First published in the Western People on Monday.
Very much one of our own, in fact. Margaret Sheridan was born in a house on the Mall in Castlebar on October 15th, 1889, the fifth child of the postmaster in Castlebar at the time, John Burke Sheridan.
Margaret’s mother died when Margaret was five, and her father died when she was eleven. Effectively orphaned – the Sheridan family don’t seem to have been that close - Margaret was raised to adulthood in the Dominican convent at 19 Eccles Street, Dublin 7, now part of the Mater Hospital. And it was while a student with the Dominicans that Margaret Burke Sheridan discovered that she had a gift.
At the age of nineteen, Sheridan left Ireland to study music at the Royal Academy in London. She was a success, but there was a war on and the opera scene in London was something of a backwater. If you wanted to be a star, you had to go to Italy, where opera is all.
Sheridan went to Rome, and started training again under a teacher called Alfredo Martini. And it was while training that she made the decision that set her path for the rest of her life.
A singer in a production of La Bohème in the Constanzi Opera House (now the Teatro dell’Opera) fell ill while Margaret Sheridan was staying in the Quirinale Hotel. The Quirinale is on the other side of the block from the opera house, and the manager of the opera house had heard Margaret practicing - Sheridan was in the habit of practicing her singing at her open window in the hotel. The manager took a notion, and sent a cable to find out if the nobody wanted to become a star in four days, filling as Mimì in Giancomo Puccini’s beloved opera about young love.
Fantastic, you would think. But it wasn’t that simple. Martini, Margaret’s teacher, was dead set against the idea, and for reasons that are do with what makes opera such a challenging art form.
The singing that we do in the shower or when loaded with porter is a natural ability. Sometimes the singing isn’t too bad, sometimes it’s wretched – it’s down to accidents of birth.
But the singing done by opera singers isn’t at all natural. Yes, there are natural voices, but they have to be meticulously trained, not only to make sweeter, richer sounds, but to be able to make those sounds on demand, consistently, for show after show, for performance after performance.
Margaret Burke Sheridan had a natural gift. But she wasn’t yet fully in control of her voice. She could sing, but she couldn’t sing in such a way that she could guarantee her singing wouldn’t impair her ability to sing in future. That’s how severe operatic singing is – if you don’t know what you’re doing, you are in danger of destroying your voice every time you open your mouth.
On the other hand, Sheridan had been living off the kindness of strangers since her father died. Different benefactors had invested in her talent, but it’s not the same as making your own money. And opportunities to sing a major role in a major theatre don’t come along every day. What use was there in completing her training if she were to have a perfect instrument but nowhere to sing? Besides; she could always go back and finish up her training, couldn’t she?
Sheridan made her choice. She sang Mimì in Rome on February 3rd, 1918, and instantly became a star. Even today, Italians don’t always take to foreigners singing Italy’s national art form, but they couldn’t resist Sheridan.
For twelve years she ruled the operatic stage, something John McCormack could never do. Margaret Sheridan sang in London, Naples, Monte Carlo and Milan, and was acclaimed by all. And then, after a performance as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello at Covent Garden in June, 1930, she never sang again.
She tried to, of course. At first, she would claim a cold or a chest infection and pull out of performances, in the fashion of primas donnas. But as the years went by it became clearer that she would never return to the stage. Alfredo Martini had been right. Without the proper grounding and technique, Margaret’s talent was a castle built on sand. It would last for so long but it was always doomed. And when the doom arrived, there would be no way to rescue it.
Sheridan was still a star. She was offered concert recitals – the form that made McCormack a household name and a very wealthy man - but she turned them down. As far as Sheridan was concerned, it was opera or nothing. Opera isn’t just the singing – it’s the acting, the music, the performance, the whole. To just sing without the rest of opera’s heady mix would be like drinking black tea. It just wasn’t the same.
Sheridan turned a brave face to the world, but the remaining thirty-odd years of her life were tough on her. She came back to live in Ireland but we are not a great nation for accepting our countrymen and countrywomen who have had success abroad.
But Margaret Sheridan was generous to the next generation, and did what she could for them. In her definitive biography of Sheridan, Anne Chambers writes of a Feis Ceoil winner, Phyllis Sullivan, who was tutored for a time by Margaret Sheridan.
Sullivan recalled Sheridan as being temperamental, but never mean. If Sullivan made a mistake, Sheridan would sing the line properly herself (while always avoiding high notes). Sullivan asked Sheridan why she didn’t sing in public anymore.
“My voice is finished,” replied Sheridan. “It’s all right singing for you, darling, but I would break on my top notes and I am nervous.”
Margaret Burke Sheridan died on April 16th, 1958, and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. The back of her headstone reads “Margherita Sheridan, Prima Donna. La Scala, Milan. Covent Garden, London.” Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam uasal.