Veronica Dunne obituary: A mainstay of Irish musical life

Ronnie, as she was known, had a simple credo – never refuse anyone with potential

Veronica Dunne was a unique individual, a teacher and artist who could  ‘shape a rock into a diamond’. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Veronica Dunne was a unique individual, a teacher and artist who could ‘shape a rock into a diamond’. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

 

Veronica Dunne

Born: August 2nd, 1927

Died: April 5th, 2021

Veronica Dunne, the soprano and singing teacher who has died aged 93, was a key figure in Irish musical life. She influenced the art of operatic singing in Ireland for more than 60 years and was the kind of teacher who never shirked going that extra mile to ready her charges for the challenges they faced in their careers, whether vocal, musical, professional or personal.

Ronnie, as she was known, was born into a family whose business was building and whose success made them prosperous enough to own racehorses. The projects her father’s firm built included the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock.

She studied at the Municipal School of Music in Dublin (now part of TU Dublin) under Hubert Rooney, a teacher who could trace connections back to the great tenor Jean de Reszke, and she began her international training in the lean, post-war years of the 1940s.

In 1946 she travelled to Italy where Irish contacts in Rome led her to the conductor Vincenzo Bellezza, who advised her on her teachers. She held him in awe because he had worked with Irish soprano Margaret Burke-Sheridan, who she revered. He had also conducted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and worked and recorded with some of the 20th-century’s greatest singers, including Feodor Chaliapin, Beniamino Gigli and Tito Gobbi.

Ronnie made her Irish operatic debut in 1950 with the Dublin Grand Opera Society as Micaëla in Bizet’s Carmen. She won higher praise in these pages – “very artistic . . . singing with fine tone quality and understanding of the part” – than the singers who took the roles of Carmen and Don José. Her international debut followed in 1952 when she sang Mimì in Puccini’s La bohème at the Teatro Nuovo, Milan, on foot of winning the Concorso Lirico Milano.

It was there in Milan that she was heard by David Webster, general administrator at Covent Garden in London. He offered her a contract and she made her debut on London’s great stage as Sophie in Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier on October 29th, 1952. She was already a regular at home on Radio Éireann, in concert relays and studio recitals, and she made her BBC radio debut in February 1953, appearing on the Light Programme and Home Service (today’s Radios 2 and 4) in a single week.

Her time at Covent Garden was to last less than a decade, but meant her sharing the stage with some of the greatest singers of the day, including Kathleen Ferrier and Joan Sutherland. And she took part in the first British production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites in January 1958.

She fell in love with Peter McCarthy, whose family owned the company that made Odearest mattresses, and the couple married in 1953, against the wishes of her mother and against the advice of conductor John Barbirolli, with whom she was working in London at the time. They perhaps understood better than she did the practical difficulties she would face in attempting to fulfil the obligations of a professional career at Covent Garden – which also involved touring – as well as those of parenthood in Dublin. This was at a time when flights to London were slow, few in number, and a return ticket cost the equivalent of €475 in today’s money. Something had to give, and in the end it was her Covent Garden career.

Her move into teaching was not exactly a free choice. She still had a range of performing work coming in. But after a business calamity led to her father declaring bankruptcy she wanted to help support her parents and in 1961 she replaced Michael O’Higgins as singing teacher at the Municipal School. The teaching career that she had hardly thought of, let alone dreamt of, gave her a new outlet for her boundless energy at the age of just 34 and continued after her formal retirement into her nineties, first at the Leinster School of Music and later the Royal Irish Academy of Music.

Her musical net was actually cast wide in the 1960s. She made her first and last appearance in a Wexford Festival Opera production in Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz in 1962, in a cast that also included the festival debut of contralto Bernadette Greevy. She took part in new music premieres – Seóirse Bodley’s orchestral song cycle Never to have lived is best in 1965, Brian Boydell’s cantata A Terrible Beauty is Born, commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966, James Wilson’s Irish Songs in 1969 (with the 22-year-old pianist John O’Conor) and Wilson’s The Táin (with percussionist Jeffrey Cosser and pianist Courtney Kenny) in 1972. And she recorded AJ Potter’s Celtic Songs for EMI with her regular partner Havelock Nelson, with whom she also gave the Irish premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s song cycle Harawi at the Belfast Festival in 1969.

End of an era

Inevitably it is through her students and the singing competition that bears her name (founded in 1995 for Irish singers only, and broadened in stages to full, international reach) that she will best be remembered. The roll call of students is long, and includes Suzanne Murphy, Finbar Wright, Patricia Bardon, the late Miriam Murphy, Celine Byrne, Tara Erraught and, briefly, according to the great lady herself, Daniel O’Donnell.

She was a larger-than-life, highly-interventionist teacher who was adored by her pupils. And her key skills included finding and sculpting the individuality in anyone’s voice, as well as knowing how, in Tara Erraught’s words, “to shape a rock into a diamond”.

Her own credo was never to refuse a good voice, or anybody with potential. And her fondest operatic memory was of sharing the stage in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with the terminally-ill Kathleen Ferrier in what proved to be the great contralto’s final performance.

She served several terms on the board of the National Concert Hall (NCH), and among her honours are a doctorate from University College Dublin in 1987, and an NCH Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.

Her husband Peter pre-deceased her. She is survived by her son Peter and daughter Judy and her wider family and friends.