Archive project

An Irish Classical Music & Opera Archive


Irish people at home and throughout the world are justifiably proud of Ireland’s rich cultural heritage. Yet one rich and important aspect of Irish culture remains largely unknown, undervalued and relatively uncelebrated, both nationally and internationally.

We know, we value and we celebrate our heritage of poets, novelists dramatists and painters, we are also proud of our unique traditional music, and the Irish contribution to popular music in more recent decades.

Reflecting all of this, and contributing to the national and international reputation of Ireland in these fields, Ireland has a superb  National Library, a film Archive and a theatre archive. In the field of music, Ireland has an exemplary Traditional Music Archive, and a contemporary music centre which promotes and documents Irish Contemporary Music.

One of the significant cultural gaps that CAI is anxious to address is the lack of a dedicated digital and physical archive of the history of classical music and opera  in Ireland. Such an archive should document and disseminate information on the large (and still  largely unknown) creative output of Irish composers over three centuries, and the rich history of performance by Irish artists and performing companies, at home and abroad.

One only has to think of Handel’s visit and the first ever performance of the Messiah in the eighteenth century, the incredibly rich operatic and concert life  in Dublin and elsewhere which saw Lizst, Paganini and the world’s greatest opera singers come to perform the great works of the day in the 19th century, and the ferment of musical and operatic activity throughout the 20th century to realise what a rich and important performance tradition Ireland has in classical music and opera.

The important contribution of Irish composers to national and international music life is also one which is little understood and appreciated. The works of Balfe and Wallace in the 19th Century were of enormous importance in international musical life at that time, yet are still (with a small no. of exceptions), largely unknown and unheard. The development of classical music and composition in Ireland in the national cultural revival and the new state  is also a largely undocumented and unknown strand of national cultural history  .

CAI is intent on seeing this archive established in Ireland in a short few years, to provide important heritage conservation, and a living resource to performers, scholars and the general public.

CAI is currently in exploratory dialogue with a number of potential national partner institutions with a view to seeing this project realised in a sustainable manner to the highest standards in the coming years.

If you would like to learn more about progress on this project, or to advise CAI of the nature and location of material you think might be of interest to the Archive, please contact CAI at: – quoting ‘Archive project’.


DGOS LogoDGOS/Opera Ireland. A forgotten legacy?

Anniversaries are big news this year. Irish Culture is being celebrated everywhere. For once classical music has not been ignored and among many others, we have Tara Erraught, one of Ronnie Dunne’s star pupils, already acclaimed in the Opera houses and Concert Halls of Europe and America, bringing the gospel to the Irish diaspora and indeed the wider world. She performed in Wigmore Hall’s Gala Concert, “Irish Culture in Britain: A Centenary Celebration” in April 2016 and together with tenor Anthony Kearns in a one-night-only concert on May 23, 2016 in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington “Celebrating a Century of Irish Arts & Culture” where they featured well-known works and special gems by celebrated Irish composers and poets, as well as traditional songs.

Wind the clock back to another era of major conflict when the first Meeting, at which the Dublin Grand Opera Society was formed. It took place in the Central Hotel, Exchequer St, 75 years ago, on 20th February 1941.

Those bleak early years of World War II were difficult times in which to inaugurate a new Opera Company. Resources were limited and all roles had to be cast from available local talent. But the organisation had strong men at the helm. Capt. William O’Kelly, who would remain as Chairman for the next 38 years, his Army colleague, conductor Col. J M Doyle, and composer and music professor Dr J F Larchet, the Society’s first President, were determined personalities. A week of opera was produced in May 1941, followed by a 2 week season in November. This set the pattern for the future, 2 seasons of opera each year in Dublin, as well as touring to Limerick, Cork and Belfast during the War years, and from 1971 annually to the rebuilt Cork Opera House.

Generous help and encouragement in the early years from Louis Elliman, Managing Director of the Gaiety enabled the fledgling Society to find its feet. A vibrant Patron Members scheme was put in place. Before the decade was out arrangements were finalised with the Radio Eireann authorities to have the invaluable services of their Symphony Orchestra on an ongoing basis. Over the years the Society provided every noted Irish singer with the opportunity of singing with an International cast. Beginning with May Devitt, Moira Griffith, Patricia Black, Renee Flynn, Rita Lynch, John Lynskey, John Torney right through to Ronnie Dunne, Dermot Troy, Mary Sheridan, Bernadette Greevy, Ruth Maher, Suzanne Murphy, William Young, Ann Moran, Peter McBrien, Frank O’Brien and the ever present Brendan Cavanagh. In more recent times to name but a few, Patricia Bardon, Mary Hegarty, Regina Nathan, Majella Cullagh, Alison Browner, Franzita Whelan, Orla Boylan, Anthony Kearns, Tara Erraught, all have been given a shop window for their talents. The celebrated Belfast tenor, James Johnston, was discovered by Bill singing in Edward German’s Merrie England in Derry and brought to Dublin where he debuted in 1940 with the D.O.S. in Rigoletto. Johnston followed Bill to the DGOS as principal tenor and remained a lifelong friend. He paid Bill the ultimate compliment in choosing to sing his farewell operatic performances in Dublin in Tosca in Nov. 1958. Bill sent him home in fine style by partnering him with Joan Hammond and Otakar Kraus.

