Greevy, Bernadette Josephine (1937–2008), classical singer, was born 3 July 1937 at 28 Vernon Avenue, Clontarf, Dublin, sixth among seven children of Patrick Joseph Greevy, an insurance official, and his wife Josephine Frances (née Miller); the family resided at 33 Vernon Gardens, Clontarf. Educated at Holy Faith Convent, Clontarf, she benefited from the importance of music in the school's curriculum, and participated in school operas, musical plays, and in school and church choirs. Encouraged by her sisters, who recognised hers as the best voice in a musically talented family, from age 16 she studied singing in Dublin with the mezzo-soprano and teacher Jean Nolan (1892–1963), who immersed her in the French repertoire, especially the songs of Debussy and Duparc. On leaving school at 17, Greevy trained in London at the Guildhall School of Music and privately with Hélène Isepp. Failing to secure funding from the Arts Council of Ireland, Greevy supported her studies by working as a cosmetician (and continued to work part-time for Elizabeth Arden in London and Dublin till her professional singing career was firmly established). Competing regularly in feiseanna throughout the 1950s, she won several prizes in the Dublin feis ceoil, including the contralto gold medal (1958), the Plunket Greene Cup for song interpretation (1959), and the lieder prize (1959).
Appearing frequently in 1960 with amateur musical societies and the Radio Éireann orchestras and choirs, she gave a solo 'coming out' recital for the Music Association of Ireland (18 November), accompanied by pianist Jeannie Reddin; her programme included Schumann's 'Frauenliebe und Leben' (A woman's love and life), a daring and testing choice for a young singer. (Reddin remained the most frequent and empathetic accompanist of Greevy's early career.) Greevy made her professional debut in opera as Maddalena in Verdi's 'Rigoletto' with the Dublin Grand Opera Society (DGOS) at Dublin's Gaiety theatre (April 1961), then appeared in the DGOS winter season in the travesti role of Siébel in an English-language version of Gounod's 'Faust' (December 1961). Her debut at Wexford Festival Opera was also in a travesti part, as the fiddle-playing gypsy boy Beppe in Mascagni's 'L'amico Fritz' (October 1962); she and a fellow cast member, the soprano Veronica Dunne, were the first two Irish artistes to appear in a Wexford festival opera.
Greevy's career took off internationally in 1964, with a successful series of recitals and broadcasts in West Germany (February–March), followed by an acclaimed London debut, in the Wigmore Hall (March); accompanied throughout the tour by Reddin, in the London recital she performed a programme of material in five languages, then encored in Irish. On the basis of the London performance, she became the first Irish singer to receive a Harriet Cohen International Music Award for outstanding artistry (November 1964); controversy arose when the Irish Department of External Affairs not only failed to organise a public reception to present her the award, but declined to dispatch a messenger to deliver the award scroll to her Clontarf home, forwarding it instead to her sister's city-centre workplace. Signing a contract with Argo Records (UK), Greevy appeared with other artistes on two LPs of light Irish music; on a similarly themed solo LP (Over here (1966), a collection of fifteen songs, variously to piano and chamber sextet accompaniment); on a recording of Haydn's Theresa mass; and on a highly lauded solo LP of Handel arias (1966), accompanied by the Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields with direction and harpsichord continuo by Raymond Leppard.
Greevy's voice was a rich, dark, resonant contralto, produced with apparent ease and distinguished by a distinctive colour; able to reach the higher registers without strain, she frequently sang mezzo-soprano parts. The Irish Times music critic Charles Acton (qv), who championed Greevy throughout her career, extolled her voice in an early review as a 'lovely instrument' which she used with 'artistry, intelligence and musicality', and praised her crystal-clear diction, emotional expressiveness, and unmannered poise (Ir. Times, 19 November 1960) – qualities that maturity further refined.
