A strong voice for Irish opera

 

Veronica Dunne, soon to turn 80, is still to the fore of our opera scene, and has taught just about every professional Irish singer to ever tread the boards, writes Arminta Wallace

If you say "Ronnie" to anybody in the singing business in Ireland, they know instantly who you mean. "Ronnie's room," I say to the porter at the Royal Irish Academy of Music; but before he can give me directions two laughing teenagers pounce and bear me off along corridors, up stairs, through waiting areas and into an airy studio inhabited by a Kawai grand piano, a throng of chattering students and Ireland's grande dame de chanson herself.

Attired in elegant black and a beaming smile, she tuts and clucks over her young charges. Will they come back in an hour or so? Are they sure they've got their Feis entries in, because today's the deadline? Will they let her know how the rehearsals go? It's Friday afternoon and pouring with rain and Dr Veronica Dunne is approaching her 80th birthday, but the concept of taking it easy is obviously not on her agenda. "Go home, Ronnie," one of the girls urges. "We'll be fine." Dunne looks puzzled for a moment - going home is clearly another alien concept - then shoos them, with another burst of musical laughter all round, out the door. "I'm so proud of them," she says, with a sigh. She's not just talking about her own students, but of the younger generation in general. Not for Dunne the "bah, humbug" school of growing older. Our young folk, are, she says, Ireland's greatest asset: confident, well-educated, well-spoken.

IT WAS ALL very different when, as a gawky 18-year-old, she set off to study singing in Rome. "It was the year after the war ended - the second World War, I keep emphasising," she jokes, "not the first." In those days, just getting to Rome was a major feat. Dunne flew to Heathrow, then took a plane to Paris - "which was a military airport; we were put in a little hut for about an hour or two, I can't remember; no coffee or anything like that" - another plane to Marseille, still another to Genoa and finally to Rome, where she was met by a family friend, a Monsignor at the Vatican. "It took 12 hours to get there," Dunne recalls with a grin. "Monsignor O'Flaherty collected me at Ciampino airport. 'Ronaccio,' he said in his lovely Kerry accent, 'Do you see that aeroplane?' I said I did. He said: 'If I catch you with an Italian you'll be going right back home on it.' Of course I agreed to behave myself. Mind you, I didn't realise at the time that Italian men were so handsome. But I had to abide by my promise because the Irish clergy in Rome were worse than the KGB. Everybody knew everything that went on, and they'd tell, too. So I knew I'd be caught."

The Monsignor, as it turned out, was well versed in the dark arts of covert action. Nicknamed "the pimpernel of the Vatican", he had helped organise the underground movement that spirited fugitives and Jews out of occupied Rome throughout the war. "Things were really bad in Rome," Dunne remembers. "There were caves near the stadium where people from the countryside lived, and scabies was rampant. But it was a wonderful experience. The four years I spent there, studying and working very hard, were the happiest of my life."

TOWARDS THE END of her time as a student Dunne began to sing back home with the Dublin Grand Opera Society, as it was then, making her operatic debut as Micaëla in Carmen in the 1948-1949 season.

She entered a singing competition in Milan and was chosen to sing in a production of La Bohème at the opera house there - which in turn led to an offer of a contract at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. "I was reluctant to sing," she says. "I wanted to go to Vienna to study as a Mozart singer. Also, the pay was very poor - £10 a week, or £20 when we were performing. In the end I did sign. Joan Sutherland was there at the same time; she was on £10 a week too.

"I shared a house with some other singers - it cost £13 a week for boarding, plus a half crown for the charlady, who came once a week. Her name was Mrs Coffin. But it was hard work. I opened in Der Rosenkavalier and I had exactly three weeks to learn that role, which wasn't easy. At the same time I was also understudying Susanna in Figaro and Oscar in A Masked Ball." Dunne was so nervous in the role of the young ingenue in Strauss's opera Der Rosenkavalier that when she was handed the silver rose, which is central to the story, all she could do was shake. "Constance Shacklock was singing Octavian. She took my hands and said 'steady, darling!'"

