Veronica Dunne: still working at 87 in an ‘ageist’ Ireland

The opera singer continues to train students for 39 hours a week – and she doesn’t stop for lunch

Everyone in Dublin seems to know and like Veronica Dunne. I am mildly surprised to see the Irish Times photographer greet her with a hug of recognition. We don't hug much in this job.

Dunne, whose friends call her Ronnie, is as well known as a teacher and mentor over many decades as she is as a soprano. Next weekend she will be presented with the 2014 National Concert Hall Lifetime Achievement Award at a concert in her honour there.

Dunne is wearing an electric-blue suit that stands out among the monochrome clothing in the restaurant we’re in. The blast of colour hints at a lifetime of dressing to be noticed for the stage.

She is unselfconsciously theatrical. At one point she extends her arms into the middle of the table and flutters them, startling the waiter. She’s being an octopus, to illustrate a point. “The Arts Council may not like what I’m going to say, but they are like an octopus. They are doing their best to please everyone, with their legs giving bits of money here and bits of money there. They need to look at what the body of the octopus is doing, not the legs. I can’t understand their thinking – when it comes to opera, anyway.”

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At 87, Dunne is still working, a fact she says has alleviated ageism against her. “I certainly do think Ireland is ageist. Continuing to work has definitely helped me in that regard.”

At present she has 13 voice students, each of whom she trains for three hours a week. “I start at 10 and finish at six. I don’t stop for lunch; I have two bananas and a skinny latte.”

How does she know when someone has talent? “I have this instinct that you hear the voice and you see the potential and then you have to make sure they’re musicians.

“What you have to listen for in the raw voice is how much it can develop. You have to find out where the thickest part of their voice is, the strongest, so that you can then work on making it stronger.”

Has she watched The X Factor? Enough to dislike it. "They're all the same! They all sing in a chest voice." She does a chest voice. "They all look like they're eating ice-cream cones, the way the microphone is practically in their mouths. They're not making beautiful sounds; they're shouting."

After The X Factor the Eurovision Song Contest gets a belting. "It's a joke. It's not singing; it's all about gimmicks. Can someone not stand up and sing a song without a pack of monkeys leaping across the stage? "

She advises her students to be prudent in taking care of their future financially. “Look ahead. I didn’t do that myself. I spent. It is particularly important for women, because it’s impossible to continue your career when you have children. Or it was for me, anyway.”

Dunne is frank about the fact that female opera singers were financially discriminated against when she was starting out. “It used to annoy me that I’d be singing in an opera and getting £50 for a performance and the tenor opposite me would be getting £300.

“It’s better now, but in Ireland there still is this attitude, ‘Ah, we’re trying to put on an opera, and we haven’t much money, we’re just trying to survive. Will you help us out?’

“My advice is: write a cheque instead for them. John McCormack said never do any charity work, because otherwise you’ll never get the fee you ask for when you perform next. Far cheaper to give them a cheque instead for their charity.”