In Conversation with Veronica Dunne
It is virtually impossible to summarise the remarkable contribution that Irish vocal pedagogue, soprano, broadcaster, recording artist, and mentor, Dr Veronica Dunne, has made to the classical music industry within the confines of this article. Much of this can be found in Alison Maxwell’s recent offering, Ronnie: The Authorised Biography, which explores ‘the achievements, the struggles and heartaches, family and friendships of a life lived with verve, courage and passion’.
Affectionately known as ‘Ronnie’, the vivacious prima donna spent her childhood days in Dublin balancing her two loves—singing and horse-riding. In 1946 the determined Dunne travelled to Rome to further her vocal studies with Contessa Soldini Calcagni, and then with Maestro Francesco Calcatelli. Her operatic début with the Dublin Grand Opera Society as Micaela in Carmen and Marguerite in Faust followed 2 years later.
In 1952 Dunne surpassed an impressive 200 sopranos in her vocal category to win the prestigious ‘Concorso Lirico Milano’. Consequently, she was offered the role of Mimì, and made her Italian operatic début in La bohème at the Teatro Nuovo in Milan. Dunne went on to join the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and appeared alongside such legendary voices as Joan Sutherland and Kathleen Ferrier. She also performed with Welsh National Opera, Scottish National Opera, Sadler’s Wells (now ENO), and Wexford Festival Opera.
What are your memories of growing up on the Howth Road during the war years (WWII)?
I didn’t know there was a war on! I remember one day there was a German fighter plane followed by a British craft, and he was shooting bullets at him. I was out playing in the garden and started shouting, “Mammy…Mammy…look at the gunshots!“. That’s the only thing that I remember about the war. But I do recall when the war was declared. It was September 1939 and I was over in the Majestic Hotel in the Isle of Man…Mammy used to take us on holiday every year…and I was out swimming and so excited that I’d dived off the high board, so I came in to tell Mammy. Everyone was sitting around the wireless listening. The then Prime Minister, Chamberlain, was saying that they were declaring war, and I remember the faces of all those people—just as if they had been struck by lightning—and it stuck in my mind then how serious it all was.
How were you introduced to the world of opera during such a turbulent time?
Well, we always went to the operas. I remember the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and Dennis Noble [British baritone]…we used to go to all the operas in the Olympia Theatre.
When did you know that you wanted to make a career from singing?
When I was 11, there was a party…there used to be lovely musical evenings—it’s a pity we don’t have them now—and everybody was singing, and my brother Bill (I always called him ‘Billo’ because I couldn’t pronounce his name as a child, and would say ‘Blo Blo Blo’) just happened to say: “maybe this one can sing…get up and sing“. I was very fond of a cousin of mine, Rosaleen Balfe, and she and I went to Sligo where they were teaching me Irish, because we didn’t have Irish in my house, and they taught me ‘The Hills of Donegal’, and that was the only thing I knew. So I sang it and everybody suddenly realised that “this one has a voice“. They took me to my brother’s singing teacher (he had a gorgeous tenor voice), Herbert Rooney. He wanted my brother to have a singing career but my father didn’t want to lose his only son. He had a good business going so he got in touch with Rooney and asked him not to take him away and to please tell him that he was no good. So that’s how it all started.
Moving to Rome in 1946 to pursue further vocal studies must have been terribly exciting — how did you become acquainted with Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, and how instrumental was he in supporting your early career?
I met Monsignor here in Ireland after the War. Fr Campion, down in Kill, had invited the singer Delia Murphy and her husband Dr Thomas J. Kiernan [the Irish Ambassador in Rome from 1941–1946], and I was asked to come down to sing….talk about ‘sing for your supper’—that was what it was like! I met Monsignor O’Flaherty there and I remember meeting this very tall man, well over 6 foot tall! You know bottles of milk?…you know the end of the bottle of milk?….it’s very think glass…well when I looked at him, his eyes were as big as this…ginormous pupils! He was such a lovely man, and I said I wanted to go to Italy and study singing…I’d already written when I was in boarding school. They told us not to come to Milan because everything was flattened and there was no food…no nothing…no water even. So he said that Rome was never touched, and that he would speak to my parents, which he did. That was in July, and in September I was off.
What was it like boarding with the Sacred Heart nuns during your lessons with Contessa Soldini Calcagni and Maestro Francesco Calcatelli?
It was very warm when I first went over. The nuns only spoke French, which was a great help when you’re trying to find your way around the streets. It was lovely, but the food was disastrous. I’d nothing to eat, and Monsignor used to take me out to all the big dos he’d have…receptions he’d go to…and he’d bring me along. I’m sure they thought I was his girlfriend but I wasn’t. I was very lucky to go to such elaborate gatherings at the age of 19, and meet with all these princes and countesses and the like.