Dunne talks about her career in overwhelmingly positive terms - which is perhaps why she is able to encourage so many of her students to dedicate themselves to a life which is notoriously perilous and uncertain. Her career memories are a million miles removed from stories of celebrity temper tantrums, such as the huff that saw tenor Roberto Alagna walk off the stage of La Scala in Milan a couple of weeks ago. "There have always been wonderful people in opera," she says. "I sang with Kathleen Ferrier during her final performance in Gluck's Orfeo and Eurydice, which was a great honour. I didn't realise how ill she was. Nobody did, although she had cancer of the spine, very advanced. I remember we were doing the scene where Orfeo is forgiven, having gone through purgatory and hell, and Eurydice is brought back to life. She just looked at me and said, 'I can't go on'. The perspiration was rolling down her face. And I said, 'Well, hold on now - there's a long chorus here. We'll walk off stage and see how you feel. I put the palm of my hand up so she could lean on me and we went off." Ferrier insisted on returning for her final call, supported by Dunne and another singer. "We stood to the side applauding her, and then we left her to take her final applause. The ovation she got was unbelievable. Then the curtain came down and they took her off in an ambulance and that was it." It's a very operatic story, full of drama, tragedy and a final curtain.

DUNNE IS REALISTIC. She knows that opera is, and always has been, a difficult world for women. If she has one small regret from her own time on the stage, it's that she got married when she was very young, and had to curtail her international career as a result.

"It took 2½ hours to fly to London in those days, if not three, in these 'vomiting Venuses' as I used to call them. You couldn't drink coffee - if you did you threw up, darling," she says with a wicked grin. "And the fogs in London made things worse. Often you'd have to get a train from Birmingham. I used to chance my arm, flying out of Dublin on the day of an audition - and you don't do those things. You really don't. It plays on the voice. I tried as hard as I could to keep up my career, but in the end I had to make the choice: to be in London for auditions, or to be at home with my children." Which, as she knew very well, meant the end of a full-time singing career.

"I couldn't sing in Dublin every night. I mean, people love you - but they don't want to hear you every night. But as it turned out - that was in 1960 - a teaching job came along at the Dublin Institute of Technology." Dunne took to teaching like the proverbial duck to water. She became head of the singing school at DIT, moulded the course into the shape it still holds today, introduced coaches and répétiteurs and - using the resources of the VEC whenever possible for the making of sets and costumes - put on a number of operas and musicals.

"It was very hard when I retired from there at 64," she says. "It's hard to walk away from something that you've created." Dunne, however, was about to reinterpret the word "retirement". She joined the Leinster School of Music, then the Royal Irish Academy of Music, where she has been teaching for a decade alongside her former students Suzanne Murphy and Colette McGahon.

Between the jigs and the reels she has taught just about every professional Irish singer who has ever trod the boards - Finbarr Wright, Ronan Tynan, Anthony Kearns, Angela Feeney, Patricia Bardon, Lynda Lee, Andrew Murphy and many more. How many students does she have now? She looks abashed. "Well, eh," she says. "I've quite a lot of students. I never refuse a good voice, or anybody with potential." And she's off on another string of anecdotes - who's doing what, where and when. Somebody is understudying Susan Graham at Houston Opera House; somebody else won a Wagner competition during the summer. It's as if she's keeping an eye, not on a bunch of former students, but on members of her extended family. "Patricia Bardon," she concludes triumphantly, "is singing Cornelia in Giulio Cesare in the Met in New York on April 6th and we're all going en masse to support her."

No slowing down for Dr Dunne in 2007, then. With all her wealth of experience, what's the single most important piece of advice she gives to her students? "I advise them to believe in themselves," she says firmly.

"And they must be musicians. You must learn to be the full package." This means musically, dramatically and personally. It sounds tough - and it is. But when the going gets tough, the woman they call Ronnie can be relied on to supply a smile and a hug and a snippet of practical advice. Happy 80th birthday, Dr Dunne.

Winning voices Ronnie's contest

The Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition was established, according to its eponymous founder, "to give Irish singers a chance in their own home territory". They certainly have a chance in the 2007 competition - the fifth - 20 of the 42 entrants hail from these shores. The winner of the inaugural competition in 1995, Irish soprano Orla Boylan, has gone on to have a major international career.

The 2007 competition begins at the Freemasons' Hall on Molesworth Street, Dublin, on January 19th. The first round lasts for two days, with singers presenting two contrasting opera arias each; the second round, which demands a 15-minute programme from each entrant, begins on January 21st, and the semi-final, at which they must offer a totally different 20-minute programme, on January 23rd.

The finals take place at the National Concert Hall on January 25th, with each finalist presenting two programmes, one of which can be repeated from previous rounds. Here they will be accompanied by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra conducted by Laurent Wagner.