Christmas story brings Wexford tenor back home from US
Q&A with Michael Londra: ‘When I left, it wasn’t to run away but to run toward something’
Michael Londra: ‘Growing up, the opera festival was a huge influence.’
Londra was working in Dublin playing leading men in musical theatre in 1989 when he was noticed by the producers of Riverdance. His turn as Bobby Kennedy in JFK: the musical drama helped to win him the role of lead singer in the US national tour which included performances at Radio City Music Hall and the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 2000.
Since then, he has built up a stellar career. His TV special Beyond Celtic received two Emmy nominations, and he has sang with Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, Il Divo, Sarah Brightman and Kathryn Jenkins. A version of Danny Boy he uploaded to YouTube in 2006 has been seen by almost 8 million people.
His latest project is a new musical written by children’s author Eoin Colfer. Noël tells the story of a young girl who loses her singing voice when her mother disappears. As she tries to find her, Noël meets a mix of characters in this family tale .
Tell us a little about yourself.
Growing up, the opera festival was a huge influence. I remember walking by rehearsal halls and hearing arias, meeting opera stars from all over the world, hearing accents and strange languages. Wexford people, I think, look out into the world because of it. We aren’t a strictly Irish town. I spent my childhood looking out at the bay, longing to get on a boat and travel. When I left, it wasn’t to run away but to run toward something.
What was your first big break?
I went to an audition for JFK: a musical drama and got the part of Bobby without actually really knowing what a musical was! That was 20 years ago. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing and had the nerve to sing for some of the biggest producers on Broadway. Luckily they saw that I had some potential. The show was a huge failure but it was the best thing I ever did. I learned musical theatre 101 over a two-month period.
What first took you abroad?
Bill Whelan heard me singing and I was asked to be the lead singer of Riverdance then went on to sing the role on Broadway. I always had my heart set on New York and I said yes before he had finished the sentence. I remember the exact moment and it changed everything.
Where was the first place you lived overseas and can you describe what the experience was like?
I arrived in New York for the first time in April 1989 on a year’s visa. It felt like coming home. I belonged in the town and still do. I landed in JFK and was brought to my first apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which is now a very trendy part of Brooklyn. It certainly wasn’t then. Luckily I had no clue just how dangerous the area was. I just became part of the neighbourhood and fitted right in with the gang members. I moved into the West Village very quickly though. By chance I ended up living in Bob Dylan’s old place on West Fourth. I only found out when people started knocking on my door, looking for photos.
Tell us about some of your career highlights to date
I guess for me the highlights usually involve travel but on paper I suppose getting a few Emmy nominations for my TV show. I tend not to look at my achievements but to remember special times. I’ve played everywhere from Tahiti to Moscow to Seoul. That’s the best part.
Tell us about your recording of
I just didn’t want to record it as it carries such baggage but my mam convinced me of the beauty of the song and it worked. I keep it simple and people seem to like it. Now . . . whether I like it or not, I can’t get away with not singing it in a show. I have to say that I am never fed up of it. It is special to a lot of people. I don’t milk it. I sing it with my band and just a guitar. Simple. The melody and lyrics are exquisite.
Where do you live now? Can you tell us about it?
I live in Ames, Iowa. I know. Totally random. My partner works for Iowa State University. I’ve grown to love the peace and quiet there – not that I’m home much. It is strange to be living in Trumpville but my town is a cool, funky little college town so there are lots of nice little bars, restaurants and it is annoyingly progressive to the rest of Iowa. Luckily we are surrounded by Democrats.
What are you working on now?
My production office is in Iowa but I spend a lot of time in New York. We have designs on taking Noël around the world and New York is where that will begin. I have grown to enjoy the midwest. My company is developing several projects to tour globally in the musical theatre and concert world. I am prolific and get bored easily so I need a lot on my plate to keep me focused.
What benefits has working abroad brought your career?
It gives me perspective. The best compliment I’ve ever been given was that I was worldly. I’ve been to 62 countries – Yes, I count them – and there is a lot more to see.This coming year I head to India to work on an album and to Asia to tour a new production over there.
What about personally?
Personally, I get distracted and bored everywhere so I will probably always move on to another spot. I will just always have Wexford to go back to. I certainly have a better understanding of how different and how connected we all are at the same time. I probably do business differently depending on which side of the Atlantic I am on, but it is still fairly seamless for me to go back and forth.
What advice would you have for other young Irish singers?
Work hard at your career offstage. Learn about business and the business of entertainment. Get an alternative skill to survive on while you are building your singing career. I would also say that, as a producer, I will always choose people who are easy to work with and count that as important as their singing ability, in casting someone for one of my shows. I think it contributes hugely to my own success.
Where is “home” for you now?
Gritting my teeth, I say , wherever I lay my hat. I am a traveller; always was, always will be. Aging makes it a bit more difficult, but I will always travel.
Where do you see your future?
Planes, trains and automobiles.
The new musical Noël, written by Eoin Colfer and Liam Bates and produced by Michael Londra, runs in the National Opera House in Wexford until December 23rd. See nationaloperahouse.ie