“I was fortunate enough to study privately with Hubert Rooney at the Royal Irish Academy.”
She left school in 1946, a time when well brought up young Irish women were expected to stay at home and wait for Mr Right to come along. Dunne, however, was determined to continue her chosen career. “I had intended to go to Milan, but everything was bombed there so I went to Rome instead.”
A somewhat courageous step surely, for an 18-year old? “I suppose it was. I had to sell my pony to raise the £200 I needed, and even then had to get permission from the government to take the money out of the country. They said ‘You’ll be like all the others who leave, we’ll never hear from you again’, and I said, ‘I vow I’ll come home and give something back to Ireland’. And I did.”
Staying in a convent in postwar Rome, she remembers always being hungry because there was so little food available. “But we’d sit in the gods at the opera every night, and run down in the interval to see people in their evening gowns. There were terrible shortages, but you still had that glamour.”
In 1952, Dunne’s final year of studies, she entered the Concorso Lirico Milano, competing against 200 sopranos in her section. Back home, she received notification that she was in the finals. After a frantic journey from Ireland to Milan, she arrived at 5.30am to sing in her final that very day — and won. As a result she made her Italian operatic début as Mimi in La Bohème at the Teatro Nuovo in Milan. This led to Covent Garden, where she made her UK operatic début as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier.
When she married, everyone expected her to settle down — including her husband. “He was a man of his times, and really thought I should be at home with our children instead of gallivanting off to sing around the world.”
Nevertheless, she determinedly kept on working as much as she could, commuting back and forth to London in the creaky slow planes of the time. “You got dreadful smog there then. It even crept into the theatre. The conductor had a red light on his baton so you could see it!”
Later she took up teaching, building up the vocal department at DIT College of Music, then adding the Leinster School of Music and the Royal Irish Academy of Music to her portfolio. It was in 1992, when she officially retired from teaching (although she is still as busy as ever in training young voices) that the idea of the singing competition was born.
“My students, past and present, got together and raised this €20,000 bursary which they presented to me. I knew that the vocal arts were closing up completely, that there was no money available to help those beginning their careers, so I decided to start one.”
In this, the eighth such event (it is held triennially), almost 60 international participants will compete. “Just being heard and seen by that panel of judges can make a huge difference to their careers.”
This year, for the first time, the competition is also joining with Wexford Festival Opera, giving the winner an opportunity to perform in that renowned event next October.