ASK any New York cabbie how to get to Carnegie Hall and he will tell you: “Ya gotta practise.”
Tenor Finbar Wright has been doing just that since he was six years of age, learning the piano and singing at Cork School of Music, and later being tutored by the celebrated voice coach, Veronica Dunne.
Now 57, he has graced, among other venues, the Royal Albert Hall, in London, Sydney Opera House and the Hollywood Bowl. He needs no introduction — nor directions — to Carnegie Hall.
Wright, who grew up near Kinsale, Co Cork, has sung with performers as esteemed as Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Montserrat Caballé, as well as rock’n’roll legend, Jerry Lee Lewis. Wright even recorded an Arsenal soccer anthem, with footballer Ian Wright, in 1998.
Following a recent, sold-out gig at Cork Opera House, Wright is to celebrate his 25 years of success with a concert at the National Concert Hall in Dublin on Saturday.
“The years slip by very quickly,” he says, wistfully. “I was at Cork Opera House and it took me back. They have redone all the backstage area and they did a great job. It used to be dark and scary back there.”
Perhaps not as scary as Cork Opera House audiences, who have been ‘accessing all arias’ for generations and have a reputation for being choosy about who graces the stage.
“There’s nothing like the Cork crowd,” Wright says, with a chuckle. “They have always been very supportive, from day one, but they keep you on your toes, too.
“I love the story about the time Gigli sang in the old opera house. He came out to sing encore after encore and, after the third time, he said he couldn’t do another. Then, some fellow from Blackpool in the audience shouted from ‘the Gods’: ‘You’ll keep singing it till you get it right.’ I love that story. It says so much about Cork audiences. They love their opera.”
So does Wright, but he is happy to perform an eclectic repertoire, ranging from dreamy ballads and romantic Neapolitan songs to Irish melodies and stirring arias. He is also fluent in Irish, Italian, French, Spanish and Latin. He studied piano with the Spanish musician, Angel Climent, and a love of Spanish music is still reflected in his work. “I sing a lot in Italian and Spanish and people are happy with it. There is no language barrier in music,” Wright says.
There is nothing precious about him and he is content to perform a variety of genres for his audiences’ pleasure. “I am a bit of a magpie,” he says. “I sing what I enjoy, myself, but also what the listener likes to hear. A lot of people get very arty about music, mostly the critics.”
With a booming laugh, he recalls singing at the Black Abbey, the Dominican priory in Kilkenny, and including ‘South of the Border’, one of his favourites since he was a child, when he first heard on his father’s record player a version by Slim Whitman. It was the first song whose lyrics he learned.
“One particular reviewer was not happy with it, but wrote that, ‘Unfortunately, the audience lapped it up’. I thought to myself that maybe I’m onto a winner here.”
There is little question of that. Wright’s achievements are impressive, and have surpassed even the high expectations of producers Mike Batt and Phil Coulter, who both worked on some of his earliest albums and correctly predicted that he would be a world star. All of his recordings have reached either gold or platinum status.
Wright is modest, though, and is mindful of his audience. “I am always conscious of the people who come to my gigs. They want to forget their troubles and sit back and enjoy an emotional journey through the music, and go out the door happy. If that is achieved, my job is done.”
Although he has sung in the greatest concert halls, it is the less traditional, more romantic settings that he recalls most vividly.“I remember doing an open-air concert at the Rock of Cashel, when Mary Robinson was President, and she was there. It was absolutely magnificent, one of those beautiful, starlit nights. I’ll never forget the magic of the place. There was also a time when I sang in a field in the Glens of Antrim, for the TV show Good Morning Australia. That was a surreal experience.”
Running in tandem with Wright’s solo career has been his role in the Irish Tenors. Formed in 1998, the line-up has changed over the years, but, at present, features the three Irish singers, Anthony Kearns, Ronan Tynan and Wright.
He has also recorded eight albums with the group. “We had a great Christmas tour in America,” says Wright. “There is always a genuine love for Irish music there and we always bring a full orchestra, which makes it really special.”
Wright’s has been not just a professional journey, but also a personal one. He was ordained a priest at the age of 21 and taught at Farranferris seminary in Cork for seven years. While attending classes at the Cork School of Music in 1984, Wright met a young woman, Angela Desmond.
Three years later, he left the priesthood. He describes 1987 as a “very turbulent year”, but he has never regretted his decision. He remains close friends with the Bishop of Cork, John Buckley, who was president of Farranferris at the time.
Spirituality remains central to his life. “I am deeply spiritual, in many ways, and I don’t think you can be a musician without it. I am not burdened by rules and regulations now, but I feel there is a spiritual connection between us all. The simple Christian values of ‘Love God and love your neighbour’ are essential to any civilised society.
“I also love church music, particularly Gregorian chant, and so many of the operas have a huge religious content in them.”
After leaving the priesthood, he and Angela met again by chance. Romance blossomed and they married in 1990, the same year he turned professional. “We haven’t been apart since,” he says.
The couple live, and raise their two children in the countryside outside Cork, where Wright takes pleasure in rural pursuits.
“I enjoy the good things in life: my wife and my family and I always take time for them and for gardening. The minute I come home, I head to the garden with the cats, hens, horses and dogs.”
Trekking and hill-walking in Kerry are other rustic pleasures. “I love the magic and the majesty of the countryside. I like all around Derrynane and Castlecove and Mangerton, in Kerry. It is like a different world.”
- Finbar Wright performs at the National Concert Hall in Dublin on Saturday