As the high holiday of St. Patrick approaches, Irish tenor Ronan Tynan flies to Omaha to regale us anew this weekend with his unmistakable voice.
You've probably heard the amazing voice — on television or at Omaha's 9/11 remembrance in September — but do you know his even more remarkable story?
He was born in Dublin with frail legs and splayed feet with three toes each. He wore leg braces and was raised on a farm in County Kilkenny by a doting father and a tough-love mother.
He rode horses competitively, saying that, "On a horse I have four perfect legs instead of two imperfect ones."
After a motorcycle accident at 20, his lower legs were amputated and he uses prosthetic legs. He entered the Paralympics for the disabled, winning gold medals and setting records.
He eventually earned a medical degree at Trinity College in Dublin, became a physician and opened a clinic for orthopedic injuries. And for fun and an occasional free Guinness, he sang in pubs.
Not until he was 33 did he take a vocal lesson. And then he became a famous singer. At 51, remembering how hard medical school was, doesn't he miss the practice of medicine?
"There is great healing in singing," Tynan told me this week. "It frees up the emotions, and sometimes people need to be privileged to be free with how they feel. It's important for people to feel — liberated, if that's the word."
Music, he said, is a kind of medicine "with no side effects."
The big Irishman, as some call him — not just for his big voice but also for his 6-foot-4, 280-pound frame — was cooking pork chops, onions and mushrooms when I caught him by phone at dinnertime Tuesday at his Boston apartment.
He will sing Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center with the Omaha Symphony. Conducting will be Maestro Thomas Wilkins, with whom Tynan has worked on both coasts in addition to the 9/11 remembrance outdoors.
"I call conductors my traffic cops," Tynan said. "Tom knows how to breathe with you. It's so important when a conductor is with you in many ways."
The tenor said he enjoyed the lovely, sloped setting of the natural amphitheater at Midtown Crossing and was stunned by the thousands who attended the 9/11 event. "It was fantastic. I thought, 'Wow, look at all these people!'"
When I mentioned that the Omaha area is home to many people of Irish ancestry, he replied: "I've got news for you: There are a lot of Irish everywhere. And the Irish in America — who retain all the memories of the culture and what it means — seem more Irish than the Irish themselves."
As the expression goes, everyone is Irish on St. Patrick's Day. In Omaha, on the weekend before St. Paddy's, Tynan will sing an all-Irish program, including the much-loved "Danny Boy."
"If you don't sing 'Danny Boy' in March," he said, "you could be brought up on some elements of thievery."
Tynan's twin died at 11 months, and the singer said he thinks "all the time" of the brother he never knew. "I never feel alone."
Taunted as a child because of his legs, Tynan said he admires Lady Gaga for her anti-bullying campaign, which took another step recently with the establishment of her Born This Way Foundation.
"It's fundamental," he said, "that kids are encouraged to believe they can achieve things."
Though not a big fan of Gaga's costumes, he said: "She is quite a talent. She has the chops."
He meant singing chops, not the pork chops he had on the stove as we spoke. But just as Gaga's mother is joining her in leading the foundation, Tynan's mother had a great influence on making him believe he could overcome challenges.
"My parents are the reason I'm even talking to you," he said. "My mother, with her strength, gave me the ability to persevere and believe. I was reared, yes, with major trauma. But I was also raised with the point that, 'You must have the will inside you to drive forward.'"
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