Maireid Sullivan. Can I ask you, Peter, how you felt when you first
read the lyrics to George Meanwells song, Words That I Want?
Peter De Sotto. It worked so well with my voice. It was a song
that I felt I could speak, without being constantly aware
that I was singing. The words are sullen and thought provoking. I feel
when I am singing this song that time stands still. It is a wonderful
feeling very different from when singing grand opera where one
is concentrating on where one is going to reach the peak of the phrase.
In opera a singer must have a plan on how to pace oneself so that you
are saving the voice for the climax of the song. With this song the feeling
is very natural. I am almost talking.
MS. Many singers would be interested to hear you talk about singing a
song which gives a sense of time standing still. I feel a lot of the old
traditional songs have that quality in them.
PDS. I think so. They are designed for story telling, whereas in grand
opera the story is often a vehicle for the incredibly beautiful music
that is being produced.
MS. That sense of standing still is really special. It is almost like
a trance. Do you feel that?
PDS. Absolutely. In this song I dont feel myself singing, but in
opera you certainly do. It is a completely different thrill. The thrill
goes from your toes to the top of your head. This song is thought provoking
and a little darker. It is introverted. I have a strong sense of my personal
space during this song.
MS. Since you are the singer with the quartet, as well as a superb violinist,
I might add, Id like do discuss the ancient traditions of singing
before we talk about the art or the skill that was developed for classical
singing styles. Looking at singing as a primordial expression, when you
can sense the timeless stillness in the introverted thought that is expressed
in a song, Id like to share a thought with you from an Irish singer
of the Sean Nos Gaelic songs. She sang a very old traditional song in
the Gaelic/Irish language, translated as nature expressing itself through
the song. Eg. In her song the singer is expressing anger. It is considered
to be not the anger of the individual, but the anger of nature expressed
through the singer. That kind of singing is bound up with the sense of
people feeling they are one with nature.
PDS. That is a beautiful concept. It really depends on what the words
mean to the singer. Sometimes the words have a very obvious meaning that
everyone is supposed to be able to relate to somehow. When you blend the
text with song, the message has more clarity. For me, as a singer, I feel
I am able to communicate much more through singing than I can verbally.
It comes from such a deep level that when people hear a thought sung,
each person gets his own personal message. It hits them in a way that
they cannot 'doublethink' themselves. Whenever we hear someone talking
there is always doublethink there is always interpretation.
Through singing, the experience is personal. You are getting a message
that is just for you.
MS. When did you start singing?
PDS. I started in my late 20s.
MS. You actually began to sing in your late 20s?
PDS. Yes. I was twenty-six when I took my first singing lesson and I was
twenty-seven when I took my second lesson and when I was twenty eight
when I took a whole lot of lessons! (laughter)
MS. Didnt you do any singing at all in your earlier life?
MS. I am stunned!
PDS. The reason was because, basically, I wanted to be in the Hells
I see! That makes sense. Your indicating that you didnt have the
success you wanted as a Hells Angel so you had to change course.
PDS. I didnt think Id be very successful as an opera singer
in the Hells Angels. (more laughter)
MS. When did you finally decide that you had to sing?
PDS. This happened while I was already a professional violinist playing
in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Singing came to me late in life because,
although I knew that I had a voice, I also realized that with a violin
you could keep to yourself. You can hide your personality while you are
playing the violin. But when you are singing, the people know who you
are. You are completely naked. I guess I really wasnt looking forward
to that as a youngster people seeing me completely naked.
MS. You went on a crash diet and then it was okayto be seen completely
naked while singing? So, now you just dont care at all.
PDS. (Peels of laughter) Quite the opposite. I ended up gaining 40 pounds
and then it didnt really matter!
MS. You are so funny!
PDS. Anyway, I was twenty eight when I started fooling around with Quartetto
Gelato, and then I realized I had to start taking my singing seriously.
What led me to my voice studies is that at the beginning I felt I knew
how to sing. I could just get up and I could hit all the high notes and
I had stamina, I felt really good. When I started my lessons I felt I
couldnt sing at all. Then I took many more lessons and I could sing
as well as when I first started. With a few extras of course!
MS. I suppose that would have been similar to aquiring a classical technique
for playing the violin when you were twenty, after playing by ear for
so long before.
PDS. Yes, ...I went through that a little with the violin. It wasnt
quite as severe as with the voice.
MS. I read that you began to play the violin by ear.
PDS. Thats correct.
MS. You played the violin very well before taking on the classical repertoire.
PDS. Yes, I had a pretty good natural technique.
MS. Tell us about your first moments of hearing your own voice and loving
PDS. I started singing for the first time when I was strolling around
tables playing the violin in an Italian restaurant. I was taking requests
from people for songs. The Italians are not content to just listen, you
know, they want to get up there and they want to be part of the act and
they all want to start singing. I couldnt compete with my violin,
it just wasnt loud enough, and so, to get their attention I just
started singing the melody without the words.
