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Story: O'Connor, Doinall Dhu

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O'Connor, Doinall Dhu


Theatrical manager, concert impresario, businessman

This biography, written by Adrienne Simpson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Born in Ponsonby, Auckland, on 13 May 1894, Daniel Joseph Augustine O'Connor was the son of Lena Agnes Martin and her husband, Timothy Beehane O'Connor, a contractor. Part of a large Irish Catholic family, he grew up in an atmosphere of amateur music-making and literary enthusiasm. Fired by his mother's love of Irish culture, he changed his Christian names to Doinall Dhu, but was always known as Dan. His father, a noted sportsman, taught him how to recognise a good horse, and O'Connor later came to believe that successful gamblers and concert impresarios shared similar qualities: both depended on a combination of instinct, skill and luck.

A gifted student, Dan O'Connor left Sacred Heart College in 1911 and later studied law at the University of Auckland while working as an articled clerk. But legal routine soon bored him. After trying various jobs, he found his vocation in 1922. That year he assisted E. J. Gravestock, celebrity touring manager for the Australian theatrical entrepreneur J. C. Williamson, with tours by the New Zealand-born soprano Rosina Buckman and Henri Verbrugghen's New South Wales State Orchestra. Over the next few years O'Connor gained experience working with Gravestock and other Australian-based impresarios. Working out of Auckland, he managed internationally acclaimed artists such as the pianist Wilhelm Backhaus, violinist Mischa Elman, and soprano Amelita Galli-Curci, and later claimed that he had 'organised tours in 40 different countries, including out-of-the-way spots like Manchuria and Central Africa'. He also promoted a few artists on his own account, including the violinist Efrem Zimbalist and the New Zealand-born opera star Frances Alda (both in 1927), and the Spivakovsky–Kurtz Trio (1933 and 1936).

The Second World War restricted O'Connor's activities as an impresario, although he did organise short New Zealand tours by Oscar Natzke and Maria Dronke. He also turned inventor, patenting a rubber seal for can-lids used in bottling fruit, and in 1941 set up Canseal Company Limited to manufacture them. In the summer of 1944–45 he was persuaded to underwrite and organise a national tour by Ngaio Marsh and her student players from the Canterbury University College Drama Society; audiences flocked to their productions of Shakespeare's plays. O'Connor organised a second New Zealand tour in 1946–47, and an Australian tour – the first by a New Zealand theatrical ensemble – in 1949.

The high point of Dan O'Connor's career came when he joined forces with the British Council to bring three major ensembles on extended visits to Australia and New Zealand. The tours by the Boyd Neel Orchestra (1947), the Ballet Rambert (1948), and the Old Vic Theatre Company (1948–49), whose players included Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, created intense public interest and inspired the formation of New Zealand-based professional ensembles such as the Alex Lindsay String Orchestra. In 1949–50 O'Connor again collaborated with the British Council to mount an Australian tour by the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company (now the Royal Shakespeare Company).

In 1951–52 O'Connor organised a lengthy New Zealand tour by the British Commonwealth Theatre Company. Made up of young professionals from several countries including New Zealand, the company had been established by O'Connor to stimulate closer artistic links between Britain and its former colonies. Directed by Ngaio Marsh, the company toured three challenging plays to a host of small venues and gave many New Zealanders their first experience of live theatre. Although not financially successful, the tour helped inspire the establishment of the New Zealand Players.

By the 1950s the growing entrepreneurial activities of the Australian Broadcasting Commission and the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, together with the continuing dominance of the Williamson organisation, made it hard for individual impresarios to gain access to major theatres. O'Connor decided to concentrate on solo artists who could perform in concert halls and smaller venues. In 1954–55, again in collaboration with the British Council, he presented a highly successful series of drama and poetry recitals by Dame Sybil Thorndike and her husband, Sir Lewis Casson, in Australia, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong and Singapore. He also managed their 1956 tour of South Africa, Kenya, Israel, Turkey and Greece.

O'Connor also found time in late 1955 to promote brief Australian and New Zealand seasons of two Terence Rattigan plays, starring not only Thorndike and Casson, but Sir Ralph Richardson and his wife Meriel Forbes. Later, he brought to Australasia the Hogarth Puppets (1955), Welsh solo performer Emlyn Williams (1958), and the African–American bass Paul Robeson (1960). The Robeson tour was particularly difficult: the singer's communist sympathies and views on American racial discrimination made him the target of hostile reporting in Australia, but he received a generous welcome in New Zealand.

Dan O'Connor married twice. His first wife was Beatrice (Trixie) Rae Benjamin, whom he married in Melbourne, probably in the 1930s. They were divorced in May 1948, and on 11 June that year, again in Melbourne, he married Shirley Beryl Grant; they were to have a daughter.

O'Connor had retired from the theatre and concert world by the mid 1960s, but remained active in Canseal. He also maintained his keen interest in the arts, and readily lent support to new theatrical ventures such as the Mercury Theatre (Auckland) and Downstage (Wellington). He died in Auckland on 22 March 1975, survived by his wife and daughter.

A quiet man with a fearsome intellect, a dry sense of humour, and an outward imperturbability that was immensely reassuring, Dan O'Connor preferred to leave the limelight to his performers, many of whom became personal friends. From the early 1920s to the mid 1960s he was the most influential New Zealand-based impresario. In his determination to promote only artists of the highest calibre, whatever the financial risks to himself, he played a significant role in shaping New Zealand's cultural life, especially in the late 1940s. As his friend, the playwright Bruce Mason, wrote in a tribute, O'Connor's 'great passions were for fine music, finely played, for fine words, finely spoken, and in his life he stood for brilliant conversation, a sustained courtesy and exquisite manners. He was the most civilised of men.'

How to cite this page:

Adrienne Simpson. 'O'Connor, Doinall Dhu', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4o3/oconnor-doinall-dhu (accessed 17 May 2022)