| Toronto -- Put three Irishmen together, and you're
lucky to get a word in edgewise. But chances are, you'll be laughing too hard to
talk anyway. A case in point, a recent conference call with The Irish Tenors:
Anthony Kearns, Ronan Tynan and Finbar Wright.
A steady stream of warm-hearted insults and clever ripostes punctuated the conversation -- with Kearns, 29, in Dublin, Wright, 42, at his home in County Cork and Tynan, 40, at his farm in County Kilkenny -- and confirmed the warm camaraderie the three exhibit on stage. At one point, when asked to define Irish music, Tynan's dog barked loudly, and Wright quipped: "You just heard it!" Which is not to say they don't take their music seriously.
Irish music is what Tynan calls "the poetry of the event." According to Wright, there are two categories. The beautiful ballads are about real incidents -- death, war, immigration, love -- and tend to be on the melancholy side, echoing the pain of Irish history as a whole. The toe-tapping comic songs, on the other hand, represent the Irish love of storytelling. "It requires a certain style of singing," added Kearns, "a softer approach than opera, but still very robust in sound." And from Tynan: "Our interpretations have to be truthful and from the heart, because we become actors playing a part when we sing these songs."
As to why Irish music is associated more with tenors than other vocal types, the men praise the legendary John McCormack (1884-1945) who popularized the genre on the concert stage. "The pitch of the tenor voice is associated with romance and passion," Kearns explained. "Everyone loves the high notes."
The phenomenon known as The Irish Tenors began in 1999 as an idea of PBS, the U.S. public-television network, and contrary to opinion, was not modeled after the success of those other three tenors, Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras. In fact, the complement of Irish tenors could have been any number. Wright, for example, was asked to appear in the original concert, but was unavailable at the time. The first incarnation of The Irish Tenors included Kearns, Tynan, and Canadian John McDermott. The video has seen endless repeats on PBS and is one of the network's biggest fundraisers. Their first CD, The Irish Tenors, spent 49 weeks on Billboard's World Music Chart, while their next recording, The Irish Tenors -- Home for Christmas, rocketed to the No. 1 spot.
Ten days before a sold-out Belfast concert last February, McDermott had to withdraw due to the death of his mother. Rather than cancel the engagement, McDermott asked Kearns and Tynan to find a replacement, and Wright stepped into the breach. Now, a video and CD, The Irish Tenors -- Live in Belfast, with a surprise, emotional appearance by McDermott, is following the star trajectory of its predecessors. McDermott has gone back to a solo career, but will continue his association with The Irish Tenors as a guest artist.
The idea behind The Irish Tenors was to elevate the stock Irish repertoire, long dismissed as sentimental and inconsequential, to the level of art. "By providing big, orchestral accompaniment," said Wright, "you're doing the songs justice, giving the words and music equal importance." Conductor Frank McNamara is responsible for the arrangements, and is credited with creating the large, symphonic sound that is The Irish Tenors' trademark, as well as tailoring each song to the specific talents of the individual singer.
The program is made up of traditional folk music, songs written in the Irish idiom by both native sons and descendants of emigrants abroad, opera arias by Irish composers, as well as music by modern balladeer Phil Coulter and selections from Riverdance. Shared traits of Irish melody, according to Kearns, are the way the sequences of notes come together, the predominant use of the minor key, and the three-note repeat at the end of lines. Nonetheless, a bit of Latin rhythm has crept in with the inclusion of South of the Border (Down Mexico Way), written by Irish-Americans Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Carr in 1939.
The men believe that Irish music finds a large audience because the feelings the songs express are universal, and represent the emotional wellspring of folk traditions worldwide. They do acknowledge the disdain of purists who think that Celtic music should be played on original instruments by small ensembles, as well as those other purists who believe opera should be opera. Nonetheless, they take pride in the seriousness of their art, and the standards of their concerts. They are also performing what people want to hear, and their Web site allows fans to make requests.
Curiously, all three tenors began with the same singing teacher. While each includes an Irish repertoire in their solo concerts, they do have different interests as well. Kearns's career was jump-started by winning Ireland's "Search for a Tenor" contest in 1993. His solo program includes opera, operetta and Gilbert & Sullivan. Wright, now married and a father of two, is a former priest who studied in Spain. His concerts feature Spanish and Italian songs, as well as a modern repertoire. Tynan is a medical doctor, and a man of tremendous courage. A congenital ankle deformity necessitated the amputation of both his legs below the knee when he was a young man, but did not hinder his becoming an excellent equestrian, for example. His solo concerts showcase a mix of opera, Neapolitan songs and Broadway hits.
The trio would like to tour twice a year as an adjunct to their solo careers. Said Tynan: "An ensemble like ours is a very personal thing. We'll keep it going as long as the lads feel comfortable together." To which the others echoed: "Hear! Hear!"