The Columbus Dispatch
Sunday, August 13, 2000


By Barbara Zuck

Move over, Pavarotti. There are new kids on the block. And these guys speak English, if with a brogue.

The three singers who have become known as the Irish Tenors -- Anthony Kearns, Ronan Tynan and Finbar Wright -- will make their much-anticipated Ohio debut Tuesday in what in all likelihood will be a sold-out Ohio Theatre. Accompanied by full orchestra, the tenors will sing a medley of Irish airs, lullabies, love songs and anthems -- in other words, the repertoire that has made them the hottest Celtic commodity since Riverdance.

It all started in October 1998. Three Irishmen with varying but impressive musical pedigrees appeared together at the Royal Dublin Society. Providing a Celtic alternative to the internationally popular Three Tenors -- Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras -- the Irish Tenors were an immediate hit.

At that time, the trio was made up of Kearns, Tynan and John McDermott, then probably the best-known of the three. This year, Wright replaced McDermott, at least for a while, when McDermott experienced a death in his family.

The Irish Tenors have been catapulted to international celebrity through PBS broadcasts worldwide, a few best-selling compact discs and, increasingly, tours in the British Isles and abroad. The 13-stop North American tour began in Los Angeles and ends next Sunday in Milwaukee.

Though each singer had established his own career, the "tenors in triplicate" have increased their fame and fortune exponentially. Not since the days of  the world-renowned John McCormack (1884-1945), perhaps, has such a stir been created by -- and so many eyes turned misty from -- the singing of old Irish ballads.

"It's amazing," said Tynan recently from Toronto. "People really love the show. And not just Irish-Americans and Irish-Canadians, but Chinese, Japanese, Africans. They are very gracious in their comments."

Although the phone call woke him at 9 the morning after a sold-out performance at Toronto's Hummingbird Centre, Tynan yawned only once, and then, without benefit of coffee, launched into the interview.

With his ready smile, burly physique, glasses and rather prominent ears, Tynan is the most recognizable of the three, and the one who has most often acted as their spokesperson. One might call him the Pavarotti of the Irish Tenors.

Tynan, however, is an extraordinary person, as well as an extraordinary talent. Born with a debilitating disease that affected his ankles, Tynan was in pain and wore heavy shoes and leg braces throughout his childhood. When he was 21, despite his family's worries and concerns, Tynan chose to have an operation: His legs were amputated just below the knees.

So eager was he to begin his new life that, against doctor's orders, he pulled on his artificial limbs before his own legs had completely healed. Ignoring the danger and the pain, he went dancing. The experience landed him back in the hospital and then a wheelchair for eight months. But his spirit was hardly deterred.

A year later, Tynan was competing as a disabled athlete, ultimately winning medals in international equestrian events. He specialized in show-jumping. "I absolutely adore horses," he said. "They are such a tremendous release. And they have so much love. Each one is an individual. I had one that moved just like Naomi Campbell. Every aspect of his body was fluid."

Tynan won't say how many horses he has but two of his retired show-jumpers, Queen and Uptown Lady, are now brood mares. Each of their foals is given an operatic name. "We have a Mimi, a Musetta, a Carmen. I have a hunt horse named Guiseppe," he said with a laugh.

Tynan's extra-musical accomplishments do not end there. He also is a practicing physician with a specialty in sports medicine. His office is still open, even though he is in it less and less.

Only after accomplishing all of this did Tynan, at age 30, turn seriously to singing. Almost immediately he won a number of international competitions -- including the John McCormack Cup in Ireland and the Marmonde Competition in France. Now he's immersed in his third successful career -- and he is not yet 40. In his spare time, Tynan is writing an autobiography, Stages.

"It is my hope that what I've done in life will help others with whatever mental or physical challenge they face," he said. "I firmly believe that once you decide to do something, the Man Above will ordain it. I am a big fan of God's. You can make things happen for yourself with his help. It's an inner motivational thing."

Like Tynan, Wright, 42, embarked upon a professional singing career later in life. Though music was a part of his childhood, he was ordained as a priest in 1980 at the age of 22. "Being a priest isn't the kind of thing you can do half-heartedly," he said. "You have to be totally committed or not at all. I just found over the years that it was the wrong thing for me."

He left the church in 1988. "My mother was very unhappy at the time. That was the most difficult thing. But she came around. She's 87 now, and when she first saw me holding my son when he was born, she said, 'How could a person deny someone that?' "

Last winter, Wright put his solo career on hold when, on 10 days notice, he was asked to fill in for McDermott. He has appreciated the opportunity and loves the experience of touring with the other tenors. "We were in Vancouver. I'd never been there. It's a wonderful part of the world," he said. "But the best part is when we step out on the stage each night. If it's not right then, it's not ever going to be right."

Kearns' life may seem comparatively bland compared with those of the other two tenors. But, at 27, he is the baby of the trio. He set out to sing professionally from the outset, with a love and a penchant for opera from an early age. "Opera is my forte," Kearns said. "I really enjoy it. I'd be considered a high tenor, with a strong lyric, not dramatic, voice." Kearns "takes the high road" when the tenors harmonize and has been known to show off his classically trained technique in bravura style when a selection allows. He continues to study. "You never really give it up," he said. "You have to keep the voice up and running, or fear sets in. You have to stay on top and in control of the voice, rather than the other way around."

Kearns came to public attention when he won Ireland's "Search for a Tenor" competition in 1993. He has twice won the Dermot Trophy for oratorio and was judged best male singer in the Waterford International Festival of Light Opera. Though he craves the operatic stage, his favorite gig has been a performance at the All-Ireland Hurling and Football Finals before an audience of 70,000.

Even with this solid foundation, however, the rigors of life as a traveling Irish Tenor have proved challenging. "Air conditioning, flying and time changes," he said. "They are the biggest problems. They confuse the body. So far we've had three time changes in two weeks and we'll have two more before we are finished. And the dry atmosphere created by air conditioning runs contrary to what we're used to in Ireland."

Kearns noted that such things plague tenors even more than other singers because tenors are, well, tenors. "It is an unnatural voice, really, a funny kind of instrument that will go up that high," he said. "A lot of tenors quit at a young age from the strain. It's a very physical, a very athletic thing, and it requires a great deal of intensity. It has to wear on the body."

Interviewing all three Irish Tenors in a single morning presents challenges of its own. The more awake the singers became, the more talkative and good-humored they grew. In contrast to the "always playing hard-to-get" inaccessibility of the Three Tenors, the Irish Tenors, at least at this point in their careers, seem to enjoy chatting. Perhaps there is some truth to the magic of the legendary Blarney stone.

Noting that the Irish Tenors' new lifestyle has put them all "kind of over the top," Kearns all but admitted as much. "It's just not in our nature to be quiet," he said.