New Zealand Law Society - International litigator enjoys the many stages of world opera

International litigator enjoys the many stages of world opera

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A spiral staircase in an 18th century apartment next to the Vienna Opera House was “the last straw” for litigation specialist Carmel Walsh – wife of international opera star Simon O’Neill.

With one-year old twins in tow, the couple were constantly on the move as Simon performed across the opera stages of Europe.

Ashburton-born Simon is a world-renowned opera singer, probably the most internationally recognised New Zealand opera after Kiri Te Kanawa and Donald McIntyre.

Carmel Veronica (Carmel) Walsh
Entry to law
Graduated LLB from Otago University. Admitted in 1993.
Barrister in Bankside Chambers, Auckland
Specialist area
Property and equity, trusts and estates litigation.

“We ended up in countries where we didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anybody, and couldn’t put the children into any activity, so I was just at home in a strange place trying to entertain pre-schoolers,” says Carmel, who practices from Bankside Chambers in Auckland, and was recently appointed to the board of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

The day I finally decided it couldn’t work was when I was trying to pull the double push chair up a spiral staircase in a beautiful 18th century apartment that was next to the Vienna Opera House. It was the last straw.” Carmel joined Bankside Chambers in 2015 when she returned to New Zealand after practice in London.

As a partner in international litigation firm Barlow Lyde and Gilbert she specialised in large-scale international litigation and arbitration in the reinsurance and accountancy sectors.

She moved to London while her husband was a post-graduate student at Juilliard in New York then building a career there. “Before the children were born, we would flick between the two cities.”

“It made sense for me to remain in London after the twins were born but after our third child, we were motivated to come home. That meant Simon took on a huge commuting burden, and last year did about 22 trips to Europe and America. Covid-19 has changed his schedule.

“It was during the time I had children I started getting involved in earnest in philanthropic endeavours and starting to work on boards. When you have been a hard-working and intellectually interested individual who then has to stop dead to raise children your mind looks for other things to do very quickly.”

In London she was invited to join the board of an American trust based in San Francisco, awarding scholarships to New Zealand musicians. Her involvement with the performing arts expanded to include being on the board of the New Zealand Trio, New Zealand’s pre-eminent chamber music trio of piano, cello and violin; the board of the New Zealand Opera School, which is held every summer in Whanganui; and Circle 100, a philanthropic group associated with New Zealand Opera.

The Irish connection

Carmel’s New Zealand-born mother of Irish parentage, Bridie, is a retired schoolteacher. Her late father, Sean, an Irishman from Mayo in the west of Ireland – “we have family all over Ireland” - came to New Zealand in the 1950s. Carmel has seven brothers and sisters, whose professions include lawyers, teachers, and a brother who is a parish priest in northern Italy.

“I have always been a language person, interested in English. We were a wordy family, doing crosswords, debating, picking up on grammar and punctuation. We respected our words and had a general interest in current affairs and world events.

“I come from a family of a lot of people talking a lot of the time. If you wanted to get yourself heard you had to be convincing. Which is probably why all the lawyers went into the litigation side of the law, not commercial.

“For leisure I play tennis and do yoga and maintain a keen interest in my children’s sport. We like boating around the Hauraki Gulf too.

“We have a six-month-old schnauzer called Fritz, which we got a month before lockdown, so he also keeps me busy. “I enjoy keeping up with current affairs by regularly listing to podcasts from the New York Times, Washington Post and the BBC, as well as Radio New Zealand’s The Detail.

“I like reading and have been reading John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, which covers the rise and fall of Theranos, a multi-billion dollar biotech startup headed by Elizabeth Holmes. I know one of the investors she approached, who turned her down.

“As a child l learned the piano and sang, studied, and did all the music exams through the grades. I was still singing while at law school. “In legal practice I was in the chorus of the New Zealand Opera and have always had an interest in classical music and opera.

"After completing all my exams I realised I was not going to make a career out of it, but have maintained it as an interest and kept a hand in all the way through.

