BIRTH OF A TENOR
MEMORIES FROM THE YEAR 2000
The preceding article and photos originally appeared in VIP Magazine
in October of 2000. Many thanks to VIP for permitting us to display them,
and special thanks to Marie Collins who arranged the authorization
Copyrights - VIP Magazine
With Opera Divas, Kathryn Smith and Miriam Blennerhassett
Gifted Star of the Irish Tenors, Talks about His Humble Background, His Lucky Career Break and Why He Is Still Romantically Solo
Although he had been singing socially and publicly for years, it was an impromptu phone call to the Gay Byrne radio show that set Anthony Kearns (29) on the road to stardom. The Wexford tenor sang down the phone line to an enthralled audience and won his way through three heats before eventually winning the Search for Tenor competition. One of the adjudicators was the renowned music teacher, Veronica Dunne, who took the young singer under her wing and convinced him to concentrate on his music full-time.
These days he has a flourishing solo career as well as a hugely successful international career as one of The Irish Tenors, along with Ronan Tynan and Finbar Wright.
This month concert-goers will have the opportunity to see Anthony perform the challenging and much-loved The Irish Ring, when he leads an all-Irish cast in excerpts from Maritana, The Bohemian Girl and The Lily of Killarney at the National Concert Hall on October 23rd and 24th. Soprano Kathryn Smith and mezzo soprano Miriam Blennerhassett, pictured with Anthony on these pages, also lead the cast.
VIP met Anthony Kearns at the Grand Hotel in Malahide where he spoke about the long years of hard work that led to today's success, his world tours with the Irish Tenors and the group of devoted women who are showering him with gifts.
Anthony, what were you doing before your singing career took off?
When I left school I did hotel management in Cathal Brugha Street and then I went to work in the Grand Hotel in Wicklow town. I was known as the singing barman! If there was music on in a pub, I'd have to get up and sing. I was so hungry for the stage that I got involved in local shows and my first real performance was in South Pacific in Wicklow town. After that I got a job in Dun Laoghaire selling mobile phones and fax machines, and while I enjoyed the kick of making a sale, I wasn't content. I traveled all over the country singing in talent competitions, feeding the habit. Then the Gay Byrne competition came along and everything really started for me. And I haven't looked back since.
How important is it to take part in competitions?
Very important. It's particularly good for making you get up and work that bit harder. It's that kick in the backside that makes you go further.
Does your family still live in Wexford?
My mother is there, but my father passed away a few years ago. My mother now comes to nearly every concert I do and loves it. She's had a tough life and she's worked hard for us all her life, so I'm delighted to be able to give her something back. I'm from a small village in north Wexford called Kiltealy, but my family, four girls and two boys, are dotted around the country as well as abroad.
Did you have your voice trained at school?
No. There were no facilities for training voices at school in Bunclody, but I was a natural singer and I sang at school masses. Any training I had, I did myself, mainly in sean nos singing.
And did you learn any musical instruments?
I used to play the trombone in the school orchestra but, to be honest, I wasn't much of a trombone player - I used to wrestle with it rather than play it! The one good thing about it was that the breathing required to play it was great exercise for my lungs.
Tell us about the Search for a Tenor competition.
The competition was held on the Gay Byrne radio show in conjunction with the launch of the new 10 pound note in October 1993. I was working in Dun Laoghaire in sales when I heard this competition was taking place and so I rang in and sang on the radio for the first round. I was called into the studio in RTE for the next round, got into the third round, and then I was in the final on North Earl Street with eight other people. I ended up singing on The Late Late Show. It was great fun and it was the best thing that ever happened to me because before that I had tried every style of singing, from sean nos to country and western to musicals. I found what was right for me because the competition was my introduction to Veronica Dunne, who was an adjudicator. And that's how it all started.
Did Veronica Dunne take you on as a student?
She took me on and I started to go see her once a week. I was still working and she said to me: "Well really, lovey, if you're going to make a go of this, you're going to have to make a commitment." And so I did. I gave up the job I had, even though I had no money, and I took the bull by the horns. She was wonderful to me. You could not believe the encouragement she gave me. She let me stay at her house for months. She not only was like a second mother to me, she also had great faith in me. It's no exaggeration for me to say that I have great admiration for the woman.
