By John Fitzgerald
April saw the passing of a woman who touched the lives of millions for more than six decades through her magnificent singing and uncanny teaching skills. A light went out in the world of music when Dr Veronica Dunne took her leave of this earth at the age of 93. An operatic colossus had left the stage.
But her extraordinary legacy ensures that her name will be forever be etched in Ireland’s Roll of Honour. Veronica was born in August 1927, the third of three children of a Dublin family whose wealth derived from ownership of thoroughbred racehorses. Her father was also a highly successful Master Builder.
He left his prized architectural mark all over Dublin city and county and among his finest achievements was the building in the 1930s of the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock.
Veronica’s singing talent was noticed at an early age and she was already pulling at the heartstrings of eager listeners when she was just eleven years old. Friends and neighbours arrived at the house in ever-larger groups to hear her golden voice.
She regaled delighted guests with traditional Irish songs and ballads, the Hills of Donegal being her most requested. Her voice became the subject of intense scrutiny and comment, and musically knowledgeable folk opined that Veronica had enormous potential. Her parents listened to their advice and wisely decided that their gifted child should receive lessons to develop her singing prowess.
This presented Veronica, a fun-loving girl who loved the active and naturally healthy outdoor life, with her first big decision: She was as devoted to the family’s adored horses and the dreamy prospect of an equestrian career as to her singing, so which calling would she opt for?
FIRST FORMAL LESSONS
Anxious parents awaited her response. To their immeasurable relief, music beat the nags into second place, though it was a close-run contest, as she later joked. So off she went to formally study at Dublin’s Municipal School of Music in Dublin under Hubert Rooney, an internationally renowned teacher.
Veronica’s training spanned the grim post-war years, when Ireland was grappling with the aftermath of austerity and economic devastation. Studies took her to Italy in 1946, where she developed her vocal skills further. She made vital contacts there that opened doors to her. Back on Irish soil, she made her eagerly awaited foray into opera in 1948, cast in the demanding role of Micaëla in the Dublin Grand Opera Society’s production of Bizet’s Carmen.
She was a magical soprano and the performance drew rave reviews, one critic describing her voice as “otherworldly.” The following year she was the alluring Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, which again won her accolades.
Her singing career was soaring. 1952 saw her scoop Italy’s much-coveted Concorso Lirico Milano award in a version of Leoncavallo’s La bohème. Her stunning performance there led to a lucrative contract with the Royal Opera House in London, where she played to huge audiences and sent the music critics into flurries of rapturous adulation.
She somehow found time for love and romance and in 1953 married businessman Peter McCarthy, giving birth to two children: Peter and Judy. Balancing home life with her musical calling was no easy task for Veronica. She was in demand everywhere and her fame placed her on a par with the world’s most celebrated operatic sopranos. When not captivating a packed London concert hall, you’d find her performing with the Scottish or Welsh operatic societies, in between critically acclaimed appearances at venues around Ireland.
She also catapulted the work of contemporary Irish composers to well deserved international prominence via a series of world premieres of their compositions. Her unique renditions of their work added to the appeal of our talented native artists.
BRILLIANT TEACHING CAREER
But Veronica’s renown as a singer would be equaled and enhanced by an inspirational teaching career. She landed the position of vocal teacher at the Dublin College of Music in 1962 and proceeded to pass on some of her own priceless knowledge and insights to many a budding vocalist.
Irish opera singers learned much from her as she helped unlock latent or undeveloped vocal capability. She helped to launch many a sterling career, her pupils including Finbar Wright, Colette McGahon, Orla Boylan, and Patricia Barden, who electrified opera houses worldwide and ever afterwards acknowledged their gratitude to a teacher who went the extra mile to ensure that every student achieved maximum benefit from her tutelage. And it wasn’t only opera singers who sought her advice and wisdom. Daniel O’ Donnell took lessons from her at the beginning of his career.
In 1995, an influential Irish group called the Friends of the Vocal Arts founded the Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition in her honour. The competition keeps alive her passion for music by awarding bursaries to promising young artists.
Her teaching continued in parallel to her operatic performances. Attempts to retire were thwarted repeatedly in response to never ending requests for another operatic performance. In 2002 she took to the stage of the Gaiety in Dublin to play the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades.
She had to learn Russian for several months beforehand to fine-tune her adoption of the challenging role. Her final operatic outing was at the Gaiety in 2011 as the grandmother in Fiddler on the Roof.
AT 87, STILL FULL TIME!
Her reserves of energy and her zest for life seemed boundless. At the age of 87 in 2014 she was still teaching for thirty-nine hours a week, a source for wonderment and support to younger teachers who worked with her. In the same year she was conferred with a richly merited National Concert Hall Lifetime Achievement Award.
When asked by a reporter why she put so much time into teaching she told him: “We’re on this earth to help one another.” Like so many other Irish people, she struggled to make sense of the seemingly endless lockdown resulting from the Covid pandemic. Avoiding people was the exact opposite of what she had done all her life. But in her final illness she maintained her high spirits and even jested with the nurses.
Dr Veronica Dunne’s passing had to be marked in muted fashion due to Covid restrictions, but her loss was keenly felt by a nation of musiclovers, especially by those whose careers blossomed thanks to her priceless never-a-dull-moment tuition.
En route to St Joseph’s Church in Terenure, the funeral cortege departed her beloved home at Bushy Park Road, Rathgar, passed the Royal Irish Academy of Music on Westland Row where she had taught and coached to perfection, and paused for a minute opposite the National Concert Hall on Earlsfort Terrace where she had brought joy to thousands with her heavenly voice. At the Requiem Mass her daughter Judy spoke of her life with pride and as a tale of wonder to be celebrated.
Though the mourners had to say goodbye, they were heartened by the scale and depth of her musical legacy. They also took solace in the belief, lovingly expressed by Judy; that the great Dr Veronica Dunne would now be singing with the angels.