Beginning with her winter proms debut (January 1962) with the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra (RÉSO), Greevy benefited immensely from collaboration with Tibor Paul, the orchestra's Hungarian-born principal conductor (1961–7); it was the first of several artistically fruitful collaborations with a particular conductor that marked Greevy's career. Though she was 'terrified' of Paul, who was an exacting, near dictatorial taskmaster, their relationship (while punctuated by some ferocious rows) was based on mutual esteem for each other's talent, work ethic and professionalism. Greevy admired how Paul vivified classical music performance in Ireland (against entrenched opposition) with his unbending insistence on disciplined preparation, high artistic standards, and receptivity to new repertoire – precepts she adopted as her own. Under Paul's direction, she cultivated a deep affinity for the vocal works of Mahler; her Mahler interpretations – especially of the song cycles, in both the versions for orchestral and for piano accompaniment – represent the pinnacle of her achievement. Besides singing Mahler on many occasions with the RÉSO and its successors (the RTÉSO (1964–89) and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland (NSOI) (from 1990)), she also gave noteworthy London performances of the composer's works under conductors Claudio Abbado and Pierre Boulez. Her recording on the RTÉ label (1987) of Mahler's 'Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen' (Songs of a wayfarer) and 'Kindertotenlieder' (Songs on the death of children) with the RTÉSO conducted by János Fürst, was 'consistently dark, troubled and intense', devoid of the 'quietness' or 'lightness of touch' that many interpreters brought to certain passages (Ir. Times, 17 December 1987). The recording was re-released on a Naxos CD (1997), combined with Greevy's 1994 recording of Mahler's 'Rückert-Lieder' with the NSOI conducted by Franz-Paul Decker.
Following Tibor Paul's departure from the RTÉSO, Greevy enjoyed a productive collaboration with John Barbirolli, conductor of Manchester's Hallé Orchestra. She later recounted Barbirolli's teaching her how to sing Handel's 'Messiah', Verdi's 'Requiem' (both of which she had already performed often), and Elgar's 'The dream of Gerontius' (a setting for voices and orchestra of the poem by Cardinal Newman (qv)), by instructing her to concentrate not only on the sounds, but on the meanings, of the words, to match her vocal tone and colouring to the sense of each text. In two Dublin concerts conducted by Barbirolli in May 1970 (two months before his death), she sang the Verdi 'Requiem' and the part of the Angel in the conductor's remarkable reading of 'Gerontius', with the RTÉSO and Our Lady's Choral Society. She sang excerpts from 'Gerontius' at a requiem mass for Barbirolli in the Dublin pro-cathedral (August 1970).
During the first decade of her professional career, Greevy appeared only infrequently in opera. (She later described this as a conscious decision, to spare her voice the rigours of operatic performance until she had fully mastered singing technique, and credited the decision as contributing in part to the extraordinary longevity of her voice.) In 1965 she sang the female lead in Purcell's 'Dido and Aeneas', the first wholly professional Irish opera production in decades, staged by the short-lived Irish Opera Group in the Dagg Hall of the RIAM. Appearing in her second Wexford festival operatic role in 1969 as Duchess Federica in Verdi's 'Luisa Miller', she made a sensational entrance, accompanied by two huge Irish wolfhounds, gifts to her uncle, Count Walter. (A frequent Wexford Festival recitalist, she performed in the 1964 festival in 'Corno di bassetto', an entertainment by Dr Tom Walsh (qv) based on the music criticism of G. B. Shaw (qv).) She sang on two notable recordings on the RCA label in 1970 by the Handel Society of New York, of the operas Orlando (as Medoro) and Ariodante (as Polinesso).
Notwithstanding the beauty, expressiveness and technical polish of Greevy's voice, and her compelling presence on the concert platform, her operatic career was seriously hampered by deficient acting skills: an absence of vitality in her characterisations, and an inability to portray emotion naturally in bodily movement. Critics wrote of the haughty chilliness she brought to most every role, of her stilted, 'old-fashioned operatic gesturing' (Opera, January 1978), of an acting style that 'brings to mind the melodramatic exaggerations of the era of silent films' (Michael Dervan, Ir. Times, 19 June 2000). These were especially severe handicaps for a female singer of her generation, launching a career when the cult of Maria Callas – opera's supreme acting talent – was at its height. The impairment retarded Greevy's international career and reputation, limiting her opportunities to sing opera, and denying her recognition within the top rank of the world's singers (a denial she keenly resented).