Is she tough?
She certainly is! Veronica Dunne takes no prisoners, and that's good. She always says that because the two of us are Leos, we're both stubborn. But in a short space of time we covered a lot of ground. We used to have rows, of course, but that's good, too. She could see the fire in me and I could see the same in her.
Did you realize at that stage that singing could be a career for you?
Absolutely. I knew I was progressing fast, and I could see the standard of other singers and I knew I was as good as them which gave me a great boost. Veronica Dunne would want to compliment me, but she'd always do it via somebody else, so I'd hear second-hand that she thought I was a smashing singer. But she wouldn't like to tell me that in case I got a big head.
How did the Irish Tenors come into being?
Bill Hughes and Daniel Hart had the bright idea and they brought Ronan Tynan on board first, though I think the late Frank Patterson was the first choice. Then they approached Finbar Wright. He wasn't available, but when John McDermott left, Finbar got a second chance to join and it's wonderful now that he's in the group.
How do you cope with spending so much time together?
You have to get on. The three of us look out for one another all the time, especially on stage if one of us is tired. Nobody in the audience would notice, but one of the others will jump in and take over for the other.
What has been the highlight of your career to date?
It has to be singing in Madison Square Garden to 15,000 people. It was unbelievable. We got something like nine or ten standing ovations at the end of the night. I particularly remember that the first two rows were guys from the stock exchange, all dressed in suits and ties and generally very reserved looking. By the end of the night, they were swinging their jackets, their ties were off and they were dancing in the aisle. It was a phenomenal high for us.
How do you come down from a high like that?
Very slowly. We usually go out for something to eat, but we don't go out on the town. We're not rock stars.
How many albums have the Irish Tenors recorded together?
Three at present - Irish Tenors 1, a Christmas album and a concert recorded live at the Waterfront in Belfast.
Between touring and album sales, has singing made you rich?
It has certainly improved my standard of living no end. As I said before, I know what it's like to struggle. I came back from Wales in 1998 to audition for the Irish Tenors and I owed the bank three or four thousand pounds. Because I was in debt, I worked in a bar in Dublin. So it's not that long ago that I hadn't a few shillings. But now things have improved and there is great potential in the group. But there is only a certain amount of money that you need or can spend. It's the fun I enjoy. The day I don't enjoy what I'm doing any more, the day I find I'm in a rut, is the day I'll hang up my boots.
Who would you most like to work with?
On a master level I'd have to say Placido Domingo in the modern day and Carlo Bergonzi in his heyday. Bergonzi is 80 years of age now and one of the finest Verdi singers going. He was a baritone up until the age of 40 and then he retrained himself as a tenor. But he's just a wonderful performer and a wonderful voice. I've been to three of his master classes but I've never taken part.
Are you seeing anyone special at the moment?
No, I'm very single. The Irish Tenors are beginning to get fan letters from American women and it's beginning to scare me. I'm getting bucket-loads of it at the moment. I've received 44 or 45 ties from a group of ladies in America who saw me on television and apparently I wore the same yellow tie each time, so they bought me all these ties and I have them at home. I wouldn't mind but I'd only wear a tie once a year or so. They also sent me a pocketwatch for my birthday that must have cost two grand. Another lady, from New Zealand, has sent me gifts of gold cuff links, a bracelet and chains.
What's next on your work schedule?
The Irish Ring which is on in the National Concert Hall October 23rd and 24th, which is made up of major excerpts from three operas, The Bohemian Girl, Maritana and the Lily of Killarney. It's very challenging material, especially for the tenor, because it sits in the high range of the voice all the time. It will be difficult, but I'm looking forward to it.
It sounds like something you need a lot of energy for. Are you very fit?
I try from time to time, but I'm not great on work-outs. The problem is getting the time to do it, so I keep starting and stopping. I have to learn a lot of new music for the Irish Ring, and the Irish Tenors have a tour coming up at Christmas in America, as well as a couple of dates in Ireland. The we're off to New Zealand and Australia in February for 14 concerts. So I'm learning all new material now because I won't have time later. Life, you could say, is hectic at the moment, but I'm certainly not complaining.