Russell Thomas interviewed by Margarida Mota-Bull

Russell Thomas

The first time I came across Russell Thomas was a couple of years ago and by pure chance while searching for tenor performances in Don Carlo on YouTube. In the long list that appeared, a video caught my attention, showing Mr Thomas in a duet with Anja Harteros. She was a household name in the operatic world but I didn’t know him. So, I watched it and listened carefully to Thomas’s voice. Its power, beauty and warmth impressed me immensely.

Russell Thomas is a young African-American tenor with an extraordinary voice. He is also an open, genuine human being, intelligent, honest and articulate. He spoke candidly about his opinions, thoughts, likes and dislikes in the email interview (transcript below in full) that he kindly gave me. From his admiration for Carlo Bergonzi’s musical accuracy and technique to his understanding and sincere acceptance of his own abilities, strengths and weaknesses, Russell Thomas emerges as a fascinating personality and a consummate professional.

As an African-American it is sadly still difficult to succeed in opera, as even today in the 21st Century, opera is dominated by non-black people as Mr Thomas says himself: ‘Less than 10% of all the solo singers on the important stages in the world are black. I find it difficult to believe that everyone else is just that much better.’

Mr Thomas’s voice is particularly suited for Verdi who is one of his favourite composers. He speaks honestly of his performances in Don Carlo and Otello and objectively expresses what he thinks is good and what not so good. He has an eclectic repertoire from Adams to Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Berg and Britten, to name just a few, and will be debuting the title role of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux at the San Francisco Opera in September this year. He will also be adding new Verdi roles (as for e.g. Radamès in Aida) and Wagner roles such as Parsifal and Tannhäuser to his already extensive repertoire.

Not surprisingly Russell Thomas is passionate about opera and asked whether operas are suited to modern interpretations he says: ‘…opera is a living, breathing, ever changing art form. It should change with the times and be presented in ways that are relatable to the audience today.’ And ‘…Asking opera to remain in classic productions is like asking a museum to only show the work of one artist from any one period.’

I relished my interview with Russell Thomas and to finalise I should add that, luckily for us, he does not only grace the stages of the US and Canada, he also comes to Europe regularly. This year London will be able to welcome him on 21st July for his debut at the BBC Proms – War and Peace Prom – singing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the World Orchestra for Peace (founded by Georg Solti in 1995), under the direction of Donald Runnicles, to commemorate the centenary year of the end of WWI. But if you cannot wait until July nor have the opportunity to go to London and attend the Proms, read the interview below and there is always Mr Thomas’s website or YouTube. I guarantee you will enjoy discovering him and his voice.

MMB: When and why did you decide to become an opera singer?

RT: I decided to become an opera singer in High School after an opera singer and voice teacher, Joy Davidson, heard me and suggested that I take lessons. She said with my natural abilities, having never taken lessons before, that I had a talent for singing in the classical style. I was convinced to do so after doing auditions for music schools and being accepted.

MMB: Is there an opera singer (past or present) that you admire and look up to as a role model? If yes, who and why?

RT: There isn’t one singer, there are many. But if I had to choose one it would be Carlo Bergonzi. The technique, the passion, the accuracy musically, and the voice were all top notch. With many singers you get just one or two of those that are at a high level but he had them all. I study him often.

MMB: As an African-American singer, do you feel it has been more difficult for you to break through in the world of opera? Or has it made no difference?

RT: Yes, I feel it has been very difficult. Some would say how could I suggest this when I sing on many of the important stages. It’s just my feeling. Art is very subjective so it’s difficult to pin point why anyone’s career isn’t at a certain level. It could have been a bad performance or audition. Who knows… what I do know is that non black singers get to turn out mediocre performances and they are given chance after chance, but that is hardly the case with a black singer. Less than 10% of all the solo singers on the important stages in the world are black. I find it difficult to believe that everyone else is just that much better. There are some cultural advantages for European singers, but even with their access and proximity there shouldn’t be such a large gap.

MMB: Your voice is extraordinary and to my mind perfect for Verdi. Do you have a favourite Verdi role? If yes, why?

