Opera at RIAM: Beginnings

Adelio Viani with his daughter, Maria, and the celebrated Italian tenor, Beniamino Gigli. (Photograph from Towards Music, The Kerryman Ltd)
Adelio Viani (right) with his daughter, Maria, and celebrated Italian tenor, Beniamino Gigli. (Photograph from Towards Music, The Kerryman Ltd)

Adelio Viani was appointed professor of singing at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in 1917, remaining in that position for nearly fifty years. Viani was born in Milan and trained at the Conservatoire there. Reportedly a friend of Puccini, he was an authority on opera and pushed for the establishment of an opera class at the Academy:

“…some of my pupils have expressed a wish to study singing on operatic lines, including acting. I feel sure that if a lesson of the kind requested were given when asked for, combined with the usual weekly lesson, which as a matter of fact is often of an operatic nature, it would give satisfaction for those preparing for the stage…” (Letter to the Governors, To talent alone, p 339)

Viani eventually got his way and the first opera classes began in 1922. This was undoubtedly a great addition to the curriculum, and Viani became one of the legendary figures of the Academy.

“It is gratifying to know that in recent years the ‘Academy Operatic Group’, under the direction of Maestro Viani, continue to give excellent performances of the classical Italian operas such as L’elisir d’amore, for, ever since his arrival in Dublin from Milan, Maestro Viani has encouraged an operatic tradition in Dublin, a tradition which goes back beyond the days of Foley and Ludwig to the golden age when Mario and Grisi used to fill the Theatre Royal from floor to ceiling and the students would take the horses out of the prima donna’s carriage and pull it triumphantly to the Shelbourne Hotel.” (Dr Walter Starkie, To talent alone, p 294)

“My room was just above where Maestro Viani taught in the large front room next to the organ room. I still have ringing in my ears the sound of large operatic voices going through their exercises.” (Brian Boydell, To talent alone, p 473)

“Working down in the pit was a different matter. Playing fiddle there for one of Maestro Viani’s operas had its own hazards, as our inadequate sounds often caused him to dance with rage on top of his small table. Still, we learnt a lot of Donizetti and Bellini, from the inside out.” (Carol Acton, To talent alone, pp 474-475)

In 1928, Viani founded the Dublin Operatic Society and, during the time that he was Musical Director, the Society produced many operas at the Gaiety Theatre, including Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. The programme below is for the Dublin Operatic Society’s production of The Barber of Seville in The Town Hall, Rathmines. The original programme is housed in the RIAM Library’s archives.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the promotion of opera in the RIAM fell to Irish baritone, Michael O’Higgins:

“O’Higgins, to stimulate the unofficial side of opera study, collected a group known as ‘The Thirteens’ (from the number of his teaching room). In addition to [Dermot] Troy and [Austin] Gaffney, members of ‘The Thirteens’ included the sisters Eithne and Mabel McGrath and Martin Dempsey. (To talent alone, p 363)

“Michael O’Higgins would sail rapidly into the hall on a scouting expedition looking for a répétiteur for his ‘Thirteens’ who were rehearsing The Magic Flute.(Carol Acton, To talent alone, p 474)

Sources

Pine, Richard and Acton, Charles (eds), To talent alone: The Royal Irish Academy of Music 1848-1998 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1998).

Viani, Adelio, G., Towards music (Tralee: The Kerryman Limited, 1945).

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