Like most children, Anthony Kearns didn’t take music that seriously. At the same time, it was an intimate part of his family life, something that he, his brother, four sisters, and parents did together. As the son of farmers, growing up in village of Kiltealy, a town of about 1,300 people on the southeast coast of Ireland, Kearns played the button accordion, mouth organ, and spoons, and other family members played accordion, banjo, flute, and whistle. They even had an informal ceili band that played Irish music at local dances.
Today, Kearns is part of the Three Irish Tenors, along with John McDermott and Finbar Wright. For St. Patrick’s Day, they will perform Sunday, March 12, at the State Theater in New Brunswick.
Kearns’ parents not only enjoyed the ballad songs, storytelling, and history of Ireland, but were active in Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (Branch of Irish Musicians) (CCE). “It was set up in the 1950s to encourage and promote traditional Irish music, song, dance, and language and to keep it going through the schools and the younger generations,” says Kearns in a phone interview from England. CCE Branches exist worldwide, in all the big Irish communities, including Boston, New York, and Chicago. Twenty years ago a local branch was established in Kearns’ hometown, and he was one of its first members.
One initial goal of CCE was to create an annual festival of Irish music, song, and dance, or Fleadh Cheoil, to provide national play for the thousands of traditional Irish musicians who were largely unappreciated. These festivals also include concerts, dancing, parades, pageants, and street sessions. The competition to play in the national festival has raised the standards of traditional Irish music, and it eventually spawned county and provincial Fleadh Cheoil as qualifying stages for the national event. Over a few years the number of annual competitors grew to 20,000, with festivals worldwide.
“People travel all over the globe to take part in competitions,” says Kearns, “and the competitions lead to careers.” He cites Irish musician Michael Flatley from Chicago, who was the first American to win the title of All-World Irish Dancing Champion.
It’s not just Irish music that draws musicians in Ireland to face off at the mike. The Feis Ceoil, Europe’s longest running classical music festival, was founded in 1896. It was a spontaneous contest that marked the beginning of Kearns’ transition from amateur to professional, leading to his 1998 invitation to join the Irish Tenors.
The third of six siblings, Kearns says he was a normal child, involved in music and sports, homework and lessons. And as far as farm work, he says, “I put in my time like everyone else.”
Music was always part of his life, but “I was not taking it seriously,” he says. “It was just fun.” He went to events and competitions with his parents, played traditional music on the accordion and sang, played trombone in the school band, and sang in musicals and shows at his high school, Faithful Companions of Jesus, in Bunclody.
After high school, Kearns worked at the Grand Hotel in Wicklow while attending Cathal Brugha, a catering college in Dublin. He got friendly with the bands who played there for wedding receptions, and they would often invite Kearns to sing with them. He also played the role of Joe Cable in “South Pacific” for the Wicklow Music Society and competed in popular classics and country and western song contests — always placing at least third.
At age 21, Kearns says, “I wanted to take the music a step further.” According to an article by John Brophy in the December 1999/January 2000 issue of Irish Music Magazine, his big break came shortly after moving from his catering job into sales and marketing. Apparently he was alone in the office with the radio on and heard an announcement for the Search for a Tenor, a contest that heralded Ireland’s launch of a new “tenner,” or 10-pound note. Kearns called the radio show and sang “The Impossible Dream” and “Danny Boy” over the phone line. He was invited to compete in the open-air event on North Earl Street in Dublin, near the statue of James Joyce (who was also a tenor and a Feis Ceoil medal-winner).
To get there at 9 a.m., Kearns hitchhiked the 50 miles to Dublin on a cold October day in 1993. Despite a big crowd of contenders, some of whom had clearly studied music and were doing vocal warm-ups, Kearns won the competition with “The Impossible Dream.”
The main prize was a series of lessons with Dr. Veronica Dunne, a leading musical coach, who was also one of the contest judges. For six months Kearns traveled every Saturday for his lesson until one day she told him, “If you’re serious about this, you’ve got to drop everything and go for it.” He quit his job and worked in the bar of the National Concert Hall while he learned singing technique, how to read music, sing in different languages, and perform. After a few years with Dunne, he went to Wales for more training, including learning how to work with an accompanist.
