Tuesday 17 October 2017

Chorus of praise for a life in music

Emer O'Kelly attended last Sunday's Lifetime Tribute Award for Veronica Dunne. Like everyone there, she was dazzled

Overall Winner Pumeza Matcshikiza & Veronica Dunne at the National Concert Hall for The 6th Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition. Photo: Anthony Woods
Overall Winner Pumeza Matcshikiza & Veronica Dunne at the National Concert Hall for The 6th Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition. Photo: Anthony Woods
Veronica Dunne, Liam Devally and Geraldine O'Grady in 1959.

Emer O'Kelly

When Veronica Dunne made her Italian debut singing Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme in 1952, a by then elderly operatic soprano came to hear her. She told the young Dubliner: "Puccini himself taught me how to sing Mimi; now I am going to help you." That star was Margaret Burke-Sheridan, known as "Maggie from Mayo", who had been tutored in the early years of the century by the great composer himself. Veronica went on to sing the role at Covent Garden.

And on last Sunday night, her own student, Celine Byrne, returned to Dublin having sung the role of Mimi, also at Covent Garden. She was back to honour her teacher, known formally as Dr Veronica Dunne, belovedly as Ronnie, in a Lifetime Achievement Award presentation at the National Concert Hall.

Ronnie was on the platform to hear her protegee sing another Puccini aria , Un Bel Di (One Fine Day) from Madama Butterfly. The great teacher, now 87 years old, listened entranced and told the audience: "Puccini taught Margaret Burke-Sheridan how to sing Mimi; she taught me; and now I've taught Celine."

It was an electric moment: a straight line of three from the genius that was Puccini through the beautifully-coiffed little lady on stage with the great legs and the huge, dirty laugh. There could hardly have been anybody in the audience whose hair didn't stand up on the backs of their necks.

Because she has nurtured Irish singers for nearly half a century, and made international stars of many of them, it's sometimes forgotten just how magnificent Ronnie Dunne's own singing career was. There are few recordings of her glorious bel canto voice, but the lists of her roles are there, sung at Covent Garden, with Welsh National Opera, Scottish National Opera, what is now ENO, and of course, at Wexford Festival Opera in its early days.

And the names of her singing partners are dazzling: from her friend Joan Sutherland on. Sutherland was known as La Stupenda; had Ronnie Dunne continued her operatic career, she might have had an equally memorable nickname. But she retired from the stage in 1973, and concentrated on bringing up her two children.

Many might have thought it, and indeed did, apparently, think it a crime. But there were not too many Irish husbands then who could cope with divine talent and partial globe-trotting in their wives' lives. Yet Ireland's musical future was the winner because she had begun teaching in 1961 at the Dublin Institute of Technology College of Music, and to this day, teaches at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, for which, according to himself, the then director, John O'Conor, kidnapped her the moment she was forced to retire from DIT on age grounds.

O'Conor flew back from the United States specially to pay tribute to Ronnie on Sunday night, bouncing on to the stage to drop on his knees at her feet and kiss her hands. But the extravagant old-time courtesy didn't last long: he recalled having been sent to study with her himself, his own maestro having told the young pianist that he had to learn how singers phrased their work. Sitting in on a tenor's lesson, he witnessed Ronnie throwing the unfortunate man's sheet music at him and bellowing: "Next time you have a 9am lesson, don't come in here having had sex with your wife." (It shows in the voice, apparently). "And," added Dr O'Conor plaintively, "at that stage I didn't even know the facts of life."

Ribaldry featured throughout the evening: Celine Byrne, after a graceful and adoring tribute, added that the best thing about her old teacher was "excuse me, ladies and gentlemen… the way she'd give you a kick up the backside."

The tenor Anthony Kearns, who also flew in specially, and sang the glorious tenor aria from Cilea's L'Arlesiana, (a score last heard in Ireland at Wexford two years ago) recalled his time living in Dr Dunne's house as a student. (Ronnie Dunne has always taken her students to live with her, nurturing minds, bodies and happy spirits as well as voice. "You'd be lying in bed after a night on the wine with her," Hyland said fondly, "and up the stairs would come this roar "Get up, Domingo, and do your lilly-lallies" (scales).

And the tributes went both ways. When the young Wagnerian soprano Miriam Murphy, glamorous and glittering in flowing black lame, spoke of how Ronnie taught you "everything... how to present yourself, how to dress…." and sang the exquisite Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde, her teacher sat transfixed and went on to demand that the audience appreciate how privileged we were in Ireland to have finally produced at Wagnerian voice.

Two of Ronnie Dunne's current students, mezzos Gemma Ni Bhriain and Sarah Shine combined in the delightful Flower Duet from Lakme; they were probably terrified, but they got all the accolade they needed: not just the enthusiastic applause of the audience, but a beaming wink from the guest of honour.

Suzanne Murphy, long-time star of the Welsh National Opera, and now a voice teacher herself, recalled Ronnie almost bullying her into giving up her folk-singing career with We Four. It was when she stood in the wings of a theatre, and heard opera from "the inside", that she was finally seduced. It helped, she added, that Ronnie swept past her and hissed "Stick with me, kid, and you'll wear diamonds."

From the moment the RTE Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of conductor Robert Houlihan, struck the opening chords of the overture from Verdi's Nabucco, Veronica Dunne's tribute concert was a joy. Host Bryan Dobson settled the great diva on stage for the tributes of love and appreciation to begin. The first performer was soprano Tara Erraught, again home for the occasion, but so briefly that she had to leave for the airport before the concert ended. But that is what Veronica Dunne does to people: not just those whose careers she has nurtured, promoted and gloried in; but as far as I know, to everyone who has ever met her. She loves music and the world, and we love her back.

Sunday Independent

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