A phone call from my good friend and pianist, Alison Young, on Easter Monday evening told me of the death of the doyenne of our musicians, Veronica Dunne, some hours previously.
The news was unexpected as despite her 93 years Ronnie, as she was affectionately known, was still teaching until relatively recently. Her passing brought the end of an era but, through her extraordinary progeny of pupils and ‘grand-pupils’, her legacy lives on. RIP dear Ronnie.
Born in Dublin’s Clontarf district on August 2, 1927 into the comfortable family of builder William Dunne and his wife Josephine, Ronnie had two siblings. Her brother Billo was 14 years older with sister May four years her senior. In the circumstances the late arrival developed a healthy streak of mischief. As the family was musical, it was discovered early on that Ronnie had a ‘good ear’ and a particularly clear voice – qualities that were carefully nurtured.
Initial schooling took Ronnie to the Holy Faith in Clontarf and then the Dominicans in Eccles Street, from where she was expelled! Some time at Loreto ‘on the Green’ led finally to boarding with the Sacred Heart nuns at Mount Anville. These establishments promoted music in their curricula.
Ronnie was also having voice lessons from Dublin’s eminent Hubert Rooney who had been a pupil of celebrated Polish tenor Jean De Reszke in Paris. Believing Ronnie should continue her studies abroad he advised Milan. However, one of the Mount Anville sisters considered Rome a better option as Milan was still impoverished by the aftermath of World War II. So Rome it was.
Before her departure a chance meeting with charismatic Vatican official, Msgr Hugh O’Flaherty, opened many doors for Ronnie when she arrived in the Eternal City in September 1947. The monsignor also kept a close eye on her spiritual and temporal needs. With occasional home trips in between, Ronnie’s base was Rome until 1951.
During these visits she was soprano soloist in Verdi’s Requiem under Jean Martinon for Radio Éireann in April 1950 at Dublin’s Phoenix Hall and later that month made her DGOS debut as Micaëla (Carmen) under Moravian-born Vilém Tausky at the Gaiety.
Reprising the Verdi Requiem the following year, under Italian conductor Francesco Mander at Dublin’s Capitol Theatre, Ronnie repeated her Micaëla and added Marguerite (Faust) to her DGOS repertoire.
In April and May 1952 she was with the DGOS again, this time as Mimi (La bohème), under the influential Karl Rankl who, as music director at Covent Garden was responsible for rebuilding the company after the war, and Norina (Don Pasquale) under Tausky.
More significantly July 1952 found Ronnie in the Teatro Nuovo in Milan as Mimi. Reviews were favourable with the Corriere Lombardo’s heading in bold ‘Voce d’Irlanda escordiente Mimi’ continuing with “this young singer possesses the sweet and fresh voice of a lyric soprano and she uses it with great taste”.
Attending all six performances and finding what he wanted, Covent Garden’s general administrator, David Webster, invited Ronnie to London to audition for his guest conductor, Sir John Barbirolli. More anon.