Irish tenor Michael Londra launches PBS series ‘Ireland with Michael’ from Ames home

Irish tenor Michael Londra launches PBS series ‘Ireland with Michael’ from Ames home

Irish tenor Michael Londra is known around the world for his lead singing roles in productions such as “Riverdance.” It might come as a surprise to Iowans, however, to learn that Londra lives in Ames, is a partner in VenuWorks Theatricals, and is hosting a PBS series, “Ireland with Michael,” which will begin airing this spring.

“I moved to Ames about eight years ago,” Londra said. “And in truth, I was dragged here kicking and screaming. Prior to living here, I’d lived in Chicago, New York, London, Nice and London, so coming to Iowa was a bit scary.”

Londra’s partner is originally from Iowa, and when he was offered a job in Ames, he talked Londra into moving here.

“Lo and behold, I’ve grown to really love it here,” Londra said. “Aside from this past year, I wouldn’t spend a huge amount of time here because I’m always touring North America or Europe or Asia. So this year, I’ve really gotten to know Iowa.”

Londra’s humor shown through as he talked about Iowans’ reaction to him and his Irish accent.

“Every day, there’s someone pointing at me because of my accent, or worse, trying to talk to me in my accent,” he said with a chuckle.

Londra and Peters start VenuWorks Theatricals
When Londra arrived in Ames, he was introduced to Steve Peters, who’s the president of VenuWorks, and they “just clicked,” he said.

Peters is Londra’s business partner in VenuWorks Theatricals, where they formed a partnership as producers.

“We met the year I arrived here in Ames, when I thought: Well, I’m not going to be involved in entertainment anymore,” Londra said.

Fortunately for his fans, that did not turn out to be the case, and Londra has been involved in many projects in recent years.

VenuWorks is essentially a venue management company that runs almost 50 venues around the country — arenas, convention centers and theaters, like Stephens Auditorium, Londra said.

“Steve brought the VenuWorks and I brought the Theatricals,” Londra said.

They produced the musical “NOËL,” a tour that performed at Stephens Auditorium in 2018.

“I love people to acknowledge their heroes, and Steve is an Iowan hero,” Londra said. “He’s passionate about musical theater, and running so many venues, he knows an awful lot about it.

“He’s a Tony nominee and is recognized all across Europe as a leader in entertainment. Little did I know when I moved here that we would build this company. It was a lovely surprise about Ames.”

Londra loves producing as much as he loves performing, he said.

“We’re in the middle of many other projects, including another very big musical,” Londra said.

Londra and Peters got the rights from Warner Bros. to produce the musical “Summer Stock,” which they expect to start touring next summer.

“It’s that Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, ‘Forget your troubles come on, get happy,’” Londra said, breaking out in song at the end. “That’s our next big project that will take up the next few years.”

‘Ireland with Michael’ airs on PBS stations this spring
As an Irish singer, Londra had been busy in the March days leading up to his interview with the Tribune. He had just performed 48 online shows and two in-person shows.

So it’s certainly not that Londra was bored, but he likes new challenges, he said. That’s how he ended up producing and starring in a PBS series that starts airing this spring, “Ireland with Michael.”

“People are always asking me about Ireland,” he said. “I started hosting trips to Ireland about once a year.

“It kind of evolved from there. I want people to see Ireland, and particularly I want people to experience culture in Ireland — the music of Ireland, because music is my language.”

Londra said the PBS series is kind of like a travel series, a la Rick Steves, that’s mixed with music.

“I get all my friends who are in ‘Riverdance’ or ‘Celtic Woman’ or ‘Celtic Thunder’ — well-known PBS artists — and they show me around their parts of Ireland. And then we perform together,” he said.

Londra has also found several artists who he thinks are brilliant but unknown in the United States and introduces them to a new audience.

“My friends lovingly call the whole project ‘Drunk Rick Steves,’” Londra said.

“The other thing that people don’t know about Ames is that the producer of this show and my partner in the TV show is Mike Sulzberger,” Londra said. “Mike is a producer with NBC and he’s also my next-door neighbor.”

Londra and Sulzberger edited the whole series on the third floor of Sulzberger’s house in the Old Town neighborhood near downtown Ames.

“Mike’s a real talent,” Londra said. “His son Ben was a writer on season one of the series. He’s a smart kid with an artistic eye.”

Londra plans to start filming season two of the series when travel to Ireland opens up again.

Season one of “Ireland with Michael” is airing on PBS stations across the country this spring. Check local lineups for dates and times.

“It’s amazing that I came to town thinking that I’d be everywhere else working, when indeed I’ve created a lot of it right here in Ames — which speaks a lot to the town,” he said.

‘Ireland with Michael’ — a show, a book, a tour and a travel company

“VenuWorks is certainly a national force in theater here, so it helps with outreach,” Londra said.

The plan is to take “Ireland with Michael” as the TV show and tour it as a live show.

“So it’s going to be ‘Ireland with Michael,’ an interactive, video, multimedia show that goes out nationally in the spring next year,” Londra said. “It’s also a travel book. And lastly, it’s a travel company, so IrelandWithMichael.com is where you go to book those holidays to go to Ireland.

“I love being a tourist in my own country when I go home.”

Londra is an ambassador for his hometown of Wexford, a town of 22,000 and the home of the National Opera House.

“We’re like the singing capital of Ireland, I guess you’d say,” Londra said. “Every year it’s one of the world’s biggest opera festivals — stars from all over the world come. So as a kid, I saw all these great singers coming to my town.”

Londra did train classically but didn’t pursue opera. He preferred concert work and folk music.

“In Ireland, I’m called a trad-head, which is somebody who loves traditional music,” he said. “That kind of dominates my life, although I’m a massive opera fan, and I got to do an album with Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli a few years ago.”

When there’s not a pandemic, Londra gets back to his hometown about five times a year.

“My parents are still there and all of my friends that I grew up with,” he said. “I’m one of the few Irish people who left a town that there was very little emigration from, so it’s almost exactly as I left it. For me, it’s a magic place that stays the same.”

Londra’s father is a builder and his mom is a stay-at-home mom.

“They instilled a love of adventure in me, even though they are not that adventurous themselves,” he said. “I remember as a kid, my father would always talk about adventure. It was a big word in our house — it’s my favorite word.”

Londra started singing when he was 5, and his dad would talk to him about the singers who came to Wexford.

“We had a big, musical family — all of them sing,” he said. “My earliest memory is of my mother singing in the house. She has a very sunny disposition and is annoyingly optimistic, which I inherited from her.”

They were a working-class family, and Michael was the first of his family to get a university education.

“They were hugely encouraging of that,” Londra said. “They said, ‘Do whatever you want. Just go off and do it.’”

With his international success as a singer, Londra’s parents have been able to see him perform in many famous venues.

“They saw me at Radio City Music Hall and they got to see me on Broadway,” he said. “They got to visit me in like 20 countries.”

Londra was able to bring adventure to his parents, and he said he’s looking forward to bringing adventure to PBS viewers too.

Story from Ames Tribune

April 18, 2021