MS. You were singing Italian songs without the words?
PDS. Yes. I had a big loud voice louder than my violin so
people could hear me clearly. I had a natural vibrato. People started
applauding and saying, Sing something else, and so I sang
something else, fooling around, still without words. People were disappointed
when I didnt sing more.
MS. That is such an unusual story. That is really surprising.
PDS. Yes. It came as quite a surprise to me as well.
MS. How long have you been singing now?
PDS. Its been about ten or twelve years I suppose.
MS. You worked with the Toronto Symphony for ten years as well.
PDS. Thats right.
MS. Was that after you started singing or before?
PDS. It was before. I joined the Toronto Symphony when I was twenty four.
MS. And so they knew you when you made the transition to the voice? How
did they first find out that you could sing?
PDS. I remember going backstage after hearing some singers and I started
imitating the singers honking out a few high notes, everyone turned
around and couldnt believe it. And I got the same reaction as I
did in the restaurant, Why arent you out there singing? You
should be singing. You are in the wrong end of the stage. You shouldnt
be in this section, you should be up front, etc. etc.
MS. I have never heard such a fine violinist and such a fine singer in
the one person.
PDS. Well, I like to think of myself as the only one singing and playing
at this level. Ill be really upset if I see others. Actually, I
once saw my nightmare come true when I went to Disney World and I saw
a troop of Mariachi musicians playing violin and one by one putting down
their violins and each singing a song.
MS. The Irish do it too sing one verse then play a verse on the
violin. But all of that is on a very different technical level. So, when
you began, did you learn the Italian repertoire because you were working
in an Italian restaurant?
PDS. I am half Italian. So I was brought up on these tunes.
MS. What is the other half?
PDS. My mother is Estonian.
MS. That would have been the source of the Gypsy violin songs, I suppose.
PDS. Not exactly. I am Italian Estonian but I was raised with Hungarians.
My fathers best friend was George Szabo. My father and he looked
exactly the same. They used to say they were twin brothers that
was their big joke. They both played violin together on jobs. He was my
uncle George. I have no immediate relatives in Canada. We got together
every Sunday and we would play Gypsy pieces and Italian pieces around
the piano. Thats what actually got me interested in the violin.
MS. So you started off playing that repertoire?
PDS. Yes, it was a fun thing to do.
MS. Are your family first generation emigrants.
PDS. My father came here from Italy and my mother came here from Estonia.
MS. They met here?
PDS. Yes. They met in Lake Louise, in the Rockies. My father was playing
in the orchestra and my mother was selling tickets. Its quite a
MS. How many brothers and sisters do you have?
PDS. I have one sister. She was a singer also and played piano. She is
taking care of her children now.
MS. When they have all grown up shell probably get back into the
fray again. I would like to learn more about your musical, intellectual
and cultural influences -- the broad picture of your life story.
PDS. The strongest influence in my life was my father, because he taught
me how to play with peoples emotions musically. He also played around
tables. It means nothing if you just stand there playing, like a fixture.
My father had the ability to bring tears to the peoples eyes or
to leave them in laughter or with a big smile on their face. He played
to people on such a personal level that I rarely see other musicians achieve.
I think this is what matters when you sing or play. If you are not communicating
with people, you are not doing your job. My father, when he was describing
a musical phrase, would say, This is the point where you are really
going to milk this note and this is what makes the girls cry. He
was wonderful that way. He was a great teacher.
MS. Youve brought tears to my eyes with this story. Do you have
your own sense of a personal mission out of all of this? Now that you
understand this psychology and have developed your skills, do you have
a sense of what you want to achieve with it?
PDS. I just want to embrace everything that life brings to me. I listen
to as many different styles of music as possible and I love people. Life
experiences are my tools. I live with no regrets for having been too afraid
to try something new. I believe life works for you if you keep a really
strong positive attitude and never look back. I feel I am where I am because
I have an incredibly strong love of life. Savor every moment like it is
MS. Id love to hear how you explain that in your inner musings.
What word you would use to best describe your life?
MS. Thats the word you like?
PDS. Thats the word I like. If you have to correct a problem you
have to go far in the other direction. If you want to make a statement,
you want to get through to somebody, especially in this world where people
are completely desensitized by the constant white noise in our environment,
by music videos and the ability to travel around world, not to mention
our incredible new communication network. If you want to get through to
people today, you have to scream it. I do it emotionally. You have to
go so far to make your point. At one point in history this would have
been considered melodrama, now it is just a means to an end.
MS. That is extremely interesting. Then again, you have the formula with
the operatic singing style. That is what that does.
