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Bealtaine Festival: Celebrating Creativity in Older Age, a conversation series.

May 4, 2006

National Concert Hall Dublin








Veronica Dunne and Judith Woodworth

Veronica (Ronnie) Dunne, interviewed by former National Concert Hall Director, Judith Woodworth. Sadly, this interview was not recorded, but a transcript was taken by Lynnette Crouse.   Photos by Katherine McLain Pursley

Judith was approached by Bealtaine directors and asked who in her field of music had greatly inspired her and “the next generation in music in Dublin.” Ms. Woodworth was quick to respond: “Ronnie Dunne!” Judith was asked to conduct the interview which took place in The National Concert Hall in a meeting room overlooking the gardens, a very appropriate setting, indeed.

JW: Ronnie began her career when there were few Irish musicians known internationally. Now opera singers from Ireland are populating many stages world wide, thanks to Ronnie Dunne. She is a national treasure.

JW: What role models did you have growing up in the 30’s and 40’s?

RD: My parents adored opera. I remember on Thursday nights there was opera on the radio from Milan. It was the night we got to stay up to listen. “Butterfly” was the first opera I heard and I was hooked!

It was the fashion at the time to have musical evenings at home with tea after. Everybody sang at these evenings. I was very young and I remember sitting on the stairs listening. My father was a fine baritone and my brother a wonderful tenor who had won at the Feis Ceoil. I was always fascinated with opera. I attended some at The Olympic Theatre; D'Oyly Carte Opera Company came and I heard Dennis Noble there.

When I was quite young I used to write plays. All the neighbors would have parts, but of course, I always had the main role. I was the prima donna, spoiled brat that I was! It was always me, even before the voice was discovered.

We made a stage and mother’s linens for curtains, it made her quite cross. We charged a farthing…an enormous fee!

JW: (paraphrased) And when was it known that your voice was developing?

RD: I was 11. I have a brother 14 years older, the tenor I mentioned. One day I was singing “Hills of Donegal” and he said, “My God! She’s got a voice!” I think I was bitten right then, I wanted to be a singer from then on, always wanted to sing.

I first began training with Herbert Rooney, unbeknownst to me, I was learning Bel Canto singing. I had to leave him when I went away to boarding school. [Mount Anville Sacred Heart]

JW: (paraphrased) How did it come about that you studied in Italy?

RD: I wrote to the Sacred Heart Nuns during the war. I wanted to board with them so I could train. They said “Don’t come.” It was the war, you know. In 1946, when he was in Dublin, I met Monsignor O’Flaherty [The Pimpernel in the Vatican]. He told my father that he would take charge of me.

I used to ride a lot and compete, but in 1946, I sold my pony for £125 to help fund my studies. In those days it was common to give back £5 for luck; I didn’t want to, I needed the money! Daddy insisted. Mother wasn’t keen on it, but daddy supported me. I was daddy’s pet.

At that time, one could only take £300 a year out of the country. I spoke to the Minister of Finance about helping me. He commented that all singers like McCormack leave Ireland and never come back to share with the Irish people. I promised him that if he gave me the money, I’d come back! I did get assistance sent to a bank in my name. And I came back!

When I landed in Rome after a very long trip in a DC, touching down several times along the way, I noticed that the people there who saw me with Monsignor kept hissing at me! I couldn’t figure out what they were doing; it seems that they thought I was his mistress!

As we walked away from the plane, Monsignor said, “Do you see that plane?” I replied, “Yes Monsignor.” He said, “If I catch you with an Italian, you’ll be back on it!” Oh the Italian men….I swear that you would get on an Italian bus a virgin and get off pregnant!

JW: (paraphrased) Who did you study with in Rome?

RD: Giuseppe Morelli was my first teacher. He had me singing too many arias, too much for a young voice. Then it was Contessa Soldini Calcagni, and then Maestro Francesco Calcatelli. I was in training for four years before being put in to auditions for operas. But I constantly went to operas during that time; I went every night to learn. I saw Maria Callas in Rome in 1947. She had a fantastic voice! I get tired of hearing negatives about her. I hadn’t the top Es and Fs that Callas had!

In 1948 I returned to Dublin to sing as a student. I sang Micaela (Carmen) at Christmas and then Marguerite (Faust) at Easter 1949. It was with Bill O’Kelly at DGOS [Dublin Grand Opera Society.] You see, I couldn’t get a work permit to work in Italy. I was the first person to sing here in Italian with Italians who I brought to Ireland!

In 1952 after winning the Concorso Lirico Milano competition against 200 sopranos in my section, I was given a contract in Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London. David Webster happened to be in Milan for the competition and heard me. I debuted there as Sophie (Der Rosenkavalier). I remember that I was singing with Constance Shacklocke, who sang Octavian to my Sophie, I was so nervous that when she handed me the rose, all I could do was shake and she took my hands and said "steady darling!"

I sang with Joan Sutherland….. I sang with Kathleen Ferrier for her last three performances. It was in “Orfeo” by Gluck, I sang Euridice.

JW: Did you ever meet someone so kind and nurturing, so good to everyone?

RD: That was Kathleen [Ferrier]!

JW: (Paraphrased) Is there anything you’d have done differently?

RD: I married in 1953 while still singing in Covent Garden. It really is a death wish to have a career and a family. I do wish I’d not married so young, but what can you tell a young woman madly in love? We’d known each other for years. But then I’d have not had my wonderful children or my grandchildren! It was very difficult at the time. I would leave on Monday for London. I did concerts, BBC TV, oratorio, musicals, all over Ireland and the UK. I always got home for Sunday dinner.

I tell my students: Do not marry!

JW: (Paraphrased) How important is it to participate in competitions?

RD: Oh they are ultra important! In 1995 I began my Irish [Singing] Competition to let the Irish Republic realize what talent we have! Joan Sutherland adjudicated. Now the competition is international with entrants from all over, Australia, Korea, England…..and there have always been two Irish in the finals! I’m very proud of my Irish musicians!

JW: (Paraphrased) What is a dream of yours that hasn’t yet happened? What would you like to see?

RD: As a nation, we have never established an opera house even though we seem to support opera! It is disgraceful and tragic. The government needs to support it. We’d have local singers as the chorus, youth symphonies, well established symphonies and opera could work together.

JW: When you hear a voice, what are you looking for?

RD: I heard Miriam Murphy in a Master Class I had in Tralee. It was a small voice then, but I knew there was a voice there. She is singing in Covent Garden! I heard Anthony Kearns sing in the street for the Bank of Ireland £10 note contest. Gay Byrne asked me to adjudicate. He sang a peculiar arrangement of “Danny Boy” and I said, “God, he has a voice!” It is a feeling I get. I insisted he get the prize and I began training him.

JW: What advice do you give young people?

Dunne: Four things for them to work on:

4) COMMITMENT:  give up everything to be a singer.

I look at the whole person to train them, even how to properly use a knife and fork. You will be judged how you carry yourself.

JW: (Paraphrased) What is your secret?

RD: Singing is very lonely, but I’ve made a career with teaching and live it again with my students. I love to see my students now teaching and carrying on the technique!

I work 10:00 to 6:00, often with no lunch, go home and have one gin and tonic. It gets rid of the stress - often I drink it while cooking.

JW: I’ve heard you are a fabulous cook! What hints can you give us?

RD: Gin and Tonic! Aloe vera juice, and it is good on the face at night! Brown bread, I eat right.

JW: What would you like to see in the future?

RD: I’d love to see an opera house in Dublin! An arts complex at the NCH - a new concert hall and an opera house, in the gardens!