Greevy's most satisfying operatic performances were in works demanding little physical action (such as those of Handel and other baroque composers), or when playing aloof, regal, stately characters. Most of these occurred on the Wexford stage. At the 1977 festival, in her first appearance in a major Wexford role, she was 'darkly voluptuous' (Opera, January 1978) as the title character in Massenet's 'Hériodade', capturing the scheming Hebrew queen in all her august demeanour and power, revealing only in the last scene the venom beneath the hauteur. Appearing in the first ever production of a Handel opera at Wexford, she played the soldier Medoro in 'Orlando' (1980). In the 1982 festival she displayed an impressive versatility of voice and dramatic mood, performing both pieces of a Haydn double bill, each involving a woman left abandoned on a remote island: soloing in the tragic cantata for contralto 'Arianna a Naxos', then singing the mezzo role of Costanza in the light, two-act court opera 'L'isola disabitata' (The desert island). Her last Wexford opera was Handel's 'Ariodante' (1985), in the travesti title role of a vassal prince of Scotland (which she performed despite suffering a sinus infection).
Other opera credits included performances with the DGOS in works by Gluck, Verdi, Massenet, and Saint-Saëns, and in Britain with Scottish Opera and Welsh National Opera. She sang the title role in Britten's 'The rape of Lucretia' (1974), with the Studio Opera Group, Belfast, conducted by Havelock Nelson (qv), and performed the role in Barcelona in the first ever production of the opera in Spain (1990). She debuted with the Royal Opera in Covent Garden, London, as Geneviève in Debussy's 'Pelléas et Mélisande' (1982). (During the 1960s–70s, she had performed often at Covent Garden in two ballets choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan: singing Mahler's 'Das Lied von der Erde' from the pit to accompany 'The song of the earth', and on stage in 'Mayerling' in a non-dancing role as the actress-mistress of Emperor Franz Joseph I, performing a song at the emperor's birthday party.)
Owing to the vicissitudes of her operatic performances, Greevy's career was largely defined by concerts and recitals. She was a frequent soloist in the major vocal orchestral works of the canon, both sacred and secular, including the Bach passions, the Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi requiems, the Stabat maters of Pergolesi and Rossini, the Beethoven ninth symphony, and the Mahler vocal symphonies. More unusually, in 1995 she appeared as Mary Magdalene in Dublin productions of Elgar's rarely performed oratorios 'The apostles' and 'The kingdom'. Though performing frequently outside Ireland – she toured extensively in Europe, the Middle and Far East, Australia and New Zealand – she adhered to an early decision to conduct her career from Dublin, citing the support systems of family, native culture, and an agreeable lifestyle, and notwithstanding the difficulties and expenses imposed by physical distance from the main international centres of classical music.
Greevy sang the first performances of many vocal works by Irish composers. In 1975 she premiered the song cycle 'Sailing to Byzantium', a setting by Gerard Victory (qv) of poems by W. B. Yeats (qv). Accompanied in the NGI by pianist John O'Conor, she performed the debut (October 1978) of the dramatic cantata 'A girl', a setting by Seoirse Bodley – who, commissioned by RTÉ, composed with her in mind – of twenty-two poems by Brendan Kennelly; the eponymous girl becomes pregnant outside marriage, is subjected to severe humiliations, and eventually drowns herself. The piece blended a unique singing style derived from sean-nós with contemporary classical music. Nine of the poems, adapted as a radio cantata entitled 'Transitions', were scored for contralto (Greevy), piano (O'Conor), and two speaking voices (actors Maire O'Neill and Barry McGovern), and constituted RTÉ's entry for the 1978 Prix Italia. Greevy and O'Conor performed 'A girl' in London's Wigmore Hall during the 'Sense of Ireland' festival (1980); their recording of the piece was released as a Gael Linn LP (1981).
Greevy performed ten songs by Seán Ó Riada (qv), accompanied by the composer, on his album Vertical man (1970). A sheaf of songs from Ireland (1998; Marco Polo), recorded with pianist Hugh Tinney, comprises twenty art songs by several composers, including 'Wee Hughie' by John Larchet (qv), an enduring staple of Greevy's recital career. Her album of Bach arias (1980; Claddagh) from the cantatas and the 'St Matthew Passion', with the New Irish Chamber Orchestra under John Beckett (1927–2007), was the record of which she herself was most proud. Other of her recordings included Brahms's 'Four serious songs' (1975) and 'Alto rhapsody' (1993); Britten's 'A charm of lullabies' and folk song arrangements (1970); Elgar's 'Sea pictures' (1981); and Berlioz's 'Les nuits d'été' (1992).
