Glimpses of Dublin’s operatic past

Glimpses of Dublin’s operatic past May Devitt Credit:

Last time round I may have implied that soprano May Devitt made her Dublin Operatic Society debut as Philine in Mignon in 1937. In fact, her first DOS appearance came on April 30, 1935 as Leonora in Verdi’s Il trovatore. The following year she was heard as Violetta in La traviata and Marguerite in Faust at the Gaiety.


Something of a child prodigy, May Devitt began her career singing Home, Sweet Home at a concert in the Rotunda when she was eight. Her remuneration was five shillings! She later appeared at the Olympia – billed as ‘Little May Devitt, the child soprano’.

She studied with Vincent O’Brien, director of music at Dublin’s pro-cathedral and professor of singing at the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM). He impressed on her the importance of taking her top notes pianissimo, as a genuine singer should never shout! Under Prof. O’Brien’s guidance her voice developed a three-octave span.

In her late teens May met, fell in love with and married Irish army commandant, Liam Murphy, and her singing career was grounded almost before it had taken off. In time she returned to Vincent O’Brien and undertook the role of Leonora in a Radio Éireann broadcast version of Il trovatore.

Hearing her shortly afterwards English producer Sydney Russell invited her to appear as a guest with the Universal Grand Opera Company as Mimi in La bohème at the Gaiety Theatre. This led to engagements with DOS each season between 1935 and 1941. Her final DOS role – Arline in The Bohemian Girl – came in February 1952. May Devitt also sang many times with the DGOS and toured extensively with popular Belfast tenor Josef Locke in musicals and variety shows.

Irish artists

Besides many other Irish artists on DOS rosters, the name of English tenor Heddle Nash (1894-1961) stands out. One of my father’s favourite artists, Mr Nash’s first DOS appearance came with the title role in Faust in April 1935. He was back the following year as Alfredo opposite May Devitt’s Violetta in La traviata; repeated his Faust, this time with Ms Devitt as Marguerite, and Pinkerton to her Madama Butterfly.

Mr Nash’s other DOS roles included Des Grieux (Manon); Fernando (La Favorita); Rodolfo (La bohème); Almaviva (The Barber of Seville) and Turiddu (Cavalleria Rusticana). His last appearance with DOS was as Alfredo in October 1951.

London-born, Milan-trained Mr Nash, who was known as a “tenore di grazia” and “the English lyric tenor par excellence”, made his Covent Garden debut as Ottavio in Don Giovanni in 1929. He sang Basilio in Le nozze di Figaro at the opening night of the first Glyndebourne Festival in 1934 when he was also heard as Ferrando in Così fan tutte. One critic commented, ‘hardly another tenor of his time has sung Mozart with such elegance’.


In the concert hall Mr Nash was revered for his Gerontius, which he sang under Elgar’s baton in 1931 and his 1945 recording of the work under Malcolm Sargent is still considered as ‘unsurpassed’ by many reviewers. Following his retirement from public performances, Mr Nash was professor of singing at London’s Royal College of Music.