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Published on July 9th, 2010 | by pluincee


Opera at the Orangery: preview

Ireland’s Grand Dame of opera, Veronica Dunne (known affectionately as ‘Ronnie’), musically brings 17th Century Killruddery House into the 21st Century for the next two Sundays by hosting a Summer Festival of Opera.

Ronnie, who made her debut in 1948, playing in Carmen (as Micaela) and Faust (as Marguerite) with the Dublin Grand Operatic Society, has long been a champion and supporter of young operatic talent. A founder member of the Friends of the Vocal Arts in Ireland, an organisation which financially assists vocal students in Ireland, Ronnie also began the Veronica Dunne Iternational Singing Competition (VDISC), a triennial event, the winners of which comprise the playbill for the Summer Festival.

No one would be chastised for wondering and marvelling at how Ronnie, now 83, manages to keep working with the energy and dedication which she shows. One of the answers lies in what it is that she does, helping aspiring artists become great:

Getting a young student with a good instrument and coaching them along and creating them into an opera singer is just wonderful, they learn from you and drain you, but it’s wonderful to go and hear them singing in the roles you’ve sung yourself.’

She was recently ‘absolutely thrilled and very proud’ of Celine Byrne who sang the role of Mimi in the Grand Canal Theatre – a role which Dunne herself performed in Milan, Dublin and with the Company of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in the early fifties. To this day, Ronnie considers it to be her favourite role not least because of the memory she has of the happy time when she performed it, but also because Ronnie and her co-stars were all ‘in love with the idea of love’ at the time, and totally caught up in the world of the opera.

In fact, Dunne had been coached in the role by Margaret Burke Sheridan (a colleague of Ronnie’s during her time at the Royal Opera, who had herself been instructed in the role by the opera’s composer, Puccini) and could pass along Puccini’s direction to the Irish starlet. Burke Sheridan passed along Puccini’s visions for both Madame Butterfly and Tosca as well, and through Ronnie’s dedicated work with young operatic performers, these operas can continue to be performed the way they were intended easily, rather than in the contrived modernised forms which are taking over opera at the moment (which Dunne is far from happy about, because it doesn’t make sense, she claims, citing the example of Mimi’s entrance during La bohème where she asked ‘would you light my candle?’ while holding an electric light as a prime example of that).

Rather than modernising opera which, except in the cases of some Handel operas, doesn’t make sense, Dunne suggests that what the Met does – broadcasting operas into cinemas – is the way to bring opera to the masses, claiming that ‘even though you’re in a cinema, you’re at the performance, and the music makes sense.’

Funding for opera in Ireland is, of course, a huge problem. However, the VDISC is self-funded, both through fundraising and through entrusted memorial prizes which are the core of the competition. In 2013, the Wagnerian Society are sponsoring a €5,000 prize for the competition to be awarded for a Wagnerian aria, and Opera Ireland consistently arrange to employ the winner of the competition, while RTÉ provide the NSO and funding for the National Concert Hall.

We should support our arts, it’s more important than watching television, in a recession it’s all we have, but people are afraid to go into singing because they think they won’t make a success of it’ is Veronica’s parting comment, which is one echoed by fifth-place winner in this year’s competition, Benjamin Russell.

Ben (21), while confident in himself, wasn’t thinking he’d get to the final at all, as the next-youngest competitor was 25 and he had only really participated in Feis Ceoil before. He tried to think of the final as more a showcase of his talent, rather than competing with the others.

Having worked with Ronnie previously, Ben very much enjoys working with her despite the conflicts between her interpretation and that of his vocal teacher Sylvia O’Regan & répétiteur Mairéad Hurley. He is very much aware that the most successful classical singing careers are in opera, and – as a baritone – aspires to one day play Papageno (in Mozart’s Zauberflőte) or Scarpia (in Puccini’s Tosca),  though his voice is far from ready for those challenging roles at the moment.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding a recent possible merger between Opera Ireland and the Opera Theatre Company, Ben feels opera is very much still alive both internationally and in Ireland. He claims that most people who have preconceptions of opera have either not seen good opera, or at least not heard good singers performing. After all, he muses, what’s not to love about the plush, grandiose atmosphere which surrounds opera?

Even if one has to travel to make a name for oneself before coming back to Ireland to great aplomb, there is very little snobbery about nationality in the world of opera – each company is just looking for the best voice for a role, rather than anything else being of any great import.

After Kilruddery, Ben will next be performing in the National Concert Hall’s lunchtime concert on July 27th (on the foot of his success in the VDISC).

The concerts take place from 3-6pm on July 11th and 18th in Kilruddery House & Gardens, Bray, Co Wicklow.

They will feature the winners of the Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition: Fiona Murphy, Imelda Drumm, Celine Byrne, Benjamin Russell, Ross Scanlon, Gabriela Istoc, Dean Power, Marcela Walsh & Patrick Hyland.

Performers will be accompanied by Dearbhla Collins & Mairead Hurley.

Tickets are priced at €60, including wine & canapés, and advanced booking is required on (01) 415 0445.

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Can be found on twitter (@pluincee) or on his own blog (http://short.ie/pluincee).

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