They thought it would be one night's work.
Four Irish female sopranos and a fiddle player came together as Celtic women for a one-time TV tribute to Irish music that aired on PBS last March. CD and DVD recordings of the show were sold in conjunction with the PBS airing. When the CD remained on the Billboard music charts for 52 weeks, musical director David Downes and show producer Sharon Browne decided to launch a full-scale touring production for the group.
Celtic Woman will be performing in Memphis at The Orpheum on April 17th.
The group doesn't actually perform as a group at all. Celtic Woman consists of five soloists who take turns on stage delivering tender, yet commanding Irish tunes ranging from traditional fare such as "Danny Boy" to New Age standards like Enya's "Orinoco Flow." Set to an orchestra of traditional harps, pipes, whistles, and percussion, the songs conjure images of frolicking nymphs, robed Druids, and lush, green groves.
Lisa Kelly, Chloe Agnew, Orla Fallon, and Meav Ni Mhaolchatha sing. Instrumental solos are by the energetic blond fiddler Mairead Nesbitt.
"[Before Celtic Woman], we all knew of each other but had never met," says 28-year-old Kelly, who had been working on a musical-theater career before the group was formed. "You'd think five women would be killing each other, but we're incredibly close. We're all individual singers with different styles, so there are no egos among us."
Kelly had worked with Downes when he served as musical director for the U.S. tour of Riverdance in 2000. A couple years later, he approached her about recording a solo album on Browne's Celtic Collections label.
The other women also had solo CDs on Celtic Collections, but Browne felt they weren't receiving enough attention from Irish radio and television stations, so she and Downes organized the PBS show to introduce the singers to American audiences. The plan worked.
"American audiences have just been incredible," Kelly says. "They embrace Irish culture so much."
After touring the States for a year, they brought the show back to Ireland this past February. The five women met with far more appreciation than Irish audiences had given them individually. The show was also the first time the women were able to perform for their families.
"Our families know this is what we do, but a lot of them haven't been [to America] to see us," says Kelly.
The women are in their mid to late 20s, but the clear, soft voice responsible for "Ave Maria" on the tour belongs to 16-year-old Agnew. The daughter of musical parents (her mother was in a popular Irish all-girl band in the 1960s), Agnew received her big break at age 11 when she approached Downes about recording a song to raise money for American and Afghan families affected by September 11th and the resulting U.S. invasion.
"I sat down with a friend to decide what we could do to help; you know, do we have a sale or a lemonade stand?" says Agnew on the group's Web site. "I knew singing was the strongest thing I could do, so I asked David if I could record a single with the profits going to charity." The single, "That Holy Christmas Night," raised over 20,000 pounds.
Fallon, who shines in her solo "Isle of Inisfree," was raised on traditional Irish music. When she was a child, the music teacher at her boarding school advised her to purchase a harp. She didn't have the money, so she sold her pony. That money was stolen, however, and her parents felt so bad that they purchased a harp for her anyway.
Mhaolchatha was also raised on traditional music, but she never imagined she'd make a career out of it. She graduated from law school at Trinity College in Dublin, but music gradually took a higher place in her life. She's performed in numerous choral groups as well as the London and Dublin productions of Riverdance. Now she's singing "Danny Boy" almost nightly with Celtic Woman.
For Nesbitt, fiddle-playing has been a lifelong passion. She's been playing since age 6 and is trained in both traditional and classical music.
Kelly, however, is a huge fan of Barbra Streisand and Madonna, and having grown up in musical theater, she's only recently developed an appreciation for Irish music.
"My parents were into musicals, and I was very big into pop," says Kelly. "I studied Irish music in school, but that was about it. This has really opened my eyes -- ears really -- to Irish music. I love singing it now."
But since the group also sings contemporary songs, as when they join together for the inspiring Josh Groban song "You Raise Me Up," there's a little something for everyone. For fans, there's plenty more to come.
"I believe there's a new CD in the pipeline, and I think we'll be recording a new show as well," says Kelly. "We're touring [in the States] through May, and we'll be back in June and July and probably before Christmas."