PDS. I think so. I think that is what has made opera great. Especially
the people who are really great opera singers, like, Gigli or Bjoerling,
the older style opera singers.
MS. Would you like to talk about your experience of being mentored. How
important is it to have a mentor?
PDS. I have a new teacher, Angela Hawaleshka, here in Toronto. I love
her. She is involved in every aspect of my singing. It is not only the
voice she is involved in, but the health of the voice. She is involved
in the psychological aspect of the voice and she is involved in the drama
of the song. I just love her and I have become completely dependent on
her. When I am home, which is very rare, I can go for up to four lessons
a week with her. I have been to many, many teachers, some of them very
prestigious, and I have studied all over the United States and Canada.
Ive found her to be perfect for me. I just hit it off with her and
I trust her. You have to be completely trusting of your teacher.
MS. How has that experience liberated you, if thats the right word?
PDS. I sing better (laughter). I feel better about myself. And I feel
better about the communication on stage. I get much more out to the audience
because of her.
MS. What about selecting the repertoire?
PDS. It is a democracy in Quartetto Gelato. If everybody is not completely
happy with whatever we choose, then we choose something else. Many of
the pieces we do perform come from our separate backgrounds. I was brought
up with Italian songs and Gypsy music, George brings the folk influence,
Cynthia is classical and Joe brings the accordion repertoire. We try to
not stretch out to the point where we are just doing things for the sake
of what ever the fad is at the time. I think our success is because we
are not doing anything that is not really us.
MS. It is unusual to have an ensemble of classical musicians who can improvise
PDS. Yes, although I do it in very few pieces, everything is rehearsed
to the nth degree, so that doesnt leave much margin for improvisation
MS. What interests me too, is that you have a mixed repertoire of the
classical and the traditional Neapolitan music and other roots style music.
Do you find when you go to perform in a classical concert hall that the
audience is generally familiar with your range of styles?
PDS. We are a very eclectic group. Even people who are familiar with Quartetto
Gelato are still surprised by what we might throw in during a recital.
MS. Well, would that be part of the fact that you had such incredible
freedom earlier in you musical life, when you were younger, that you would
not be willing to confine yourself to a narrow way of expressing yourself
PDS. I think so. In the old days, my idols, Fritz Kriesler, Jascha Heifetz,
in a concert program, first did their meat and potatoes, the
expected classical pieces, Brahms and Beethoven, etc. and then at the
end it was Bon Bons, it was dessert. They would take songs of the day
and make their own arrangements of them. Thats where you would really
get to see the character and true artistry of the soloist. Kriesler was
the greatest at this although Heifetz also had his share of brilliant
MS. Going back into your own personal life again, you have told us a little
about your own personal philosophy. How do you define your inner philosophical
code, if I can use that word?
PDS. I believe life is precious. You have to live every minute, as if
it is your last and your music has to express that. You have to play like
every time you play is going to be you last performance.
MS. In your interaction with people do they demand that you be
one way or another in terms of the way you express yourself. Do you feel
you are quite free to be yourself?
PDS. That is the privilege of being on stage. You cant be making
apologies for who you are when you are on stage.
MS. You have to be all things to all people, I suppose.
PDS. You have to be yourself. If your are successful most people will
love you, but at the same time there will always be people who dont
like what you are doing.
MS. How does your constant traveling around the world effect you?
PDS. Thats the hardest part. We give 80 to 100 concerts every year.
The travel is very taxing on the voice. If your body isnt in top
physical form and you are not completely rested, the voice shows it. In
fact if you are depressed the voice shows it. The voice is such a mirror
to your soul. And that is what I was afraid of as a child. That is why
I waited so long to begin singing. The voice shows all.
Back to Quartetto Gelato Interview
Mairéid Sullivan is a singer, poet, writer. She was born near Bantry,
in County Cork, Ireland. She has lived in the US, Europe, Asia and Australia
and currently resides in California. Her work is dedicated to researching
and interpreting the gifts of Celtic culture and to blending the evocative
feeling and beauty of ancient Celtic melodies with new expressions of
poetry and music.
Mairéid's first album, "Dancer", produced by Donal Lunny,
and her second recording, "For Love's Caress - a Celtic journey",
are available on-line and in mainstream and alternative music stores,
under Celtic/Irish, in World Music, New Age or International recording
sections. Her book, "Celtic Women in Music" was published by
Quarry Music Press in 1999. Mairéid is also a featured artist on
Clarity Sound & Light's live concert recording "A Celtic Evening",
with The Chieftain's Harper, Derek Bell. Her songs are featured on compilations
by Narada Records, "Celtic Voices - Women of Song"; and Hearts
O'Space Record, "Celtic Twilight 3 Lullabies". For further information
see Mairéid's website at www.maireid.com