niamh who would serenade the Yuletide crowd with her rendition of Silent Night for Christmas Mass every year. But it wasn’t until she was 14 that she started her formal training.

Under the guidance of the wonderful Veronica McCarron, Niamh took lessons for 6 years in total. Receiving the highest grades in her exams with the Royal Irish Academy of Music was no mean feat. It is difficult enough for anyone to learn a song in Italian or French, but Niamh is also dyslexic, so she had to create her own phonetics for different songs and languages. Despite perhaps being technically wrong, Niamh learns by ear, and although she can read music, she learns through feeling the music.

During her Leaving Cert year, Niamh auditioned for the Royal Irish Academy of Music. There are only 6 successful candidates a year, so she, like any other 6th year student, filled out her CAO and was preparing her backup plan.

I can only imagine the dread when she was called to the principal’s office a few months later. Niamh was shaking, racking her brains trying to remember when she had misbehaved. The dread quickly turned to delight and happy tears as Mr O’Sullivan bestowed the wonderful news that she had been accepted into the RIAM.

Thus began her training under Dr. Veronica Dunne, who Niamh refers to affectionately as “Ronny”. Ronny, who was 90 at the time, was old school, taught 5 – 6 hours a day with no breaks, only stopping to consume two bananas. She would have her students feel her ribcage as she sang. She explained and visualised ways to sing and they learned to feel the sound through her body.

Then the dreaded pandemic hit. For a while school was cancelled and when it came back it was, like for so many, online. Ronny being as hands on as she was, couldn’t adapt to distance teaching. That is how Niamh became a student of Lynda Lee, who herself was once a student of the fabulous Dr. Veronica Dunne.  Lynda understood the training Niamh had so far and was able to build on it and teach new methods.

In her final year at college, Niamh took the lead in their production of King Arthur, a role she tells me gave her the confidence to believe in herself. A girl after my own heart, she loved getting to see all the behind the scenes stuff, hair, make up, set design. She loved all these creative minds coming together to achieve the director’s vision, which was, in this case an Apocalyptic King Arthur.

Straight out of college she auditioned for the Irish National Opera. Having auditioned in February it wasn’t until the following August that she received an email to say she was to be part of the Swiss Chorus in William Tell and would be performing in the Gaiety Theatre the following November. Thankfully her bosses in Kissanes Pharmacy have always been supportive and encouraging of her budding career. They made it easy for Niamh to approach them with the news that she would need 6 weeks off work for rehearsals and a further 2 to perform.

William Tell, Rossini’s magnificent and extravagant final masterpiece, had not been performed in Ireland in 147 years. Niamh sang soprano, along with her 32 fellow Swiss Chorus cast mates. After a week of pre shows in the Gaiety for tech, she went on to perform 5 shows over 6 nights. William Tell is a 4 hour opera and the biggest that the Irish National Opera has ever performed.

Niamh speaks fondly of all members of the cast and crew. Again, watching and learning, often in awe of how professional everyone was, but how approachable and down to earth they were too. None more so than her director, Julian Chavez, who really cared about the production. He learned the names of everyone he was working with, helped them become fully immersed in the show and believe they were the person they were portraying. His consideration paid off as all reviews the opera received were 4 and 5 stars and every single review mentioned the chorus.

So what next for the young woman who once spent her time serenading sheep? Well, the sky is the limit and her ambition holds no bounds. With nearly a 3 octave range, the dream is to become a dramatic soprano by 30, a title held by very few. Seeing the world would be amazing and Niamh is a very big believer in “What’s for you won’t pass you”. She wants to keep going step by step and see what opportunities come her way, and, when they do, grab them with both hands and not let go. But, as long as she has music in her life, that is what she wants to do, whatever path comes.
As she works towards the dream, Niamh is enjoying being a wedding singer. A job that takes her all over the country, she loves love and sharing the happiness and celebration of the day.

When her days touring and singing on the world’s biggest stages are done, Niamh would love to be involved in some form of music therapy. Having struggled herself in school with dyslexia, she describes how her incredible parents gave her every resource possible to get through it. Music was a huge part of school life without her even realising it. Niamh learned spelling through songs and times tables  in a rhythm.

Niamh has always wanted to work with people with inclusive needs, working one on one with people who have different needs whether it be physical or intellectual. To be able to think of new techniques to help other kids would be the most fulfilling thing.

A huge thank you to Niamh Sheehy for allowing me to not only photograph her but literally to question her on everything. It was a magical, once in a lifetime experience that I won’t forget. How often does one get to have a private concert by a waterfall? Niamh is an amazing person with a big voice and a big heart to match. I cannot wait to follow her success.

Indulge yourself with her wonderful performance in William Tell here:

https://operavision.eu/performance/william-tell

Follow Niamh on Instagram @niamh_sheehymusic