Dublin singer of the world

An Irishman’s Diary about an opera star more famous overseas than at home

As a young singer growing up in Dublin, Patricia Bardon used to dream of becoming another Aretha Franklin, or even a Tina Turner. Tragically, it was not to be. Her life took a wrong turn, somewhere. So when she makes a rare concert appearance in her home city this weekend, it will be in the title role of Bizet's Carmen, which she has played all over the world in a glittering operatic career.

Her fate was sealed, probably, at about the age of 12, when she first attended lessons with the semi-legendary voice teacher Veronica Dunne. Dunne's training set many Irish singers on the road to classical glory down the years, and she knew from the start that this precocious talent from Cabra would be another one.

But then in 1983, while still a teenager, Bardon won second prize in the inaugural Cardiff Singer of the World competition. And with that, any hope of a career in soul or gospel, never mind rock or rhythm and blues, was doomed.

At 18, she was far too young for opera, really. The only thing that genre has in common with the blues is that you need the gravitas of age to be taken seriously in it. And yet she couldn’t be ignored now, either. So even as she set about paying her dues throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, she was already enjoying a very successful career.


By 1999, Michael Dervan was complaining to her in this newspaper that, while she could be seen regularly on stages all over Europe, she rarely appeared in Dublin. And there was the rub, because as Bardon explained, it was because she wasn't asked. Shot to international fame by the Cardiff competition, she had been forgotten at home.

Her relative neglect here continues even now. When she sings Carmen at the National Concert Hall this Saturday, it will be her Dublin debut in a part she has performed as far away as Los Angeles. And that's just one of the roles in a vast repertoire of which an English opera critic wrote: "I have never seen her give anything less than a world-class performance."

When Bardon first encountered the story of Carmen, by the way, she was unimpressed with the lead character, considering her "just a tart" and tending to sympathise with the hapless Don José, the soldier led astray by his infatuation. It took the singer a while to appreciate the depth of the role she has since played many times. And in this, she echoed the reception given to the opera when it debuted in Paris in 1875.

Poor Georges Bizet. If the critics didn't slaughter him, exactly, they must have contributed to his early death, three months later, at 36. Mind you, he was not marked for longevity anyway. Well might he have set his most famous composition in a cigarette factory, because he was himself a heavy smoker, afflicted by illnesses of the throat, and was also being worn down by depression and overwork.

Had he survived a few years longer, Carmen might have earned him a life on easy street. But its depiction of proletarian passions in an underworld Seville was a little ahead of its time for Parisian opera circles. In 1878, Tchaikovsky predicted that, within 10 years, Carmen would be the world's most popular opera, and he was right. Unfortunately, Bizet's run on earth had already closed by then. He died convinced he had written a "hopeless flop".

It took about a decade of successful performances abroad before the show earned a second chance where it began. Clearly, even Belle Époque Paris was not immune to neglecting its own artists. Then in 1883, it returned in triumph and hasn’t looked back, in Paris or anywhere else, since.

A recorded Carmen, with Placido Domingo in the lead male role, was the first classical record Patricia Bardon ever bought. She "played it to death". So it's not surprising that she subsequently made the title role her own, nor that this brought her to the attention of the same Domingo, who directed her performance for the Los Angeles Opera last year.

On her own homecoming this weekend, she will be singing opposite the Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, a man who has been mentioned in the same breath as Pavarotti, with English soprano Sarah Fox and Romanian Baritone Zoltán Nagy in the support roles.

It's a concert performance of the work, rather than a full staging. But the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under John Wilson will be doing their best to make us smell the orange trees, and tobacco, of 19th-century Seville.

@FrankmcnallyIT fmcnally@irishtimes.com