At the society’s annual dinner in 1944, its patron John Count McCormack had exhorted: “We should get the best possible talent available and bring it to this country as an encouragement and as an example. Let them show what they have to give grand opera and let them see what we have to give, and no doubt in this way we will learn a lot and they likewise, but in the end grand opera will certainly benefit.

Amongst the DGOS’s more extraordinary achievements was in 1948 persuading the Opera-Comique in Paris to bring their legendary production of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande to Dublin. This cast of Jacques Jansen, Irene Joachim, Jacques Etchevery under the baton of Roger Desormiere is enshrined in a 1942 wartime recording that to this day has not been surpassed. The Hamburg Opera arrived in 1950 and were a watershed in the musical life of Dublin, bringing a degree of ensemble and total theatrical experience unknown at that time. Among the artists introduced to Dublin then were Martha Modl, Clara Ebers, Walter Geisler, Theo Hermann and the unforgettable Annaliese Rothenberger. Gunther Rennert, their general manager, in a last night address from the stage spoke of the ‘charm, warmth and friendliness of everyone they worked with in the Society and the Gaiety Theatre’ and expressed a desire to be invited back to Dublin. They duly returned in 1951 and ’53. Also visiting Dublin around this time were principals of the Netherlands Opera – Gre Brouwenstijn, Franz Vroons and Otakar Kraus in a memorable Tosca. Munich Opera came in 1953 and ‘54 with August Seider, Paula Bauman and Hans Herman-Nissen in Tristan, Sari Barabas, Richard Holm, Karl Schmitt-Walter in Traviata.

The Italian Seasons from 1952 on, and particularly from 1955 to 1966, are remembered and spoken of with awe, wonder and indeed almost disbelief. Nightly, for up to 5 weeks in the Spring, Dublin was indeed the Italian Opera capital of the world. Looking back through those cast lists, names and dates spring from the pages as though they were yesterday. Tito Gobbi’s Scarpia in 1954, Caterina Mancini and Ebe Stignani in Norma in ’55. Virginia Zeani in Manon, Traviata, Boheme and Lucia. Paolo Silveri as Rigoletto, Antonio Galie as the Duke in Rigoletto, Anna Moffo and Salvatore Gioia in the ’59 Don Pasquale. Umberto Borso as a stentorian Radames, Manrico, Des Grieux, Canio, Chenier and Calaf, in an unforgettable Turandot, with Lucille Udovick in 1960. Margherita Rinaldi in a 1963 Rigoletto and 1964 Traviata both with Luciano Pavarotti, who also sang in Boheme in ’64. That Rigoletto was one of 4 productions in which the title role was sung by Piero Cappuccilli. Dublin audiences saw and heard him in 33 performances of 6 Verdi operas- Aida, Rigoletto, Trovatore, Traviata, Ballo in Maschera and Ernani. Giuseppe Di Stefano in a memorable Tosca in 1963 with Gian Giacomo Guelfi, who had previously stunned everyone with his portrayal of Nabucco, where he was ably partnered by Luisa Maragliano and Ferruccio Mazzoli. Ugo Benelli who debuted in 1963 in Sonnambula with Rinaldi and Plinio Clabassi, returned many times to sing in Elisir, Don Pasquale, Barbiere, Cenerentola and La Figlia del Reggimento.

These visits were of course only possible through the subventions of the French, German and Italian governments, which enabled the Society to contract artists of International standing for its productions. Bord Failte and The Arts Council offered guarantees against loss thus lessening the financial risk to the Society.

The ending of the Italian subvention in 1966 spurred Bill O’Kelly on to cement the already growing relationship with Maestro Annovazzi, who had first come to Dublin in 1961.

They opened up a new era in Irish opera by bringing principals from the State Opera of Romania, including Zenaida Pally, Ion Buzea, Jon Piso and Viorica Cortez in memorable performances of Samson, Mignon and Ballo in Maschera. New friends arrived from Italy and Spain, Magda Olivero in sublime performances of Adriana Lecouvreur, Spanish tenor Pedro Lavirgen for Carmen, Trovatore, Chenier and Rigoletto with a remarkable protagonist in Aldo Protti. More new ground was broken in 1971 with The Bartered Bride sung by Principals of Prague National Theatre, a radiant Gabriel Benackova was the Marenka of one’s dreams, John Brady’s well drilled chorus singing in Czech for the first time and Albert Rosen, who had brokered the arangement, having the time of his life. Italian tenors Flaviano Labo, Antonio Bevacqua, Renato Francesconi, Franco Bonanome and Giuseppe Giacomini all made a number of return visits. Aurio Tomicich debuted in Dublin as Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra in 1974 and returned each year until 1986, regaling us in a remarkable array of roles in Italian, French, German and English. Attilio D’Orazi, who had first come to Dublin in 1958, delighted us in Falstaff in 1973 and ’77. Antonio Salvadori, introduced in the’77 Nabucco, was the remarkable protagonist in Macbeth in May 1979, which was the last opera Bill saw from his ‘throne’ backstage at the Gaiety. He missed Pavarotti’s return to the Gaiety by 6 weeks. Where other cities were lucky to get the great man at all, Bill, in his final coup, had persuaded him to give 2 recitals, on the 18th and 20th December. Addressing the audience before each concert, Signor Pavarotti dedicated the performances to the ‘memory of my good friend, and indeed yours, Bill O’Kelly who passed away recently’.