I met a friend of Monsignor’s—Valentine—who had helped during the war and she recommended that I go to see Maestro Vincenzo Bellezza. He lived near the Royal family and heard me singing. At the time I couldn’t get a good teacher in Rome. It took me nearly 6 months. I was studying with conductor Giuseppe Morelli…he would have taught anything in Rome…they were starving…there was no money. During my lessons with Calcagni I was accompanied by a nice girl, Gabrielli Borelli. Gabrielli took me to meet her parents and they suggested I come live with them, which was good because my father was then able to send money to the Vatican bank to give to the Borellis each month.
How expensive were the lessons back then, and how did you afford it all?
A lesson was about 10 pounds and I had one every day. I also had coaching lessons every day so that added up to 30 pounds a day, on top of board, which was 50 a month. My father, bless him, paid for everything. It was very expensive. It cost my father 200 pounds a month to have me in Rome and fly me over and back as well. They were very good to me.
I was very lucky to go to such elaborate gatherings at the age of 19, and meet with all these princes and countesses and the like."
They actually burned my scalp with the peroxide and then put in another colour to make it honey blonde. It was like glue on my scalp...very painful."
And what about those Italian men? — a far cry from the Dublin boys no doubt!
Well when I got off the plane, Monsignor said to me “if I catch you with an Italian, that plane, you’ll be going back on it“. And I knew he meant it. He said that in his experience of being in Rome for over 30 years, any girl who came over went back to Ireland pregnant. They were fascinated by the Italian men. So I was a good girl. I wanted to sing…that’ll tell you how much I wanted to sing [she laughs heartily]!
In 1954 you toured the US with the first Festival of Irish Singers and appeared on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ — what are your memories of this time?
Ed Sullivan didn’t like the colour of my hair. He said, “you have to be blonde“, because television was black and white in those days. So I remember going to the hairdressers and they dyed my hair white…and afterwards, Clare Kelleher, who was on tour with me, sent me a note saying, “how’s Harpo?” — you know from the Three Stooges! They actually burned my scalp with the peroxide and then put in another colour to make it honey blonde. It was like glue on my scalp…very painful.
I went on to sing on the show but I laughed so much doing it…I was lucky to get through it. I remember singing in Carnegie Hall on St Patrick’s Day and this man was sitting in the front row, and he had a cap on him and not a tooth in his head…you could actually see the grass growing out of his ears…he was so Irish…and at the end he says: “would you ever sing ‘Killarney’“. He wanted a popular Irish song not the Lieder side of song like Hubert Harry etc…that we were singing on the tour.
As a performer, you have toured the world and sung in some of the finest operatic productions — if you had the chance to do it all again, would you change anything?
No! Not a thing!
You’ve spoken in the past about your belief that singers should stay away from marriage and children in favour of their career — do you still believe this or are things changing?
Well…I don’t like to say it but so many of my students have had their marriages break up, and I feel so sorry for them. And it’s very hard, even harder today, because you’ve no staff to look after the children and I had…I was able to manage. But at the end of the day, we’re a very sentimental race, and it’s very hard to see your children cry when you go away. If you meet the right guy, you’re lucky, but in my day it wasn’t looked upon. I wish them well…I know they want to fulfill their lives…have marriage and children, which is natural, but it’s a very hard struggle to please everybody.
As time goes on, your popularity as a singer decreases, as new young singers come along. You get older and your body and voice changes…it’s hard for me to say. I was lucky and unlucky. I had everything thrown at me but at the end of the day, I am very lucky.
Tell us about your teaching process.
My students get so many lessons from me but they don’t appreciate it. I was fortunate to have a lesson every day, and I pity these new kids today. They haven’t got the money to have a lesson every day. But in technique, and I know I have a very good technique, it’s nag nag nag. My students learn relaxation and the rest that goes with singing. Once they have a good technique, they learn repertoire, and then they’re ready to go. It takes a good 3/4 years. Then you do arias with them and you show them how to do coloratura, and when they have to reach 2 or 3 notes lower than Middle C, I show them how to bring the chest note into the head so that they don’t damage their voice. That’s very important because you can separate the chords, and once you keep doing that, they don’t meet again. But it’s quite interesting, you must have a very good ear to teach. I am fascinated overt the years with students that come to me, and I can hear that the bone structure in the nose is blocked….don’t ask me but I can hear it. And I keep sending them to doctors who say that they are all right. But when I insist that they get it fixed, the results are amazing…most of the time.
The Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition has gone from strength to strength since its inauguration — why was it so important to you to provide this platform for young singers and to base it in Ireland?
