Mezzo' s talent matched by uncompromising principles

Sat, Oct 4, 2008, 01:00

BERNADETTE GREEVY:THE DEATH of the mezzo soprano Bernadette Greevy, at the age of 68, brings the departure from the stage of a singer who had iconic status for generations of Irish music lovers.

She established an international career while still in her 20s and at a time in the 1960s when very few Irish performers had careers abroad.

She maintained her success in spite of a brave and challenging decision to remain based in her native Dublin. There were colleagues who saw her choice as the unnecessary addition of a plane fare to large numbers of engagements.

Her explanation was simple. "I live here because I love Ireland."

But, as she admitted, she also wanted to prove, to herself more than to anyone else, "that if you're good enough you can live where you like. You are what you are. And I'm Irish. There's a certain thing I need here . . . I need a family backup. It was a conscious decision."

The complications and costs this decision imposed on her in an era of limited air travel were sometimes severe.

She gave the pleasure of her rich, distinctive voice, and pure, sincere musicianship to millions - literally so, on the occasion of Pope John Paul II's visit to Ireland in 1979. She fought fearlessly for causes she believed in, including the Anna Livia Dublin International Opera Festival, which she founded in 1999. She was vocal in responding to slights inflicted on her, and was prepared to go public on issues that many people would have chosen to keep private.

She attacked arts minister Ted Nealon and taoiseach Garrett FitzGerald when she was not reappointed to the board of the National Concert Hall in 1986.

She suffered the tragic loss of her husband Peter Tattan in 1983, when he was 46, and had to come to understand that other people couldn't handle the extent and depth of the grief she allowed herself to express. That grief kept her from singing for a year, and she chose her late husband as the subject of an article in this newspaper, printed as part of a series in which eminent people wrote about someone they admired. Passionate conviction and self-belief were a major part of her public persona.

Bernadette Greevy was born in Dublin, the sixth of seven children, and educated at the Holy Faith Convent, Clontarf, where music was taken very seriously indeed. As she once put it, "We were always practising for an opera or feis." With such support to develop her native musical talent she chalked up many successes at the feiseanna she entered.

In Dublin she studied singing with Jean Nolan before moving to the Guildhall in London for further training. She gave her coming out recital for the Music Association of Ireland in November 1960.

This newspaper's critic found her to be in excellent voice on the night, "and for her to be in excellent voice means a great deal, because she has such a lovely instrument. It is not the instrument that makes the singer, but the use of it, the artistry, intelligence and musicality. It seemed last night that Bernadette Greevy has all three."

She made her professional opera début with the Dublin Grand Opera Society in 1961, as Maddalena in Verdi's Rigoletto, and the following year appeared for the first time at the Wexford festival , as Beppo in Mascagni's L'amico Fritz.

Her début in a Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra Prom concert came in January 1962, and the orchestra's conductor, the Hungarian Tibor Paul, was to be an important influence on her chosen repertoire - she sang the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen by Mahler, a composer with whom she had an especially deep affinity. She later sang his music with conductors Claudio Abbado and Pierre Boulez, and made recordings of his song cycles with János Fürst and Franz-Paul Decker.

When she made her début at the Wigmore Hall in London in March 1964 The Times reported that "seldom in recent years has there been such a promising recital at this hall". That same year she signed a four-disc contract with the Argo label (Gramophone magazine's review of her LP of Handel arias concluded with the simple message, "More, please!") and, on the basis of the Wigmore Hall recital, she was awarded a Harriet Cohen International Music Prize, becoming the first Irish singer to be so honoured.

In 1965 she took part in what The Irish Times music critic, Charles Acton, called "The first wholly Irish opera production for decades," taking the role of Dido in an Irish Opera Group production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Yet, although she had sung in opera from the early 1960s, and appeared in opera abroad (including Covent Garden), the opera house was not her natural métier. Her focus was on the music, the singing, the sound, the emotion of the words.

While still in her 20s she was taken under the wing of John Barbirolli, conductor of Manchester's Hallé Orchestra, who, as she put it herself, "taught" her Elgar's Dream of Gerontius. "He got me to think about words, which have been so important, if not the most important thing, to me all my life. It was a wonderful training and a great bit of luck, and I wonder if he had lived would my life have taken another direction" - Barbirolli died in 1970.

Her tours took her to America north and south (including participation in Franz-Paul Decker's four-year Mahler survey in Buenos Aires in the 1990s), to New Zealand, and to China, which she visited at the invitation of the Chinese government in 1985, and reported on in three articles for this newspaper in 1986.

For a singer of her singularity of voice and musical achievement, her legacy of recordings is relatively small. It includes multiple discs of lighter Irish music, recorded for Spoken Arts and Argo in the 1960s and for Marco Polo in the 1990s. She also recorded works by Irish composers, Seóirse Bodley's A Girl, Gerard Victory's Ultima rerum and songs by Seán Ó Riada, masses by Haydn and Schubert, some arias by Bach, Elgar's Sea Pictures, Brahms's Alto Rhapsody and solo songs, Berlioz's Les nuits d'été (twice), orchestral songs by Duparc, and Handel's Orlando.

Her feistiness can be judged by her attack on the government in 1964, when she was informed that her Harriet Cohen Award, which was accepted on her behalf by the Irish Ambassador in London, was available for collection at the Department of External Affairs. She felt it should have been delivered.

The row became heated enough to occasion an official response from the Government Information Bureau. Two years later, when Harriet Cohen awards were won by Gráinne Yeats and Brian Boydell's Dowland Consort, they were not only accepted on the artists' behalf by the Irish Ambassador in London, but also presented to the performers at a function in Dublin by chief justice Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh.

She hadn't just stirred up a storm, but also won her point.

She was a formidable character, professional and exacting to a fault, supportive of young colleagues (she gave master classes for over two decades), and always impeccable in appearance. She was someone who knew her worth, and wanted others to know it too. And through her singing she made sure they did.

She is survived by her son Hugh, brother Joe, and sisters Anna, Marie and Pauline.

Bernadette Greevy, born July 3rd, 1940; died September 26th, 2008