The foremost Irish classical singer of the period, Greevy highly regarded her own talent and stature as an artist, and bemoaned what she perceived as the failure of the arts establishment in Ireland to accord her the recognition she was due. Nonetheless, she appeared often on RTÉ radio and television, and was a frequent performer at state occasions. She sang before the mass in the Phoenix Park during the visit to Ireland of Pope John Paul II (29 September 1979), and was included on a bestselling RTÉ LP of highlights of the papal visit. Named to the inaugural, twelve-member board of directors of the National Concert Hall (NCH) (1981–6), she performed with the RTÉSO in the venue's opening concert, as a soloist in Bodley's new choral symphony, commissioned for the occasion (9 September 1981). When not reappointed to the board in 1986, she publicly criticised Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald (qv) and the minister of state responsible for the arts, Ted Nealon (qv). She served a second term in 1991–6.
Greevy married (14 August 1965) Peter Tattan, a sales representative in Limerick who returned to Dublin on their marriage and became an accountant and later an executive with the Player Wills tobacco company; they had one son. Retiring on medical advice in 1981, Tattan assumed management of Greevy's business affairs. Following his sudden death of cardiac arrest in March 1983, Greevy was deeply distraught, and withdrew from public performance (save for several special occasions) for nearly a year; she wrote frankly of her grief in an Irish Times article (21 October 1983). One of her first return appearances was the premiere in the NCH (March 1984) of Gerard Victory's requiem cantata 'Ultima rerum' (The last things), a bold work taking for its framework the traditional requiem of the Latin rite, with a libretto comprising texts from diverse writers and cultures. Greevy was featured on a recording of the work for the Marco Polo label (1994).
For some twenty years, Greevy gave an annual, mid-winter master class in Dublin, culminating in a public recital. On foot of a Sino–Irish cultural agreement, she visited China, performing recitals and giving master classes in Beijing, Xi'an and Shanghai (August–September 1985); the recitals were broadcast on Chinese radio and television. Over four years in the early 1990s, she performed in a complete cycle of Mahler's vocal orchestral works in the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires. The project commenced a lengthy professional collaboration with conductor Franz-Paul Decker, under whose baton she sang in concert performances in the USA and New Zealand of Wagner operas. She sang the title role in a sold-out Dublin production of Bizet's 'Carmen' in the NCH (November 1994), conducted by Decker and involving a Teatro Colón design team; popular success notwithstanding, some critics were dismayed not so much by a singer of her maturity tackling the role, as by her severely restrained interpretation of the proverbially fiery, reckless, vivaciously seductive gypsy girl.
Greevy was founder in 1999 and artistic director of the Anna Livia Dublin International Opera Festival, a project that she worked strenuously to launch and sustain, obtaining a series of direct grants from government departments. Presenting two operas in the Gaiety theatre each season (conducted by Decker, with the Teatro Colón designers), the festival failed in its object to field predominantly Irish casts, but succeeded in offering major roles to several Irish singers. Greevy sang in the first two seasons, reprising the title role in 'Hériodade' (2000) and playing the gypsy Azucena in Verdi's 'Il trovatore' (2002). Its funding axed, the festival was suspended for several years, returning with a truncated 'fringe festival' in 2006, and full seasons in 2007 and 2008. In December 2008, within three months of Greevy's death, and again deprived of government funding, the festival was wound up, among the first major artistic enterprises to expire amid the financial crisis.
An honorary life member of the RDS, Greevy was awarded honorary doctorates of music by the NUI (1983) and TCD (1988), the Order of Merit of the Order of Malta, and the papal cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (1984). She received a Jacob's Award for a radio broadcast of a Mahler concert (1978). A brass imprint of her hands was placed in the pavement outside the Gaiety theatre (September 2008). She resided for many years in 'Melrose', 672 Howth Road, Raheny, Dublin. The painting 'Homage to Bernadette Greevy' (1978; IMMA), a highly inventive, audio-visual conception by Robert Ballagh, commissioned by Gordon Lambert (qv), includes three separate images of Greevy – a framed portrait, and on LP and cassette covers – surrounded by objects suggestive of her career within a trompe-l'œil composition. Suffering from cancer of the bone marrow, Greevy died 26 September 2008 in the Mater Private Hospital, Dublin; by her wish, a private family funeral occurred prior to the public announcement of her death. A bursary in her honour, awarded annually to a singing student resident or domiciled in Ireland, was established by the NCH in 2010.