The Leading Ladies trio mark 20 years with anniversary Grand Opera House shows

Acclaimed vocal harmony group The Leading Ladies are marking their 20th anniversary, with the trio performing a weekend of special shows at the Grand Opera House. Jane Hardy finds out more from Michelle Baird, Lynne McAllister and Ceara Grehan

The Leading Ladies – Michelle Baird, Lynne McAllister and Ceara Grehan – are performing 20th anniversary concerts at the Grand Opera House on June 3 and 4

THE Leading Ladies, the vocal trio once described as "three of the most talented singers to emerge from the local scene", celebrate 20 years in the business this year.

Appropriately enough, we meet in the Europa's piano bar. Soprano Michelle Baird (49), soprano Lynne McAllister (57) and mezzo soprano Ceara Grehan (49) are chilling before a technical rehearsal in the Grand Opera House where the women are giving two anniversary concerts next month.

They originally met up thanks to Peter Corry and his version of One Enchanted Evening. Michelle remembers: "We all came together in 2002, although we already knew of each other. Ceara and I competed against each other in music festivals when we were at school."

There's a dispute over who mostly won, before Michelle adds: "And we both admired Lynne onstage." Corry linked the singers as backing vocals for his show in the Odyssey.

They were quickly in harmony in every sense. "We got on so well as people," says Michelle. She adds that because there were no vocal harmony groups around in Northern Ireland at the time, there was a gap in the musical market which The Leading Ladies have filled.

Who chose the trio's name? "The audience," says Ceara with a laugh. "We gave them a couple of choices - 'The Divine Divas' and 'The Broadway Babes'. But because of our liking for the musicals, 'Leading Ladies' won."

If the clapometer decided on the group's moniker with reference to Broadway, the singers' repertoire came about via their different musical skills. These encompass classical to show music.

Their music today is jazz, swing, standards with a soupcon of classical repertoire, but mainly the upbeat, up-tempo stuff that cheers us in tough times.

Discussing which numbers work best in a show, Michelle says: "All of them. We take classics like On My Own, which is normally a solo but we do it as a group of three, writing our own harmonies."

Their GOH producer Wilfie Pyper has said he loves those harmonies, and they've thought of transcribing and selling them.

Michelle mentions her wedding to actor Matthew Forsythe four years ago: "It was held outside, was relaxed and we sang our version of Christy Moore's It's a Voyage, as the words were apt."

This didn't just resonate with the happy couple, as Ceara reveals: "We've been on a voyage as friends and have gone through the trials of life along the way.

"Children didn't always come easy. But we've been there for each other and one of the reasons we're together after 20 years is friendship."

Ceara now has two young sons, Luca (11) and Enzo (10), and remembers bringing them in babywalkers to rehearsals as their father, songwriter Steven Gallagher, plays guitar in the group's band.

Other emotionally literate songs on their playlist include Fix You by Coldplay. Ceara adds: "But from the beginning, we've done the classic musicals like Les Mis." Lynne interjects - "And Abba..." - producers of pop's finest prozac. The women do, however, add in some more serious repertoire, such as Fauré's Pavane. Lynne says: "We might put that in the second half, before something lighter."

When off duty, the singers' musical tastes vary. Lynne, who sings in a worship group, at her church in Magheralin, likes the Christian repertoire: "The music is so uplifting and I listen to a lot. People like Phil Wickham, who's very current, and Natalie Grant."

Ceara, who works for the Public Health Agency overseeing health professionals such as paramedics, says that her job's so stressful, she goes ambient. "I keep saying 'Alexa, play some spa music.' And my boys go 'Not again...'" She reveals she met her husband doing Mary Black ("a go to writer") and Maura O'Connell material and loves the Celtic songbook.

Michelle confesses to a fondness for '90s rave. "Disney's on a lot, as my daughter Isla is six. I also like Oasis, but I love the Rat Pack too and Barry Manilow, who was on this morning."

Michelle Baird, Lynne McAllister and Ceara Grehan in an early promotional shot for The Leading Ladies, the vocal trio they formed in 2002.

They all started young. Michelle was doing ballet classes at five, then singing and jazz. Lynne's grandmother was gifted, sang coloratura, so she passed on the enthusiasm: "Music was normal at home, it was just there, we weren't forced to do anything. Mum and dad played the organ, my mother ran choirs."

Unsurprisingly, Lynne is now a singing teacher. Ceara refers to her inspiring music teacher, May Smith, a concert pianist. "Mum and dad didn't know where to turn, not like now. But the school gave me a clarinet, and my music teacher told them I had a sweet voice and should continue. So I began in classical opera and oratorio."

Music can of course boost morale and Michelle makes a strong case for the arts not being ignored during the Covid era. During lockdown, the Leading Ladies took their music to residents at a couple of Belfast care homes.

Ceara adds that one trip was organised by Eastside Arts. "To be able to meet people, albeit outside and through the window, was great. Families and residents must have found visiting restrictions very difficult. At the first one we nearly blew everyone's heads off. We did some Frankie (Sinatra), and I always listen to Strangers in the Night when I'm in the bath."

The reaction of the elderly people, some of whom were dementia patients, was moving and impressive. Ceara expands: "They moved about, even those in wheelchairs, they sang along as best they could and some actually clapped, we heard later."

Has the performing gene passed to their children? Michelle has a definite 'Yes' for daughter Isla, now six. "She's has a beautiful voice, knows all the rock n roll words and is definitely a performer. We're always talking in accents and messing about at home and she joins in." Lynne's two children, James (12) and Mollie (11), are both musical: "They both play well, James composes his own music."

Ceara admits she'd "love" one of her sons to follow in her footsteps, but isn't sure they will. "They've got to find their path but they do play the cello, violin, piano and so on. And in P1 when they were asked to bring in things they liked, Luca brought in Peggy Lee which he'd heard."

The singers' look was and is glamorous, and Michelle exclaims "Fake tan" before talking about buying dresses "not from Posh Frocks in the Lisburn Road, more Cashbacks. But we do have dresses from Jenny Packham."

In the early days, there was a tendency to more matching outfits. "Bridesmaids look," says Ceara. Nowadays, they might wear branch out and wear leather trousers if they're in the mood – "you aren't so afraid of being yourself as you get a bit older" says Michelle.

The best Leading Ladies concerts, from memory, include Opera in the Garden 2007, also a gig with the Galway tenors and the Derry Jazz Festival. Future plans include recording what Michelle describes as "a beautiful song" called My Land. Appropriately, as The Leading Ladies have pointed out, they're a cross community group.

We finally bat about the idea that music is the premier art. Lynne offers: "It's universal, everyone can hear it, you just get the sound and it creates emotion. Then we can change a harmony and it's unique to us." Ceara adds: "It's anything with rhythm, all your senses are engaged. We make music accessible as we do so many genres, so somebody may come for swing or musicals and hear something else.

"Our special concert won't have solos, which we used to do with the rest sitting on stools. It's about the three of us singing together and will include the best work, numbers like River Deep, Mountain High." A kind of greatest hits, then.

The Leading Ladies - 20 Year Anniversary Concert is at the Grand Opera House in Belfast on Friday June 3 and Saturday June 4.

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