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2006-01/02 Ireland's Celtic Tenors

copyright for this article: Celtic Heritage Magazine January / February 2006 Issue
written by Jason MacNeil


The best singing group I have ever heard. Their version of "Danny Boy" quite honestly brought tears to my eyes."
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Dublin Castle, 2002


"Bono (U2) arranged for them to sing at my birthday party. It was a wonderful surprise. Nane and I absolutely loved them."

Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, Dublin, December 2004 


The Celtic Tenors are three classically trained musicians who joined forces in 1995 as the Three Irish Tenors. But after some confusion with another group featuring three Irish tenors, the Three Irish Tenors became The Celtic Tenors in 2000. And they haven't looked back since.


"When it came to 2000 with the new lineup, we went for a much less kind of elitist format," tenor James Nelson says on the line during a Manhattan photo shoot. "It was much more casual and the repertoire changed as well. We were doing less of the typical operatic tenor repertory although we still do that in shows."


The group includes Sligo-born Nelson who studied music at the University College Dublin. He has performed around the world in 50 roles in opera and operetta from Lensky in Onegin in Russia to Basilio in Figaro for the Scottish Opera. He is joined by Niall Morris from Dublin who trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London as well as the National Opera Studio. Morris has toured with the English Touring Opera, performed as Davey in Jonathon Dove's Siren Song, toured with the d'Oyly Carte Opera Company as Ralph Rackstraw (HMS Pinafore) and worked with composer Thomas Ades to create tenor roles for his debut opera Powder Her Face. The third member is Matthew Gilsenan, one of Ireland's most accomplished young tenors.


The trio rocketed to success with a record deal with EMI that was inked in 2000 following an impromptu audition. Several albums followed including this year's unusual release Remember Me.


Nelson says the chemistry between the three was immediate.


"We got on extremely well," Nelson says. "We are like brothers; we do have arguments but thankfully not very frequently. When you're touring around and almost living together, you have the odd argument but we do get on very, very well."


"We constantly learn from each other; we each have a different approach," Niall Morris adds. "We are three very different people who have come together for one singular reason. It's that kind of relationship where we have an almost psychic relationship. We can read each other's minds."


This latest release isn't your typical tenor album. One of the surprises includes a cover of Air Supply's "All Out Of Love" featuring a guest appearance by Air Supply. Both Nelson and Morris say the collaboration has been amazing.


"We're playing with them in Las Vegas in about a week and a half," Nelson says. "That was something because I loved listening to them in the 1980s. That drew quite a reaction back home - three classically trained tenors doing songs that were on BBC's Top Of The Pops and that everybody knew back home. We do it for an encore and it kind of shows people that we're not too serious about our art even though we are."


Another album highlight is the heartfelt "Angel Of Mercy" which centres around the death earlier this year of Holly Morris, a dear fan and friend of the group who passed away from cancer this past summer. She was eight.


"She had been living for three years with cancer," Nelson says. "We had been singing that song for quite a while to her in concerts. It is more poignant than I thought it would be.


"There's also a track called `Still By Your Side,' a song by Jimmy MacCarthy and it's like a song being sung from heaven. I lost my mom three years ago so for me it's like my mom singing to me."


Throughout it all though, the group, who see themselves as having a "tenor democracy", had to battle and work for what they've accomplished. The Celtic Tenors say their image and style is different from that of The Irish Tenors.

"The Irish Tenors are very recognizable with their white ties and tuxedos," Morris says. "We don't do that partly because we want to make sure that people can see the difference. We like to give the feeling that things are a bit more spontaneous. It's like you're at a party and you want people to join in."

"And we all write our own harmonies, all the harmonies that we've ever done are all written by us in rehearsal," Nelson adds. "When we write we decide, `Okay you can have it there and I can have this part.'"


The Celtic Tenors also cite public broadcasting as a big boost in spreading their name and music. Morris says that while their last such broadcast was in 2002, there are plans for another project next year, this time in an exotic location.

"It's a cruise show, so we're combining music with travel and we're singing aboard one of those luxury liners," Morris says. "So that's one project we're putting together; it's going to be very visual."


The Celtic Tenors, who played with Leahy in the United States earlier in 2005, have America and Canada in their sights for 2006. After a cross Canada tour in late 2005, the band is returning to North America next year with approximately six months of touring slated.


"The thing with America and Canada though is that it's so vast, they're both so huge," Nelson says. "And there are so many places that we see on our list and we're like, `Oh, my god! I hope we get a day off there!' I've never been to British Columbia and to see that would be great. And also Cape Breton Island; it's very Celtic there."


Aside from singing, Nelson is also a bit of a journalist, doing a weekly column for the Sligo Weekender in Ireland. He says it is easier singing but writing certainly helps pass the time.


"I can't believe you've seen that," he says with a laugh. "I was asked to do it and I thought it would last three or four weeks but right now I'm on Week 186. But it's a great thing, especially if you find yourself on a flight for example and the movies are lousy. And you forget that sometimes people in the West of Ireland may never have been to Cape Breton Island or Vancouver Island and they do want to read about it through travel articles."


The Celtic Tenors are booked well into 2007. "Things are going so well," Morris says. "We all know what we're doing and we're all at the top of our game because we're really confident and our voices are in great condition. We have a feeling that things are going to start gaining momentum now."