First Published October 2017
A TENOR WORTH HIS WEIGHT IN GOLD
Wexford man Anthony Kearns is both a member of the famed group The Irish Tenors and quite simply one of the most glorious voices ever to spring from these shores. He is, a tenor who is truly worth his weight in gold. Now based in Florida, where he was one of the multitudes left without electricity for up to nine days by Hurricane Irma recently, Anthony is back in Ireland to perform some very special shows, a tribute to another magnificent tenor, Count John McCormack. Luckily for music lovers in the midlands, one of those shows is taking place this coming Saturday, October 7th, in Athlone.
I had the great good fortune to catch up with Anthony last weekend and I began by asking him if he was looking forward to going back to the Dean Crowe Theatre?
“Absolutely. It’s been the bones of twenty years since I was in Athlone. And the funny thing is it was also with Breda O’ Connor, the Soprano, who’s a native of Athlone, and Patrick Healy, the accompanist. So it’s kind of a reunion of sorts. The last time I would have been down in Athlone would probably have been when I was partaking in The Golden Voice of Athlone, the competition. So it’s all tying in, the fact that we’ll be reuniting to pay tribute to one of the great exports from Ireland, John McCormack. The younger generation may not know him, they might of heard of him vaguely. But he was a man who traveled all over the world in a time when travel was difficult, and he conquered the world in the classical and the Irish music scene. He was a huge star internationally.”
I remember reading a brilliant quote from Anthony in relation to John McCormack singing ‘Macushla.’ Anthony spoke of, ‘The sadness in it and the longing and the wanting – it just draws at the heart.’ I wondered if that quality in McCormack was part of his technical gift for singing, or more part of the person he was that actually coming through in his performances?
“I think it’s a combination of both. I think it’s honesty. That’s the key. It came from the soul. The man was genuinely honest and he struck a chord. He was like the painter with the pallet of colours. He could shade it and tone it. But It’s an innate thing, I think, you can’t learn that. You can learn the technical vocal things, and the acrobatics vocally, but what he had was like having a direct line to the soul. He was able to do that and just disregard whatever else was going on around him, and just connect soul-to-soul. McCormack was one of only a few who could switch into a zone where it seemed like they were speaking the composer’s words directly, the singer being the vehicle that made that connection.”
Can Anthony recall when he first became aware of John McCormack himself?
“Well it was late enough in life. I would have heard him growing up, maybe in my teens. But it didn’t really happen in earnest until I started working in the classical music scene, training with Veronica Dunne in Dublin. Then you started to look for more music all the time. And mind you, we didn’t have the internet then! You’d be going to libraries and picking up second-hand recordings. And when you’d be entering competitions in Dublin and the Feis Ceoil, you’d have the John McCormack Cup, so you’d become very aware of who this guy was and his story. I just loved his artistry. And I know a lot of people in later life would listen to his Irish recordings, and some of those are wonderful. That’s where he becomes himself, telling the Irish stories; the tragedy, the loss, and the longing. But his early life in opera, it was just phenomenal what he could do.”
John McCormack often sang to crowds in the thousands, and all without a microphone. To me, as just a regular person, that sounds phenomenal. But could Anthony, as a professional singer, describe how remarkable that actually was?
“Well, you see that’s just a testament to his good technique. But you should be able to do that. All singers should be able to stand up and deliver without the microphone. Amplification is really only needed for the outdoors. Or now that some venues are so large today. I’ve done it with The Irish Tenors, where you’re playing to maybe three, or four, or five thousand people. But when you’re in an intimate setting of maybe four or five hundred, or even up to a thousand, like the National Concert Hall in Dublin, you don’t need amplification. They’re built with the acoustics in mind, and the vocals carry very well. Most recently there, I was in Rome, in August, and I went to the opera in the open air in Verona and I was way up ‘in the Gods’, as they say, but I could hear those singers as clear as a bell, you know, because the technique was solid.”
Over the years Anthony has performed hundreds, if not thousands, indeed, of songs. But, if a recording of him performing just one of those songs was to go in a time capsule, not to be opened for at least two-hundred years, which song would Anthony want to be the one that warms hearts yet unborn, but who would be charmed by his golden voice in the year 2217?
“Oh my God, that’s so hard to narrow down to one! Well you’d like to sing something from the classical side. Yeah, I’d like to sing an aria, to give it a good go, to show that an Irishman could sing an aria with the best of them when he sings it at his peak. I have one or two recorded like that from performing in operas. I remember years ago when I started with Veronica Dunne, there was a tribute to the soprano Catherine Hayes from Limerick. I sang in the Concert Hall, Proinnsias O’ Duinn was conducting, and Mary Hegarty from Cork was the soprano. We did a duet and I remember singing a top E flat above top C in the duet. Now if I was asked to do that today, I’d probably have a stroke! [laughs]. But it just shows you what youth and innocence can do. But I did it, no problem. I’d love to get a copy of that.”
I wondered if there are some songs that are always very emotional for Anthony to perform, regardless of how many times he performs them?
“There are some, yes. And it never sounds the same. And if it does, then you may as well give it up. Because that would be very boring if you were just regurgitating the same thing every time. Every time you sing ‘Danny Boy’, for example, it’s never the same. And an audience is never the same. You can strike a chord with an audience, or with different people in an audience. At the end of the day, you’re baring your soul to the world, that’s what you’re doing. You’re saying there you go, this is me, this is who I am, warts and all. You can take me as you see me. It’s an intimate experience, and it’s different every time. Unlike somebody who sits down to a piano, they may be tired, they may be just off a plane like I am tonight and jet-lagged, but they can hit that piano and it will sound the same. But a singer is affected by how they’re feeling emotionally, and physically.”
