Austin Gaffney obituary: Gifted baritone and stalwart of Jury’s cabaret

Gaffney was a household name for light opera and musical theatre

Austin Gaffney: “The beauty of his voice and his artistry were outstanding.”

Austin Gaffney: “The beauty of his voice and his artistry were outstanding.”

 

Austin Gaffney

Born: February 11th, 1930

Died: February 14th, 2019

Austin Gaffney, who has died aged 89, was for decades a household name in Ireland as the country’s leading baritone in light opera and musical theatre. Performing with musical societies all over the country and in cabaret at Jury’s Hotel, Dublin, Gaffney also became very well known in the US where he toured regularly for up to six months at a time.

His old friend and long-time accompanist Michael Casey, assistant head of music at RTÉ from 1968 to 1999, ascribed his popularity to a level of technical excellence and emotional empathy in his singing which few, if any, in his generation were able to match: “He was really at the top of his profession, always the first port of call for producers as the most desirable baritone in the country. He was a producer’s dream, he could read music fluently, could walk into a rehearsal, pick up a score and start sight-reading it immediately. He was a painful perfectionist and had a lifelong routine of daily rest and practice: he never neglected his daily exercises. His diction was always crystal clear and I often held him up as an example of how a singer should handle the lyrics.”

Gaffney’s forte was light opera such as The Merry Widow and The Desert Song and popular song including Percy French. Gaffney had great virtuosity, making several recordings of traditional Irish ballads, and performing also in jazz. A singer of strong passions, Casey recalled this week that Gaffney never liked grand opera and, despite much pleading from producers and accompanists, refused to perform in Gilbert and Sullivan, declaring that “I have no empathy at all for that Savoy [opera] music.”

But he was no low-brow crooner. Another long-time accompanist and old friend, Veronica McSwiney, told The Irish Times this week that “there was nothing greater for me than accompanying Austin in German Lieder and Art Song. His Lieder singing was superb… The beauty of his voice and his artistry were outstanding. Living in Ireland, when he was in his prime, dictated the road he must take to earn a living for his family, but I know that he would have loved to do more recital work. However, he brought the same artistry to every role he played… in Carousel, Fiddler on the Roof, New Moon, Percy French and whatever came his way. I got to know him very well when he joined the Jury’s Irish cabaret as he, my husband Michael O’Dea and Hal Roach were the pillars of the show. They spent six months every year here in Dublin and in the new year the show travelled all over the USA.”

Gaffney’s mastery of classical German love song owed much to his training during two years in Hamburg in the mid-1950s with the renowned – but controversial – Wagnerian Rudolf Bockelmann. Bockelmann, a product of the Oper Leipzig in the 1920s, had become globally famous between the wars for his performances at the Bayreuth festival, Covent Garden with the Royal Opera and in the US in great roles from Wagnerian masterpieces including Die Walküre and Das Rheingold, but he was shunned after 1945 for having joined the Nazi party in 1937 and being appointed by Hitler to the list of the Third Reich’s most important artists in 1944.

After performing two shows at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre on a Saturday, he would go on to perform until midnight at Jury’s cabaret

Gaffney had found himself in Germany, on a scholarship from the Department of Foreign Affairs, after training in London. He had gone there initially to work in his first profession as a printer, but, pursuing a long-held passion for music, he obtained training there with Alannah Gerhart, a well-known German singing teacher of her time, who recommended that he should study under Bockelmann.

While his former political associations were abhorrent, Bockelmann was undoubtedly a great teacher and on his return from Germany, Gaffney was rarely out of professional singing work. He attracted the attention of film director Richard Afton who cast him as King Goose, opposite Frankie Howerd, in a cinematic version of Mother Goose in 1959.

Gaffney’s musical talent had been noticed early as a schoolboy at O’Connell’s CBS on Dublin’s north side, where he grew up in Ballybough, the son of Thomas Gaffney, a butcher, and his wife Mary. He had joined the Palestrina Choir at the city’s Pro-Cathedral and trained afterwards with another renowned singing teacher, Michael O’Higgins.

Notable aspects of Gaffney’s character included his capacity for hard work. Former RTÉ repertory actor Laurence Foster, writing a tribute on RTÉ’s website, noted that after performing two shows at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre on a Saturday, the singer would go on to perform until midnight at Jury’s cabaret, a level of stamina which probably owed something to the singer’s youthful sporting prowess, especially as a footballer with Dublin’s Home Farm soccer club.

Gaffney had also a marked streak of commitment to his audiences. Michael Casey recalled this week that, after the massacre of the Miami Showband in 1975, few, if any, artistes from the Republic would venture north of the Border, but Gaffney insisted in accepting an invitation to sing at a concert at Newry town hall. When he appeared on stage, Casey says, he “was greeted by a standing ovation lasting 10 minutes”.

Austin Gaffney was married, firstly, to Agnes Murphy, who predeceased him in 1990. Their children, Irene, Anne, Una, Paul and Colm, and his second wife Susan Gorman, whom he married in 1994, survive him.