Well, I entered into competitions in Milan and I was very lucky that Sir David Webster was there. I was then offered a contract with Covent Garden. The artistic director at the time was Sir John Barbirolli and he had to pass me. I did an audition there in July and he accepted me. So my break came in entering competition.
When the money started to run out for the Friends of the Vocal Arts, I suggested to the chairman that I would give my entire lump sum following my retirement, and that I would like to take over the FVA. So I put my lump sum in, I think it was 30,000. Then with that money, I went to see ESB’s Paddy Moriarty, and he was a very nice man…he was chairman, and he gave me a grant…they sponsored it. I brought over Joan Sutherland, who was retired in 1995, and she inaugurated it. They were marvelous sponsors. I got 6 years out of them. Then naturally you have to move on. I was very lucky.
The first winner was Orla Boylan and she was fantastic, and I’m so glad she’s never looked back. It took a while for me to convince everyone of my idea for the competition—to have 2 singers, a male and female—and that I would go round to every opera studio that I could make contact with. I got Bavarian State, Glyndebourne, London, and many more, and then Tara [Erraught] went in and others before her…it flourished from then, and please God it will stay that way.
We are now in with Wexford [Wexford Opera]…they’re very nice people and please God we’ll work well together. I think it always has to be a Dublin event. It can’t be a Wexford event but I’m sure that the singers that win the competition could take part in the opera in Wexford. We’d have that connection.
We have to raise €300,000 in 3 years and I’ve a very good chairman at the moment—Diarmuid Hegarty—he’s a wonderful, meticulous man. Not a penny is out of place. You must go through him for everything. We are lucky that we have some money to continue on with, which is great and we have a brilliant hard-working committee. I’m very, very lucky. We love to see such goodwill from people, and we love to see them coming to Killruddery House. They support me and I know that they know their money is not wasted.
Do you want to make any comments on the lineup of competitors this year?
The standard was exceptionally high. We went out to the world, which was Diarmuid’s idea, to get good singers to come over to us. We went to London, New York, France and Germany, and then we opened it to the rest of the world.
Ultimately, what is your vision for opera in Ireland?
It’s very dim at the moment. It’s always been this way. I think that the Irish don’t appreciate our own singers. They have to go abroad and prove themselves, and they can, and then come back and sing…but that doesn’t seem to make any difference. In Ireland, we are very lazy as audiences. We refuse to accept something new, like modern music—they want a melody. They want the populars, like La bohème, Carmen, Butterfly…all the good Verdi and Puccini operas. But if you give them a modern opera…! Benjamin Britten doesn’t go down well, I’m sorry to say. It’s possibly because the way modern opera is written, without good melodies. The Irish like melodies they can sing back, and a lot of modern music is hit and miss really. I think that the modern composers should go back to the beginning…well maybe they think it’s vulgar to have a melody. Some of their music is good but why is it not popular? Well, because it’s not easy to sing. I’ve sung modern music in the past, and I remember on one occasion not hitting the right notes in many phrases, and the composer came up to me afterwards praising me for doing exactly what they had wanted! I had to turn my head away to avoid laughing in their face. I mean, you do it when you get older because that’s all you’ve got to sing (laughs)…the young people won’t do it, so you do it.
Tell us about Alison Maxwell’s recent book, Ronnie: The Authorised Biography of Veronica Dunne.
A lot of writers that I knew wanted to do it, and my friends kept suggesting it, but I was saying, “No, No”. I happened to meet Alison at a reception for Jammet’s Restaurant—she wrote the book for that [Jammet’s of Dublin: 1901 to 1967]—I was involved in the committee. I thought her detail was very good in the book. She looked at me at the reception, and I just knew she was going to say it. So I said, “would you like to write a book about me?” She said, “well, I was going to ask you, but why me?” I said, “because you know nothing about me”, and that was important. She did a good job. We had great fun.
It took 3 years to write and on many an occasion I thought that Alison was going to say, “I can’t go through this anymore“. You see, I’d often make an appointment with her and then say, “Alison, I’m sorry, I’m teaching and I can’t come“. Anyway, eventually it was finished. But I think Alison did a very good job and I think it’s…it’s just a life, and how I behaved myself and shows me up I suppose…good, bad or indifferent. The good thing about it is that it’s selling very well, and that myself and Alison get 50/50 of the royalties…my half goes towards the competition.
Aside from your passion for singing and teaching, what makes you tick?
Heart [laughs]! I love to see the progress in a student and I get excited when they have got their technique and move on.
What’s left to do for Ronnie Dunne?
Nothing, only I like to wake up every morning and go to work.
We refuse to accept something new, like modern music—they want a melody. They want the populars, like La bohème, Carmen, Butterfly...all the good Verdi and Puccini operas."
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