How can you assess or even begin to measure the achievements of Bill O’Kelly and his colleagues. Setting up an opera company in the middle of the greatest conflict the World has known. Persuading the cream of the Operatic talent to come to Dublin, albeit for modest financial reward, and what’s more, anxious and wanting to be invited back. Maestro Annovazzi, in the Spring 1978 brochure, wrote: “Like myself, many Italian and other foreign artists have built up here a circle of Irish friends and fans. And so, when we come back to Dublin we return to the warmth of what is something very like a family atmosphere where the reciprocated friendliness and good nature of all concerned with what goes on backstage relaxes the inevitable work tensions and makes everybody’s task so much more easy and congenial. The same warm hospitality extends to the social contacts with our Irish friends outside the theatre. All this we cherish because it is something quite unique and not to be encountered in any other opera house in the world, wherein relations between the people working in the theatre do not reach out beyond the strictly professional. Where else but in Dublin could it happen that, after her splendid performances here as Adriana Lecouvreur and Tosca, the celebrated soprano Magda Olivero should – as a compliment to her colleagues and the DGOS and just for the fun of it – appear unheralded on the Gaiety stage in the silent role of trainbearer to the Princess in a performance of Turandot. In the same opera Attilio D’Orazi [a baritone very dear to the Dublin public] mimed the part of Putinpao, the executioner, almost unrecognisable in his horrific make-up complete with headsman’s axe. Then there was that Boheme which I conducted and was startled when the curtain rose on the second act to reveal none other than the Colonel himself and that very famous baritone Piero Cappuccilli- both in costume and seated together at a table in the Café Momus crowd scene. In a later Boheme the firewood which was to have heated the freezing studio of the four Bohemians was delivered in person by another famous baritone- Aldo Protti, the season’s Rigoletto. These are some of the human things which may help, at least in part, to explain the atmosphere in the Gaiety- the atmosphere, I repeat, of a family striving all together in dedicated labour which is both tireless and wonderful. Such things more than compensate for the headaches and trials which are inevitable in the restrictions of time, space and money against which the DGOS and those associated with it continue to battle heroically but with success. Long may that success endure.”

Gerard Victory, Head of Music RTE, writing in a November 1979 obituary declared: “Col. O’Kelly was, for all who knew him, the primary embodiment of opera in Ireland for over 30 years. His enthusiasm and energy were unbounded and his ability to surmount the formidable problems of opera production won universal admiration“.

The backbone of the organisation from 1941 to 1998 were the voluntary chorus, drawn from all spheres of Irish life. They honed their craft, with some 45 Chorus Masters, 14 of whom were Irish, and performed in 6 languages, English, Italian, French, German, Czech and Russian. Extant roll books and programmes over those years list some 769 active members, 422 ladies and 347 men, whose talent and commitment enabled Irish audiences to enjoy the best of opera at affordable prices.

The 1990s saw the gradual professionalisation of the DGOS, replacement of the voluntary administration, the amateur chorus with a professional core centred around the National Chamber Choir, and the development of the company name into Opera Ireland.

The final production of Tosca in November 2010 was to herald the dawn of a new era for opera in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland. Preparations had been made for the establishment of Irish National Opera, an amalgam of Opera Ireland and Opera Theatre Company, brokered by the Dept. of Tourism, Culture and Arts at the invitation and with the support of the Minister for Arts. Alas the project never got off the ground. In May 2011 the new Minister for Arts baulked at the level of investment necessary to establish the Company and withdrew his support after consultants reported it would cost €12m in its first three years, and about €4.5m annually thereafter, to stage productions on up to 40 nights a year. He returned responsibility for opera to the Arts Council.

From 19 May 1941 to 21 Nov 2010 Dublin Grand Opera Society / Opera Ireland delivered quality Grand Opera to very appreciative audiences. In its 70 years the Company gave 2162 performances of 96 different operas to an audience of some 1.5/2 million people in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Belfast and Butlin’s Mosney [now that’s a story in itself].

It has left behind a wonderful legacy built on a rich opera culture and heritage that existed nationally and indeed locally in Ireland for well over 200 years.

Let us ensure that this legacy does not die and that there is a central place for Opera, fostered as part of our National Cultural Policy and assisted by the Arts Council, in 21st Century Ireland.

Paddy Brennan
Archivist DGOS/Opera Ireland
May 2016

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