After a year on hiatus thanks to the pandemic, "A Christmas Celtic Sojourn" is back on stage before a live audience this holiday season, presented by Brian O'Donovan, host of Celtic Sojourn on GBH Radio. Performances at The Cutler Majestic Theatre are running for three nights beginning Dec. 17, with tickets on sale now, and additional virtual options for those who can't or choose not to venture into a theater.
O'Donovan spoke with GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to talk about the precautions they're taking with this year's show, and what he took away from conducting it remotely last year. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: What it's like actually preparing to do a live show now?
Brian O'Donovan: Well, as you can imagine, it's fairly complex. These days, everything is complex, because it's around safety first for everybody involved. And 20 months in hiatus, we were the kind of first to go down, basically. As I heard somebody say, we would be the "gathering industry," I call it. Theatres, Broadway, sports, where people came together, was the first industry to go down, and essentially was going to be the last to open, and that's the case. So we are going along, we feel we have an obligation to bring the arts and humanity back to folks after such a long period away, and we're doing so emphasizing in as safe circumstances as possible. So, on the one hand is thrilling and reassuring. On the other hand, I'd be lying if I didn't say there are trepidations overlaying it,
Rath: Mainly because of the degree of uncertainty with things now. I guess last year, there was certainty about how things were going,
O'Donovan: You're 100%, right. Last year, at least we knew — as dismal as it was — that we would have to remain isolated from each other, and we couldn't perform live, so we set about creating an alternative reality. It forced us in a direction that had us creating a whole new art form, and we've taken some elements of that in the virtual presentation of what we do into new realms. So that's a really thrilling piece, and we'll talk about that, but it's really also great to be back live. I've constantly said, it's almost like a mantra, that live music is where it's at. It's what we are about as human beings — and that will be the case again, unbridled by fear — but currently, we need to do so with a couple of caveats, and make people feel comfortable in that environment.
Rath: And tell us about what the precautions are in place.
O'Donovan: Well, I think the most basic one to begin with is vaccine requirements. And everywhere that we are going to be performing, we are going to insist that everybody shows proof of vaccination. And that's largely our starting point. And of course, then we follow CDC and local guidelines. And in our case we perform in Boston, largely, so that is masked throughout the performance.
And of course, other adjustments as well. We are used to doing two sets in a Christmas Celtic Sojourn, or some of the other shows that we do, so that people can mingle and get some drinks and activity like that in the intermission, which is important under normal times. Under these times, we are actually just going to reduce it to one single set. People come sit in the theater, masked, enjoy the performance and then basically it ends and people leave. So those types of little adjustments, I think help people feel more comfortable, more secure and more safe.
Rath: Remind us, Brian, a bit about how things came together last year? Because again, it was miserable being in isolation, but also — tell us about what it led to, and how you had to adapt and make some other connections.
O'Donovan: Essentially, we decided to get together as a group and to try to bring something virtually to people. I reached out to all of our cast members, they all said, "Count us in in whatever it is." We went up to Rockport, Massachusetts, to the Shalin Liu Performance Center, who are a partner organization of ours — Rockport Music — and they said, "You can have our theater to stage this and to film it, absolutely free of charge." And with no other staff, meaning that if we were quarantined, which we had to do, that no other staff would be coming in and out of the building.
In addition to that, I mean, this was like matching up the strands of DNA, so to speak. It was unlikely to happen. We needed a place to stay, and Lorraine and Bernie Horn, who have got two beautiful houses next to each other in Rockport, Massachusetts said, "We are going to give you those houses so that you can stay and stay isolated and separate and quarantined to be able to deliver this gift to New England and beyond."
"I've constantly said, it's almost like a mantra, that live music is where it's at. It's what we are about as human beings — and that will be the case again, unbridled by fear."Brian O’Donovan, host of Celtic Sojourn
So the number of people that came together with their generosity of spirit to facilitate this was the first part of the story. Then we were in this bubble, basically. We couldn't get a cup of coffee, we couldn't meet anybody else. My wife, who's normally in the show, delivered food to the porch of the houses, for example. So we've remained completely quarantined and produced this very special piece.
And the key part it is that almost 7,600 people tuned in and purchased tickets to support the effort. And that was so uplifting. But we created this amazing combination, I think for the first time, and certainly I was amazed at how this came off. With musicians playing in Rockport, and teaming up with musicians in western Massachusetts, in Scotland, in Ireland and dancers in Canada — and brought it all together for a magnificent gathering that everybody enjoyed.
Rath: Let's hear some of that. This is from last year's virtual gathering, tell us what this is.
O'Donovan: I think this is the one, wassailing, right? That basically is a wonderful tradition of people going from house to house, there's a variety of iterations of it. But this is, yes, Mairi Campbell and Hannah Rarity joined us in Edinburgh, in their hometown — and went, in fact, from door to door. But first of all, we had to get the music produced here in Rockport, so our band came together and did it, and then harmony singing was attached to it from Vermont. So it really is a triumph of technology during these isolated times.
Rath: The performances are fantastic. But as a radio guy, I've also got to tip my hat to the engineers and producers who — they could have been in the same place, right? That just sounds so beautifully together.
O'Donovan: Just amazing. It was such a worthwhile effort.
Rath: So I just want to hear one more because that feels so, so good, and it gives us a little taste of what is to come. And this other piece that we have, this is Cathy Jordan singing in Sligo, right, in Ireland?
O'Donovan: There's a beautiful cathedral in the city of Sligo up in the west coast of Ireland, and this is a piece that I love. It's a piece for Advent, appropriate at this time of the year. And we asked our group to put together the accompaniment, and then had Cathy get into the cathedral — which was a challenge at that time, you know? The cathedrals, and the churches and every public building in Ireland was shut down at the same time, so she had to cajole her way in, hired an engineer.
So we've got this piece coming in, as you will hear an introduction — and then suddenly, the video is, that it goes to the magnificence of Sligo Cathedral and Cathy Jordan's transcendent voice welcoming Emmanuel.
Rath: Before you go, just tell us: Who is going to be there, in person, at Emerson's Cutler Majestic? What's on the bill?
O'Donovan: Well, what's on the bill is that we bring back our music director Seamus Egan and Maeve Gilchrist, who have been with us for many, many years. We've got Owen Marshall and Chico Huff, longtime members as well. Katie McNally and Neil Pearlman, a young group specializing in the music of Cape Breton.
We love to mix it up and invite other cultures in as well — often, they are kin of Celtic music. Like a Quebecois player, Yann Falquet is going to be with us. Jenna Moynihan — who was on that piece actually, but she's coming back with us — who was steeped in the music of Scotland. So we're all over the map. Amazing dancer and choreographer Ashley Smith-Wallace is going to be with us, and too many others to even talk about, including Windborne, a four-part harmony group.
But we know that going back to a theater isn't for everybody, so we have taken our experience from the virtual show last year and are going to film a virtual performance at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, which is going to be available for folks to share and to watch at home as well, like last year.
Rath: That's wonderful. So if, for whatever reason, you can't make it or don't feel comfortable, you will not be left out,
O'Donovan: You will not be left out. We need to gather in the comfort of each other, whether it's in person or virtually. There is still a huge amount of strength in that, and we must, must during this time, remind ourselves of the importance of our own humanity.