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2007-04-19 Success came by chance

Adrian Chamberlain, Victoria Times Colonist


'Tis a long way from Ritz crackers to the singing stage.

Just ask tenor Matthew Gilsenan, who'll appear with fellow Irishmen Daryl Simpson and James Nelson when the Celtic Tenors play Victoria Saturday night.

As part of the trio, Gilsenan travels the world singing everything from breezy pop (Air Supply's All Out of Love) to Irish chestnuts (Danny Boy) to rejigged classics (a triple-harmony version of Nessun Dorma).

Yet not so long ago, the 36-year-old was an engineer.

Toward the end of that five-year career, Gilsenan designed industrial microwave systems for large corporations. He fine-tuned microwaves on the quality-control end, helping cookie manufacturers cut down on costly losses due to imperfect baking.

"I ended up working on Ritz crackers for Nabisco," he said, laughing. "It's amazing the things you end up doing."

The trio will be joined by a pianist and Gilsenan's sister, soprano Deirdre Shannon (he loyally touts her as a dynamite singer). The Celtic Tenors' repertoire also includes Ave Maria, Mull of Kintyre and Caruso. The group, favouring a semi-casual ties and jeans look, is known for its energetic and passionate shows, said Gilsenan from a Calgary tour stop.

He grew up near Dublin in the small town of Kells -- famous as home of the Book of Kells. His father and brothers also studied engineering, but Gilsenan's dad ended up running a dairy farm. After stints living in Dublin, London and America, the singer and his wife recently built a house back home in Kells. Gilsenan still helps out on the family farm, driving tractor and carrying out other mundane duties.

Although he took an engineering degree, Gilsenan simultaneously pursued singing, beginning his training at the Sisters of Mercy convent in Kells as a 10-year-old. He studied traditional music with Scottish and Irish teachers, as well as venturing into opera and classical music.

Ultimately, Gilsenan struggled between pursuing either a sensible career in
engineering or a riskier one with the Celtic Tenors. He finally decided to give
show-biz a six-month trial just to get it out of his system. He figured after that
time he would "fail majestically" and return to his nine-to-five job.

That was eight years ago. Since then, Gilsenan has not stopped singing professionally. Still, it hasn't always been an easy road. Despite some early triumphs (including a PBS special) the Celtic Tenors achieved only a modicum of success.

The singer says this coincided with the tenure of their first manager, a nice Irish fellow who didn't know the American market.

The Celtic Tenors' career perked up considerably after an almost chance meeting. About three years ago, they were invited to sing in Canada by a rabid fan, Jackie Miller. She died of cancer before the trio could follow through on her invitation to perform in Oakville, Ont. Nonetheless, at the urging of Miller's daughter, the Celtic Tenors honoured their promise to give a concert in Oakville.

It turned out that Richard Mills, an agent for S.L. Feldman and Associates, lived in the area. He turned up for the event, and was so impressed with the tenors, he offered to represent them. Their career subsequently took a turn for the better, with higher-profile tours in front of larger audiences.

Now the Celtic Tenors are looking at recording a new CD, a DVD and perhaps another TV special.

"To get a second bite at the cherry was nothing short of a miracle," Gilsenan

"It's like a ladder. We're on the third rung or something like that now. We just
need to get to the next level."