“I’m lucky enough to travel with my husband all over the world, and have seen some phenomenal performances at some of the greatest opera houses and music venues in the world - La Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Berlin Staatsoper and Bayreuth in Germany.

“I’ve met and had dinner with some of the leading stars of opera including Pavarotti, Domingo, Anna Netrebko, Bryn Terfel, Deborah Voight, Daniel Barenboim, Andris Nelsons, etc” “I had dinner with US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg a couple of years ago in Washington. She has a huge interest in opera and is a big fan of my husband.”

America and London

Husband Simon initially went to study in America on a Fulbright scholarship and Carmel left New Zealand in 2000. “America was not a natural home for me in law. I was working with Mike Ring QC and McElroys in New Zealand and had done a big claim involving both insurers and reinsurers.

“I was employed from New Zealand by London firm Norton Rose. My reinsurance knowledge from my work with Mike Ring QC was a big selling point and I went over to work in their commercial litigation team specialising in re-insurance.”

During her time in London Carmel worked on film financing litigation, and a large market wide claim alleging fraudulent behaviours of brokers which undermined a huge North American book of business.

Carmel then joined and later became a partner at Barlow Lyde and Gilbert in the reinsurance and international risk team where she was involved in the reinsurance claim to the market following the collapse of the Arthur Andersen network.

“I then did a massive piece of litigation when seconded from London to Hong Kong, involving an auditor’s negligence claim. It was a year of working solidly with forensic accountants which greatly informs my work now. That took me through to 2008 when I had the twins – and that slowed me down.”

The family still managed to travel and the children went to kindergarten in Germany one summer while Simon was doing an engagement at Bayreuth Festival – famous for its performances of operas by Richard Wagner.

“If I could travel now, I might take a trip to New York and back to London. New York is where I would gravitate to as it’s the place I enjoyed the most. I got to witness New York over three decades. “My husband lived in the Upper West Side through the 1990s and 2000s and I visited regularly. You could chart the buoyancy of the economy through what shops flourished or disappeared in that neighbourhood.

“I spent a lot of time in the branch of the bookstore Barnes and Noble which is the subject of Nora Ephron’s film You’ve Got Mail. Now that shop has disappeared because of the surge in online shopping. Equally, Tower Records which was a staple of the 72nd Street corner has folded because of digital music content. “I also love London, but for different reasons. It was where my children were born and was our home for 15 years. And I would like to spend some more time in Rome polishing up my Italian. I lived there for a year between my degree and starting legal practice."

Caraoke mode

“In New Zealand some of my favourite spots are in the Nelson region with Kaiteriteri Beach a favourite beach. It’s warm and if you stay in the campground you experience a little slice of New Zealand.

“We are planning a family holiday there in the summer in our seven-seater Tesla which has a “caraoke” mode which amuses my husband enormously. Despite being accompanied by the greatest orchestras in the world he is endlessly entertained by the car orchestra.

“For my dream dinner party I would have a big list of dinner guests, including JS Bach, Elizabeth the 1st, Abraham Lincoln – I would like to know what he thinks of the state of American politics today - and Henry VIII - who kicked off the supremacy of parliament that we understand today, the rule of law, the western style democracies and the role of lawyers in keeping the state in check. I find that period of history fascinating, and I greatly enjoyed Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of books charting the life of Thomas Cromwell.

“If I had to choose an alternative career it would be journalism, without a doubt. I am an avid follower of international and current affairs and I am devastated by the erosion of the role of the media, especially from political corners in the US. I think it is a profession quite closely linked to law. We investigate and become knowledgeable about a subject matter then write submissions on the issue instead of an article.

“In my career I haven’t saved anyone from the death penalty, and for all the years in London I was mostly assisting large corporate entities to fight each other over money. “But I find with my return to New Zealand and with my practice here that I am able to help many people in what is often one of the most stressful events in their life – litigation.

"Translating their issues into a claim or defence and guiding them through what is often for them an entirely obscure process is enough to give them a sense of empowerment in the justice system, and that their issues have been fairly treated. I find that incredibly rewarding.”

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