Saturday night, I went to see the Los Angeles stop of Celtic Woman’s Believe tour – and what a show that was. Unlike most musical groups, Celtic Woman doesn’t put on concerts; they put on lavish, carefully choreographed shows. Conceived in 2004, Celtic Woman has become a revolving door of ten singers and one violinist, with all but one hailing from Ireland.
But to be honest, Celtic Woman is a lot more about the sentiment than about any connection to Ireland. Celtic Woman has never claimed to perform traditional Irish music, though people think that they do. The original show, aptly entitled Celtic Woman, was the closest the group ever came to traditional Irish music, with (albeit dramatized) interpretations of “Siúlil A Rún” and “Sí Do Mhaimeo Í.” By the time Celtic Woman reached Believe, most of the traces of traditional Irish music had vanished.
When you go see Celtic Woman, you go in expecting opulence. As I was driving one day about a month ago listening to Believe, it suddenly hit me: Celtic Woman is an exercise in sentimentality. I happened to be listening to “Sailing,” and at the part when all the bagpipes come in, I realized that this song was almost ridiculously over the top – and yet I loved it. You see, Celtic Woman wears sentiment on its sleeve, relying heavily on emotion with songs like “You’ll Be in My Heart,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and “You Raise Me Up.”
As I was driving, it struck me that my admiration of Celtic Woman’s music is stylistically tied to some other works I love. I realized that some of my favorite classic movies are Bette Davis melodramas like Dark Victory (1939) and Now, Voyager (1942). Just as nobody could ever accuse Davis of underacting, the soloists of Celtic Woman perform with so much emotion that some people accuse their music of cloying.
But it is this overdramatic stylization of their performances truly sets Celtic Woman apart. For example, you cannot get the full impact of fiddler Máiréad Nesbitt without watching her twirl and jump while playing her violin, and you cannot experience the opulence of a Celtic Woman performance without visually seeing their shows. Their high glossy style is at the forefront in “Awakening,” the opening number of Believe. You see the choreographed motions, the plethora of background singers, and the general polished and rehearsed air – all of which makes for a very aesthetically pleasing performance.
Yet this isn’t even the biggest of their performances; that title belongs to their rendition of “Mo Ghile Mear,” a truly lavish finale that they still perform on tour to end their first act.
You see in this video the elements of “Awakening,” but here, there’s even more. When they perform this song on tour, the drums at the beginning literally shake the whole theater. And then there are the dresses. I’m normally not a fan of Celtic Woman’s second act dresses (which are all in the vein of these big ones), though how the performers can swish them around certainly justifies their size.
The opulence of the costumes, lighting, and performances in Celtic Woman shows remind me of other grand movies I like, such as The Women (1939), with its larger-than-life cast and assortment of overstated costumes, and the film melodramas of Douglas Sirk, with their gorgeous color photography and lighting, grandiose scores, and heavily emotional stories. Celtic Woman is almost the music version of a Sirk film, but to appreciate them in this regard, you have to either watch the DVD or, preferably, see them live.
Only then can you really see how elements like lighting and movement truly bring out the sentiment in their shows. When Saturday’s performance finished, my friend and I talked not about the music itself (or any traces of a connection to Ireland) but about the color palette of the lights used, how quickly Máiréad Nesbitt spun around, or how Lisa Lambe’s hair bounced to the beat of the drums at one point.
Sometimes, I wish that Celtic Woman were more traditionally Irish so that the naysayers wouldn’t complain about them. But then Celtic Woman wouldn’t be as wonderfully over the top as they are.
For a great interview with the members of Celtic Woman (from the Songs from the Heart tour) about this very subject, click here.
If you’ve ever seen or heard Celtic Woman, do you enjoy their sentimentality, or do you find it all too much?