RT: Thank you. I love the music of Verdi, but I can’t say I have a favourite role. There hasn’t been one I’ve sung that I didn’t absolutely love. I think my voice, temperament and musical understanding are well suited for the music. I am eager to sing more of this amazing composer.

MMB: I think your voice is particularly suited to sing Otello. What is your view?

RT: I don’t think my voice is perfectly suited to Otello. I hear the great Otello voices of del Monaco, Vinay, Pertile and I don’t hear my voice there. The closest I think I can get is the vocal weight of Lauri-Volpi, Martinelli, or Bergonzi had he sung it in his prime. However, I think I have the intelligence to sing it. I think with the way voices are ‘fached’ today, I have to sing Otello, because the tenor that should sing Rossini’s Almaviva is singing Duca and Alfredo. So everything is a bit out of balance.

MMB: You have an eclectic repertoire – from Adams to Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Berg, Britten and a few other composers, including some bel canto. Does bel canto represent a particular challenge for you? Why?

RT: I think bel canto repertoire poses a challenge to everyone that sings it. It’s highly technical and specific. What makes it so exciting is the ability to do exactly what’s on the page and still make it your own. I guess that’s the challenge with all repertoire, but particularly so with bel canto. Personally I’d be very, very bored if I only sang one composer or in one style.

MMB: You are going to debut as Roberto in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux at the San Francisco Opera in September this year. What challenges will you face with this role and how do you prepare for it?

RT: I am currently preparing Roberto. It’s a lovely role. The main challenge there for me is how to pace to sing the big aria at the end and still be fresh. I started first by learning the aria. Then I have to decide to sing the C# or not. Many great tenors never sang it, but it’s my goal with a voice like mine to sing it.

MMB: In Mozart’s operas the tenor usually has second place to the soprano but your repertoire includes some of the best tenor roles that Mozart wrote, with some beautiful, indeed sublime music. Which is your favourite and why? And what do you feel is the biggest challenge when singing Mozart and why?

RT: My favourite Mozart role has to be Tito Vespasiano. Even though in this opera the mezzo is the star. It’s such an idyllic character, so much so that he can be a bit boring if you don’t find the anger as well as the sweetness. It’s also what probably makes it a bit boring to so many people. No one is that good. Although it’s not seen as Mozart’s greatest work, I find it to be some of the best music and the most dramatic and emotional, particularly in the accompaniato recitatives.

MMB: You recently sang the title role in Verdi’s Don Carlo at Washington Opera. What is your favourite part of this opera and what is your biggest challenge? Why?

RT: Although Don Carlo isn’t my favourite Verdi role, it’s my favourite Verdi Opera. It has everything. I think it’s the perfect opera. The role isn’t very challenging and the best writing for the title character is in all of the ensemble pieces. The biggest challenge is to not be overshadowed by the mezzo and baritone. HA!

MMB: I read some of the reviews about your performance in Don Carlo at Washington Opera and they were generally very favourable about your outstanding voice but a little dismissive of your acting. Is acting something that you feel you have to work hard at and doesn’t come as naturally as singing may do? What is your own view?

RT: No, I’m not a natural actor. I’m generally not very extroverted. I find myself always a bit self-conscious about the way I look on stage and my facial expressions. I’ve taken many classes to try to learn a good technique but it’s something I really have to concentrate on. I must say, Carlo is often lying on the floor or whimpering in a corner. It’s difficult to make a dramatic impression under these circumstances. In other productions I find myself to be a better actor. It’s the job of the director to take the strengths or weaknesses of the performers and help them to look their best.

MMB: The Washington production of Don Carlo was a revised shortened Italian version that Verdi wrote later for his own country, rather than the original five-act French version written for Paris (and in my personal opinion more glorious, allowing a better understanding of the characters). What is your view? And would you have preferred to sing the original version in French? And if yes, why?

RT: Originally this production was supposed to be the five-act French but for budgetary reasons it was changed. I’m not sure which is the better version, however, I want to sing the five-act French in a daring production. That would be exciting. There is also more music for Carlo in the longer French version.

MMB: The production of Don Carlo at Washington Opera was a modern staging rather than the historical period piece. Do you prefer modern or traditional productions? And why?

