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Dowd, Eric Ronald (1914–1990)

by John Carmody

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Eric Ronald Dowd (1914-1990), tenor, was born on 23 February 1914 at Camperdown, Sydney, third surviving son of Victorian-born Robert Henry Dowd, railway fitter, and his wife Henrietta, née Jenkins, a pianist who was born in New South Wales. Thin as a boy (belying the strong physique that he later developed), Ronald sang as a chorister at Holy Trinity Church of England, Erskineville. He appeared in radio broadcasts and competitions, with many successes, including the City of Sydney and the Railway and Tramway eisteddfods. After what he called a `robust’ education at Cleveland Street Boys’ Intermediate High School, Redfern, he worked at the National Bank of Australasia Ltd from 1930. Taught singing by his inspiring mentor Richard Thew, organist at Rockdale Congregational Church, he performed in hotels, music clubs and Masonic lodges. He married Elsie Burnitt Crute, a flag maker, on 8 October 1938 at St Clement’s Church of England, Marrickville.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 9 March 1942, Dowd served as a lance sergeant with the 1st Advanced Reinforcement Depot in Papua and New Guinea and on Morotai, before being discharged on 16 January 1946 in Australia. He began a singing career, travelling to Japan with a civilian entertainment unit. In 1948, following a chance meeting with Henry Krips, he sang the title role in Perth in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann; he performed it again in 1949 in Melbourne with Gertrude Johnson’s Australian National Theatre Movement. He later sang successfully with Clarice Lorenz’s National Opera of New South Wales (Australia) in Sydney, in La Traviata, Fidelio, Tannhäuser and Arthur Benjamin’s The Devil Take Her. In 1954 and 1955 he sang and broadcast in New Zealand. Late in 1955 he left for Britain and joined the Sadler’s Wells Company.

Dowd’s first British appearance, as Canio in Pagliacci in January 1956, was the beginning of a formidable European career, marked by a fierce determination to master new and demanding works. His forthright willingness to challenge managements earned him the nickname `Rowdy Dowdy’, but he was commonly the person whom younger Australians sought when they needed help. Music critics applauded his personal and musical integrity and intelligence. After his performance in the title role of Vaughan Williams’s Hugh the Drover, one reviewer said that `Dowd shows that he can sing with quiet lyricism yet appear manly’; other critics noted that he could sound virile, especially in heroic roles such as Aeneas in Berlioz’s The Trojans. Another English success (repeated later at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, France, and for the Victoria State Opera in Melbourne) was Mozart’s then seldom performed Idomeneo. After hearing those performances one London critic wrote: `He imbued the character with a personality that vibrated with human sensibility and his interpretation carried conviction from first to last’, while another thought that `his singing and phrasing were a joy to hear’.

When in 1970 he sang with his compatriot Marie Collier in Wozzeck as the `flamboyantly confident’ Drum Major, his `sheer animal exuberance’ was appreciated. His performance as Claudius in the première of Humphrey Searle’s Hamlet in Hamburg in 1968 (where a year earlier he had sung in the première of Alexander Goehr’s Arden Muß Sterben) moved the critic in The Times to enthuse about his `strength and authority’. While his Wagnerian performances were highly praised (especially in Lohengrin), Benjamin (Lord) Britten’s Peter Grimes was his greatest achievement. Experienced judges considered him the finest exponent ever of that tortured role, in Australia on stage (1958) and on Australian Broadcasting Commission television (1964), and in London at Covent Garden (1961) and Sadler’s Wells (1963). Other London roles included Manrico (Il Trovatore), Florestan (Fidelio) and Rodolfo (La Bohème); his performance of the title role in Oedipus Rex earned the high regard of its composer, Stravinsky. Praise for the clarity of his singing gained him the sobriquet `Diction Dowd’. In concerts he performed pieces by Berlioz, from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and—with a peerless profundity—from Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius.

In 1972 Dowd returned to Australia. He joined the Australian Opera and next year at the new Sydney Opera House sang Pierre in Prokofiev’s War and Peace. Subsequently he made a number of appearances there, notably in Fidelio, but his relations with the Australian Opera were inharmonious and an opportunity was lost by its decision not to mount Peter Grimes for him. A fighter for singers’ rights, Dowd unsuccessfully sought election to the board in 1978 and 1980, causing the chairman Charles Berg to seek a senior barrister’s opinion to thwart him.

When his contract with the Australian Opera was not renewed after 1979, Dowd channelled his energies into teaching, supporting musical ventures in the deprived western suburbs of Sydney and founding, at Bathurst in 1988, an annual summer school for singers. Averse to `careful’ singing, he advised students: `Be well prepared but prepared to take risks’. He had been appointed AO in 1976. Survived by his son, he died on 15 March 1990 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, and was cremated; his wife and daughter predeceased him.

Select Bibliography

  • B. and F. MacKenzie, Singers of Australia (1967)
  • Woman’s Day and Home, 22 Jan 1951, p 10
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Oct 1955, p 7, 26 Jan 1956, p 3, 2 July 1980, p 3, 17 Mar 1990, p 82, 5 Jan 1991, p 10
  • Opera Australia, Aug 1982, p 7, Sept 1982, p 5, Apr 1991, p 1
  • series B883, item NX91611 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Royal Opera House (Covent Garden, London), English National Opera (London), and Hamburgische Staatsoper (Hamburg) Archives
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Carmody, 'Dowd, Eric Ronald (1914–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dowd-eric-ronald-12433/text22355, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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