Anthony has performed for presidents, for popes, at ceremonies as solemn as 9/11 commemorations, and military memorial services, and so many more as well. Are there any of those that stand out as being particularly memorable for him on a personal level?
“Well, there’s two I suppose that really stand out. Most recently I sang for President Barack Obama, and Enda Kenny was in the audience. I was singing an Irish song, ‘Oh America’, written by an Irishman, Brendan Graham. Patrick Healy, who’s been my accompanist for twenty plus years was playing, so it was a huge honor for him, too. When we finished, the first man who stood up was the President and he walked straight up to me and stuck out his hand to shake it. I thought that was a lovely moment, certainly one I’ll remember. And the second then, would be having the honor to sing for Pope Francis in Philadelphia in 2015, just before the mass. That was huge to secure that. And then the funny thing was, that just as the mass was finishing they announced, like the World Cup [laughs], who’d be getting it next, and would you believe it was Ireland. So they’ll be here in 2018, the Festival of Families, I think it was called. It was a wonderful occasion. And lastly, I suppose, would have to be with The Irish Tenors on Ellis Island with Martin Sheen as our host. That was a poignant moment, when you think of all the Irish people who came through Ellis Island, heading into the ‘New World’, as they called it. And we were there, again singing a song written by Brendan Graham, ‘Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears’, telling the story of a fifteen year old girl, the first to land on Ellis Island, on New Year’s Day 1892. That’s powerful.”
When faced with such massive and important occasions, how does Anthony – or does he need to at all – prepare himself emotionally and mentally?
“You just have to be prepared musically is the most important thing, and technically. Keep your head together, keep your cool. I just take it all with a grain of salt. You can’t let yourself be overcome with emotion and get carried away. You just say to yourself, come on now and get out there, as if you’re singing in front of friends. It’s just another performance, you can’t let the occasion get to you. But the hair does stand on the back of your neck. There’s the pride in the fact that you’re there, and that says that you’re good enough to be there. So just get on with it, ya know.”
Anthony is the Honorary President of the Lanza Legend, a tribute association to the great Mario Lanza. And the Best Male Singer Award at the Veronica Dunne competitions is now presented in his name. How much does such individual recognition and attention mean to Anthony?
“It’s nice, but I’m never one for wanting great acclaim or applause, I try to avoid it, actually. For me, it’s all just about getting out there and giving your best performance every time, because you’re always just as good as your last performance. That’s where I get the most satisfaction, and that’s the way it should be. If you do your best, and you’re feeling good about your performance and how you’ve done, then invariably all the rewards come along with that. So I was never one for all the applause, and the lights, and the bowing and all that stuff. But it’s nice as well that we can give something back to the likes of the Veronica Dunne competition and to help future stars come up along. All you want, at the end of the day, is to hear people saying ‘he’s reliable, he’s a good worker, he’s a solid tenor.’ That’s good enough for me.”
We’re almost at that time of the year when The Three Tenors will be hitting the road for their Christmas tour. I asked Anthony what it’s like to be ‘on the road’ as part of the group, does it feel any different at Christmas time, or is being ‘on the road’ just being ‘on the road’ regardless of the time of the year?
“It’s always exciting, it’s never changed that way from day one. We’re twenty years together next year, so we’ll be doing some shows in Ireland for that. But it’s lovely, we never tire of it. It’s great old fun. We all do our work individually, then we get together and we rehearse around the piano for a couple of days, then with the orchestra and our conductor, and then once you hit the ground you hit it running because it’s fast and furious. As you can imagine, keeping people on the road with crew, and staff, and drivers, and this and that and the other, it’s expensive. So downtime is very short. You go from town to town and you roll into the next town with a totally new orchestra. You present the music in front of them, you rehearse for about three hours, you go away and have your dinner, and you go on stage that night. And in some cases you might leave that night after the show and hit the road, or you might have the luxury of flying the following day. But it’s been great, we’ve enjoyed it immensely, we still all get a great kick out of it. It’s wonderful. And at Christmas it gets even better. We always add our own flair, something Irish, to it.”
Since Anthony’s career really sparked into life on the Gay Byrne Show when he won Ireland’s Search For A Tenor, his life has been pretty much like a movie. And hopefully one day it will be. If there’s any justice, it most definitely should be. But, if Anthony was to select one of the many songs he’s performed to play over the opening credits, and another to play as the final credits rolled at the end….which songs would he choose?
“Probably a good old Irish song that you can’t tire of is ‘Danny Boy’, it was the song that got me recognised, that was the one that I sang on The Late Late Show, and performed on the street at the ungodly hour of nine a.m. on Talbot Street that day in October [laughs]. ‘Danny Boy’ has been kind to me. I’ve performed it at every concert since, and certainly across America and Canada they won’t let you out the door without singing it! So that’s probably one. After that? ‘Tis hard to know, there’s such a selection. If I was doing this interview in Wexford it would be ‘Boolavogue’ [laughs]. It’s a hard one to answer. On some days with some songs, depending on the mood you’re in, you can be like, ‘ah not that song!’ [laughs].”