Going global with The Celtic Tenors

Celtic Tenors

James Nelson is from Sligo in the west of Ireland. But these days he lives in Wicklow south of Dublin.

That location is important when you’re a member of The Celtic Tenors. It’s not too far from an airport that serves as a launching pad that sends him and his mates around the world.

There is tendency for tenors to gather in threes today. The trend was started by The Three Tenors (Luciano Pavarotti, Placid Domingo and Jose Carreras) and has spun into other trios such as The Tenors (formerly The Canadian Tenors) and Il Divo.

The Celtics Tenors are one of the early adopters of this triad. They got together in 1995 and have been singing high notes ever since.

“When we started we were very much on the bandwagon of The Three Tenors.

The Celtic Tenors did all the big operatic hits such as Nessun Dorma until they signed a recording deal with EMI.

“We were told that the label had lots of tenors on the books who sang the big operatic stuff,” Nelson said. “You do it well, but they do it better.”

EMI urged them to focus on the three-part harmonies and a cappella singing. And the rest is tenor history.

The Celts are in Ottawa this week at Centrepointe Theatre and in the concert they’ll be carrying on the trio’s tradition.

They do sing Danny Boy and they’ll even toss in an aria or two but “we have been around for 20 years and we are mixing in  even more pop material. We even do a Dolly Parton song and Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds.”

The tenor trio is without doubt a popular trend.

“I think it’s the excitement of have three guys singing harmony. For us it’s a tenor democracy. If one person is on the high line, he’ll get the low line on the next number. We do some things in unison, but really, there is something exciting about three middle aged guys reaching for a top C together.”

When it does work, it’s magic, Nelson says. “The older we get the voice gets wobblier so when we are singing in harmony we work to keep the vibrato down.” but otherwise it’s full throttle all the way.

It’s easy to forget that these chaps are all classically trained singers with roots in opera and oratorio work.

Nelson, who has performed across Europe in operas and oratorios, recently performed in Turandot in Dublin. He says people knew he was one of the Celts but he says he felt that patrons might have forgotten “he was an opera singer for a decade before joining the trio. It was very exciting to do that.”

One thing that these tenor trios are doing, in addition to performing beautiful music and pleasing patrons, is putting the power of a classically trained voice before people who may be more familiar with pop singers.

“Every single night, no matter where we are, we always do one song where we put down the microphones and sing a cappella to show what we can do. Usually it’s Danny Boy, something quiet so the people have to listen.”

They’ll even do the odd show without amplification in halls with a specific acoustic.

The music they present is accessible, he added.

“Sometimes our name works against us,” he said. “Maybe it might be better to be called Bananarama. Some people have said they weren’t sure they would like us” because they thought they’d only do Irish folk music.

“But we only do one or two pieces of that. And the next song could be The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel or John Denver’s Calypso.

“People try to categorize us. But why do we need a label. We sing songs that we enjoy. The closest thing might be Celtic crossover, I suppose, because we are Irish but we are also showing we were trained in classical operatic world.”

Nelson sticks around because the group and the music they sing is evolving all the time.

“It changes wherever we go. And the audiences change too. We find Canadians get the Irish sense of humour,” Americans not so much.

“We no longer mention walls there. We learned the hard way in Alabama.”

The Irish tenor has a long history in the singing world. Nelson said that the most famous one is John McCormack, who sang in all the great halls including the Met in New York and at Covent Garden in London, England.

But, Nelson said, one distinguishing trait is a certain nasality in the sound.

“They say that a real Irish tenor has a ‘nyea’ sound. But, he added, “it is hard to know what a typical Irish tenor is.”

Whatever the defining characteristics, it’s working for The Celtic Tenors.

“Originally when we started we were singing in the U.K. and Ireland. Then we got an agent in Germany and did a lot of touring there. Eventually there were inquiries from North America including Canada.

“We have performed in 48 of 50 states. We’ve only missed Alaska and Hawaii.” And they’ve performed across Canada except for the North.

“I’d love to go to Yellowknife,” Nelson said, “I’ve never been there.”

The Celtic Tenors
Where: Centrepointe Theatre
When: Dec. 2o at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: meridiancentrepointe.com

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.