Kearns sings all kinds of music — including Viennese and Neopolitan. About six months after beginning his musical training, he started doing competitions in a variety of musical traditions. He won awards in the classical Dublin Feis Ceoil, in 1995 he won Best Male Singer at the Waterford International Festival of Light Opera, and in 1995 and 1996 he won the Dermot Troy Trophy for Oratorio.
In 1998 the producers of TV Matters and Radius Television were looking for three tenors to make a new trio to perform for a U.S. television special, and they asked Kearns to audition.
In 1999, after five days sick with the flu, Kearns sang in the ESB Veronica Dunne International Singing competition, winning both the 1,000-pound third prize and also the special prize of 5,000 pounds for the best Irish singer.
Kearns explains what it means to be a tenor. “Aside from those counter tenors who can sing falsetto,” he says, “the tenor is the highest of male voices using full voice. It is an unnatural kind of sound — singing to the stratospheres, when you are listening to Pavarotti.” Tenors have a two-octave range, but they have to use a combination of diaphragm, breathing, and correct technique “to sustain high phrases and long notes.”
The Irish Tenors work with musical arrangers in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the United States. They select “whoever has flair” for the type of music they will be singing. It’s a joint effort, in which the group members build the program — which includes solos and trios as well as orchestral pieces in each half — and provide suggestions to the arrangers. “We have input on what we’d like in certain songs, what instruments, what kind of sound we’d like, and the way we’d like to sing it,” says Kearns. The arranger then sends a rough model on a synthesizer, and they collaborate on the final product.
Kearns finds the travel to be the hardest part of his work — “the hotels, airports, and the time lost and wasted in them.” They fit in as many dates as they can during their summer, Christmas, and March tours to North America, then go back home and regroup.
“It is a business like anything,” says Kearns. “Singing is probably the easiest part.” The Irish Tenors have quite an entourage — stage managers, sound and lighting people, an orchestra, conductors, arrangers, travel agencies, agents that book dates, legal and business people. They all need transportation, flights, and visas, and the music must be shipped and handled at the other end. “It’s a huge affair,” he says, “when you see all the buses and trucks pulling in. But to do the job right, you have to do it at a set level.”
And what about the groupies? “People follow you to the show; send E-mails to the web site; and gifts, cards, and flowers backstage,” says Kearns. Seventeen watches, and innumerable coats and pullovers later, Kearns decided two years ago that, although “it’s nice to be appreciated,” it was time to “turn this into good,” and he set up a charitable foundation. Now, instead of gifts, the group asks that people donate money to the fund, which sponsors musicians and singers, and buys pianos for schools and instruments for children. They also hold charity fundraisers once a year. Kearns is modest about his own role, and says, “It’s the people who are doing it.”
The Irish Tenors’ latest album is “Sacred: A Spiritual Journey.” Released in September, it includes sacred and inspirational songs. “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” Kearns says. The Tenors have been the subject of two PBS specials. The first, which aired last spring, was based on their 2001 Ellis Island concert, which led to the Ellis Island album. Another two-hour special was filmed at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee in May, 2005, featuring the Tenors with the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra. It will air this spring.
During his free time, Kearns enjoys “anything that gets your head off it for awhile.” He likes to refresh himself by going away for weekends, watching sports matches, going to concerts or cinema, and sometimes taking a mountain walk.
After his concert tour stateside with the Irish Tenors, he will begin rehearsals for “Faust” in Ireland. Looking further into the future, Kearns plans to keep working with the Irish Tenors as well as advancing his solo career. “I’m basically a singer for hire,” he says. “I do my thing and am happy to do it.”
His audiences seem to share his enthusiasm, which Kearns attributes partly to a fascination with “the tenor.” “The tenor is the romantic character. Audiences like the high soaring notes because it evokes some kind of emotion from people — there is a cry in the voice, with pitch and passion behind it.”
The Irish Tenors, Sunday, March 12, 3 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Anthony Kearns, John McDermett, and Finbar Wright. $35 to $55. 732-246-7469.