An Irishman's Diary


"Although we may go short of tea and petrol in the city, we shall not, it seems, go short of song."

One for the quizmaster, you might say. For the answer, I'm indebted to Gus Smith. Apparently the sentiment was expressed in an editorial in this newspaper in the spring of 1941, shortly after the setting up of the Dublin Grand Opera Society and at a time in the capital when the old Dublin Operatic Society was still active under the direction of George Sleator. The editorial concluded: "The result is that Dublin is suffering from a glut of opera and musical comedy."

War years survived

They tell me the same libretto could not be written today, for the simple reason that there is a scarcity of opera in the city. But, to recap, the DGOS did manage to survive the war years and went on to record some outstanding achievements under the command of its dynamic chairman, Lt-Col Bill O'Kelly.

Isn't it a little puzzling, though, that these past glories have not been recorded for posterity? The year 1991 - the society's golden jubilee - would have been the ideal time, perhaps, for the jogging of memories, but better late than never and opera lovers will, I'm sure, be grateful to Gus Smith for taking on this no mean task. He tells me he has been fortunate that he was able to talk to singers who actually performed in the very first productions and since his book will be partly anecdotal, their stories of opera in wartime Dublin should be enjoyable.

When he recalls the Italian connection, he is referring to that country's government's subvention to the DGOS in the 1950s and 1960s which seemingly made the golden era of opera possible in Dublin. Queues, we are told, stretched along South King Street as opera-goers booked for their favourite stars like Paolo Silveri, Tito Gobbi, Virginia Zeani, Ebe Stignani and Aldo Protti. From all accounts they were colourful days, too, with lots of post-opera suppers and late night dining in such popular restaurants as Nico's in Dame Street, where you were likely to hear Neopolitan songs sung with typical Italian feeling.

Those days, Gus Smith assures me, are remembered with both affection and a sense of nostalgia not only here but in Italy. During his research there, the great Paolo Silveri, now in gentle retirement, recalled the Gaiety Theatre as his spiritual home. The lyric tenor Ugo Benelli hasn't forgotten the warmth of Irish audiences, and the popular bass Aurio Tomicich would like to sing again here. Popular producer Dario Micheli is another who keeps in touch with his Irish friends and is always happy to greet them on their visits to Rome.

The human side

As I've said, this history of the DGOS will be about more than high Cs, miscast tenors and sopranos, unimaginative producers and autocratic conductors, though I'm assured they will be included. It will try also to explore the more human side. I liked the story, for instance, of the famous Czech conductor Vilem Tausky, invited here by Bill O'Kelly in the immediate post-war period when food was still being rationed in Britain. Apparently, after the close of one particular DGOS winter season at the Gaiety, Tausky went on a shopping spree in Henry Street to ensure that his wife and two small children at their home in London would have a bountiful Christmas. And there was the case of the pretty English soprano, who, after she had sung with the touring Covent Garden Company in Liverpool, took the late night boat to Dublin, accompanied by a few colleagues, to satisfy her craving for sweets and chocolates.

There was the other side, of course, which can be partly summed up by the word crisis. Seemingly, one-time DGOS chairman Donnie Potter said they had a financial crisis almost every year and that it took the combined optimism of Bill O'Kelly, Bertie Timlin and himself to ensure the ship did not go under. They were supported by various Ministers for Finance, including Charlie Haughey, who were sympathetic. But the loss of the Italian government subvention was a severe loss nevertheless and thereafter the society had to depend on the Arts Council and on their own patrons and sponsors.

The Ladies' Committee also managed to donate thousands of pounds from its fund-raising efforts.

A special launch

I still have on my bookshelves Gus Smith's story of the Wexford Festival (Ring up the Curtain) and his biography of my old friend Tommy O'Brien (Good Evenin' Listeners) and they are nothing less than entertaining. So I've no doubt that his latest operatic libretto will have a good legato line as well as a sharp vocal dynamic. He tells me, by the way, that if he received £10 for every performance of Traviata he saw it would enable him to take a long and relaxing cruise on the QE2. His tome is appropriately entitled Love and Music - The Glorious History of the Dublin Grand Opera Society and it will have a rather special launch next month in Dublin and later in Cork. Which is I suppose not surprising in view of the huge cast involved of principals, chorus members, conductors, producers and designers.

For those opera lovers who derive pleasure in perusing records, Gus Smith tells me that his friend Paddy Brennan, who is Opera Ireland's current archivist, has compiled a chronology of DGOS opera performances with casts from 1941-1998, as well as the names of all those who sang in the chorus.