RT: I wouldn’t call that a modern staging at all. It was very traditional but with a unit set that was off balance. A very cliché way to show the imbalance of the people involved. And with bars that came in and out, an attempt to tell the audience that the characters were trapped or imprisoned in their situations. I prefer a modern updated production if it has something to say or a new point of view. If it’s just shock for the sake of shock, I would find it pretty boring. Some traditional productions are magnificent.

MMB: Do you think all operas are suited for a modern interpretation? Why or why not?

RT: I believe opera is a living, breathing, ever changing art form. It should change with the times and be presented in ways that are relatable to the audience today. Again, any updating should have a point of view that doesn’t have to be explained and apologized for with twenty pages of program notes. Asking opera to remain in classic productions is like asking a museum to only show the work of one artist from any one period. Forever.

MMB: In your upcoming schedule what performance are you most looking forward to and why?

RT: I’m looking forward to returning to Toronto, which has become a bit like an artistic home for me. I am staging my first Otello there in a production from ENO. Returning to Trovatore in Chicago and for my debut in Munich. Adding roles for future seasons like Peter Grimes, Parsifal and Tannhäuser.

MMB: In April you sang Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel conducting and then in January of next year, you reprise this favoured work, with Donald Runnicles conducting. How do you see Mahler’s music and what challenge does the German language represent for you if at all?

RT: I enjoy Mahler quite a bit and Das Lied has had a special place in my career from my first performances with Emmanuel Villaume at the Spoleto Festival USA. I enjoy singing in German as much as I enjoy singing in Italian. Those languages work for me and sonically I understand how to use them to make music.

MMB: Would you venture into Lieder or you’d rather stick to opera? Why?

RT: I sing quite a bit of Lieder. I enjoy song recitals a great deal. It’s the time where the singer is 100% in control from conception to performance. Very liberating. I wish I could do more.

MMB: Some people think that opera is an outdated art form and has no place in the modern world. What is your personal view?

RT: I can understand why they say that with some of the performances and productions on stage today. But I vehemently disagree. I just think we need to find a better way to present it. I would have to say a more modern way but what does that even mean? I simply think it needs to be able to breathe and not expect to be stuck in some idealistic past. We also need more new opera. Pop music, film, theatre have all successfully remained relevant without losing much of its core. Opera can do the same thing.

 MMB: You sing some modern-day composers (meaning composers that are still alive). Do you think it’s important that composers continue to write opera? Why?

RT: Of course. Because we need opera to survive. Just as Verdi was writing in his time, we need people writing today like Nico Muhly, Matthew Aucoin and Missy Mazzoli. Terence Blanchard is writing more opera about the black American experience.

MMB: Is there a composer that you feel you will never be able to sing but would like to and if yes, who and why?

RT: The one composer I wish I had the facility to sing would be Rossini. When I was a young student I was obsessed with Chris Merritt and Rockwell Blake and how they mastered the repertoire of Rossini. I tried, but it wasn’t for me.

MMB: You have sung in some European opera houses and will also do so in the future. Sadly none in the UK. When can we expect you to grace the stage at the Royal Opera House in London?

Russell Thomas (Gabriele Adorno) in Simon Boccanegra © Clive Barda

RT: I’ve sung quite a bit in Europe. I am currently reprising the production of Clemenza di Tito from Salzburg at De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam. I will make my debut in Munich in 2018/19 and I will return to Deutsche Oper Berlin and possibly Oper Frankfurt. I hope to return to Covent Garden in the future, as I had a great time there with Boccanegra. We were discussing a project but the director didn’t like me for it. Fair enough.

MMB: Professionally speaking what are your plans for the future? Any recordings? A new role debut not yet mentioned above?

RT: I will add Verdi’s Don Alvaro in Forza, Radamès in Aida, Saint-Saëns’ Samson, Wagner’s Parsifal and Tannhäuser to my repertoire over the next seasons.

 MMB: And finally, how do you relax? Do you listen to music for pleasure as well or do you keep it separate, as music is your profession?

RT: I relax by playing games with my son and going around to explore with him or simply doing nothing.

MMB: Mr Thomas, thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions. I look forward to hear you singing in the not so distant future.

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