Lifestyle – Judy Murphy talks to the mother of 11-year-old Alma Deutscher whose full-length opera has got rave reviews
Being the parent of a gifted child is both rewarding and challenging, as Janie Steen and Guy Deutscher know from first-hand experience.
Their 11-year-old daughter, Alma, has been hailed as a musical prodigy with no less a character than Stephen Fry comparing her to a young Mozart.
‘Balance’ is a word that her mother Janie uses several times during our interview in advance of Alma’s performance in the Town Hall Theatre, Galway as part of Music for Galway’s Mid-Winter Festival. Alma, who’ll be 12 in February, will be performing several of her own compositions as well as music by other child prodigies including Mozart and Schubert.
Last month the Deutschers were in Vienna where Alma’s first full-length opera, Cinderella, opened to rave reviews. It’s just the latest achievement from this talented child who began playing piano at the age of two and violin aged three. Since then, she has performed as a soloist in Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Uruguay, USA, Israel, and Japan.
At four, Alma stared composing music and by five, had performed for the then Israeli President Shimon Peres. At six she composed her first piano sonata and at seven, a short opera about a pirate. Her debut CD was released in 2013 and featured her compositions up to the age of eight. Her first piece for a symphony orchestra, Dance of the Solent Mermaids, was premiered in the UK 2015. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
“With the business of motherhood, you just grow into it,” says Janie of what it’s like to realise that your child is so gifted. “It’s difficult for me to say what it’s like because this is my only experience.”
Being a mother to any child means constantly being surprised, she adds, sounding like somebody who takes it all in her stride.
She and Guy want to give Alma and their younger daughter, seven-year-old Helen, a regular childhood, where they have freedom to climb trees, go to gymnastics and play in the park.
But from an early age, it was obvious that Alma was exceptionally musical.
As an infant, she responded to music by dancing and wriggling and whenever she heard a song, she could sing it back in the same pitch, says Janie.
Israeli-born Guy and Janie, whose family are Irish, met as students in Cambridge where both went on to do doctorates. Guy, a former fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, is a linguist and Janie, an organ scholar at Oxford, taught literature. Guy is also an amateur flautist while Janie teaches piano.
Janie was reared mostly in England, but enjoyed long holidays in Ireland, where both her parents had been born. Her father retained such a deep attachment to the place of his birth that he taught his children Irish ballads, including the works of Percy French.
“I think it was as a way of teaching us music,” Janie feels.
These days, thanks to Alma, music has become even more central to her life.
Janie and Guy both work from home as much as possible, so they can focus on Alma’s musical career and on rearing the girls, both of whom are home-schooled.
Like much that has happened since they became parents, the home-schooling came as a surprise, Janie says. Alma had been granted a place at a good local school and went along to an induction day, but came home disappointed because she hadn’t learned how to read and write in that time.
For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.