A Portrait of the Artist as a PR Man – James Joyce’s controversial campaign to promote an operatic friend, John O’Sullivan

An Irishman’s Diary

Cork-born tenor John O’Sullivan

Cork-born tenor John O’Sullivan

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If the whole literature thing hadn’t worked out for James Joyce, he could probably have fallen back on another of his talents, public relations. He had all the right instincts for such a career, even if the methods were sometimes crude, as his promotion of Cork-born tenor John O’Sullivan illustrates.

Joyce had a weakness for tenors, being one himself. And having inherited the talent from another Corkman, his father, he may have been predisposed to admire O’Sullivan, whose triumphs on mainland Europe coincided with the writer’s years of exile. They were drinking pals too.

In any case Joyce hero-worshipped him. He believed O’Sullivan’s to be “the greatest human voice I have ever heard”, compared with which John McCormack’s was “insignificant”. It was at its best, Joyce thought, when singing Arnold in Rossini’s William Tell, a part so demanding that a French tenor who attempted it once “had to go to bed for three weeks after”.

By Joyce’s account, the role had been “buried” for decades, lacking a singer equal to it, until O’Sullivan (sometimes referred to without the O) revived it in 1922.

So when an Italian tenor, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, also began performing it soon after, to acclaim, Joyce took the challenge personally.

For a period circa 1929/30, when his own work was on hold, in part because of serious eye problems, he devoted himself instead to championing O’Sullivan, at Lauri-Volpi’s expense.

The campaign’s high-point was a night at the (Paris) Opera, in July 1930, on which the Marx Brothers would have struggled to improve. As usual in these matters, I’m indebted to Peter Chrisp’s superb Joycean blog, From Swerve of Shore to Bend of Bay (peterchrisp.blogspot.com), for a blow-by-blow account.

The climax coincided with an ovation for another O’Sullivan tour de force. During which, Joyce – as always seated at the front, where he could see the stage – was heard to shout: “Bravo Sullivan – Merde pour Lauri-Volpi!” (“Bravo Sullivan - Shit for Lauri-Volpi!”).  

This would have been normal enough in Italian opera houses, where Joyce was a regular. But it caused a small scandal in Paris, as he knew it would. One of his audience neighbours commented in astonishment: “Il va un peu fort celui-là” (“That’s a bit strong”). And it was sure to be reported in the press, even though word “merde” presented a problem.

As Chrisp argues, this explains an alternative account of Joyce’s publicity stunt, as reported by the Daily Express, and taken at face value by some biographers. Maybe Joyce himself would have stopped short of claiming that O’Sullivan’s voice had curative powers, but it suited him that the papers didn’t. 

They knew the writer’s latest eye operation had been a success. So in the published version, as applause for O’Sullivan subsided, Joyce was said to have removed his dark glasses ostentatiously and declared: “Merci, mon Dieu, pour ce miracle. Après vingt ans, je revois la lumière” (Thank you, God, for this miracle. After 20 years, I can see again.”)

The opera stunt was not the only one he concocted on his friend’s behalf. Having once calculated that O’Sullivan’s performance involved “456 Gs, 93 A flats, 92 As, 54 B flats, 15 Bs, 19 Cs, and two C sharps”, he thought Lauri-Volpi was giving audiences short change, cutting the score and lowering the key.

So Joyce wrote a letter to the press, getting O’Sullivan to sign, challenging Lauri-Volpi to sing the role “in the way his compatriot wrote it and in the way I myself have sung it hundreds of times in the principal cities of France, Belgium, and even of Italy, where this opera [...] was resuscitated by me...”  

The challenge was ignored, and in later years, Lauri-Volpi dismissed O’Sullivan as a drunken failure: “Devoted to Bacchus, his career was short.” There was, alas, some truth in that.  

In the circumstances, Joyce might have thought better of punning on his friend in Finnegans Wake as “Jean Souslevin”, a surname that means “under the wine”.

Still, for most people, the writer’s last word on singers is his great short story The Dead, in which memories of tenors past haunt the conversation at a Christmas dinner party and a living one inspires the immortal closing passage. 

That dinner will as usual be recreated this coming Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, at Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin. The event is in aid of the Joycean micro-museum, Sweny’s Pharmacy (sweny.ie), where tickets at €60 are now available exclusively, but without subscription, over the counter.

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