Interview with Russell Thomas

Miami tenor Russell Thomas is recognized as one of the most exciting singers to have emerged in the last decade.  Having studied in his home town and participated in several young artist programs including  those of New York, Seattle and St Louis, Mr Thomas proceeded to win three prizes, including the first prize, at the renowned Francesc Viñas Contest in Barcelona.  His repertoire includes roles in works by composers as diverse as Verdi, Berlioz, Berg, Dvořák and Offenbach.   I caught up with Mr Thomas between rehearsals for the world stage premiere of John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary. 

Photo: Dario Acosta
Photo: Dario Acosta

Mr Thomas, welcome to London.  When I listen to you singing, I hear someone who is a natural musician.  Everything that you do feels so natural, the phrasing, the colours that you bring out in the voice.  Let’s go back right to the very start, what inspired you to take up opera as a career?

It’s a very interesting story.  When I was quite young, I came home from elementary school one day and turned on the radio and I heard an opera on the radio.  I had no clue what I was listening to but I was intrigued by, not necessarily the music, but that voices could make those sounds.  From then on, every day when I came home from school, I turned to the classical music station and listened to whatever opera was playing and I instantly became a fan.  I sang in choir in high school and I met a mezzo-soprano, Joyce Davidson.  We were doing solos in the choir and the choir director at that time asked her to come and work with us.  When she came and heard me sing, she said to me ‘you could be an opera singer, you should take lessons’.  When she said ‘you should take lessons’ I thought that maybe there was something wrong with my voice.  As a young man, I didn’t realize that people telling you to take lessons was actually a good thing, because it means that you could be better and get something out of it.  I studied with her for a little bit and she encouraged me to work with her on 3 or 4 songs and to go audition.  I got accepted into a school and from then my life completely changed from what I thought I was going to be doing, which was going to the military and then maybe becoming a politician, to finding opera and realizing that I could actually sing.  When I was in college, I met Elaine Rinaldi, who was an associate conductor and chorus master at Florida Grand Opera, and she took me under her wing and gave me free coaching.  She really understood the Italian repertoire and she taught me, with my natural instincts and musicality, and guided those towards the Italian repertoire.  From there, things just started happening for me.  I didn’t come from a musical family at all, other than singing in church, and there was no classical music in our household at all. I tripped on to classical music so to speak.

Moving now from you creating yourself as a singer to you as a singer creating new works.  You’re in London for the world stage premiere of John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary which you created in Los Angeles in 2012.  Tell us a little more about this project. 

When it was originally done, it was done in concert just so everyone could get it on its feet and into their throats.  With the LA Phil playing it and Gustavo Dudamel conducting, it was like a trial run.  Then the next season we did a semi-staged version which toured to LA, Lucerne, London, Paris and a couple of other places.  This time around, it’s a similar staging but we have a real set in which to accomplish the work.  We have extra dancers and we have a few cast members who are different – Patricia Bardon is singing the role of Mary.  Pat Bardon is a really, rich big-voiced mezzo soprano and it brings a different weight and energy to the piece.  Then we have new dancers this time around as well, one street dancer from Brooklyn and the energy that he brings to the piece changes it completely. We also have a new conductor, Joana Carneiro.  Joana assisted John Adams on A Flowering Tree, another world premiere of his I did, and she has conducted a number of his works.

As Lazarus in ENO's The Gospel According to the Other Mary (c) Richard Hubert Smith
As Lazarus in ENO’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary (c) Richard Hubert Smith

You also did A Flowering Tree here in London. What for you are the differences in performing a new work that you are creating, and a piece that has been established in the repertoire for a long time?

For me as an artist the biggest difference is the luxury of having the composer there.  It’s a luxury and in a way it’s a curse because the composer hears it in his mind in a  certain way and sometimes you can get into a situation where the work doesn’t live within an individual artist because the composer is there overseeing how it’s being performed.  You can’t really make it your own as you can with the works of Verdi for example.  That for me is the biggest difference.  It’s also a good thing where the composer can make adjustments in what he’s thinking.  Wouldn’t it be lovely for us to be able to ask Verdi what he really wanted in this phrase?  Both the Prince in A Flowering Tree and Lazarus in The Gospel According to the Other Mary were written for me.  John Adams is the preeminent American composer – I think he’s the preeminent modern composer of our time.  To have someone like that want to write something for me is a great compliment.  It’s a great compliment to my skills as a musician because I think that’s what he feels that I can give to his work.

The last time I got to see you live was as Don Carlo in a very special evening at the Deutsche Oper.  What do you enjoy about singing Verdi and the Italian repertoire more generally and what do you not enjoy?

The easiest thing is to say what I don’t like.  Today many audience members have gotten used to hearing their favourite recordings.  So you are constantly competing with these legendary recordings or these legendary performances for those audience members who have had the fortune to be able to hear those great singers live.  Their training back then was completely different.  They lived with their teachers and they were immersed in style and technique every day.  We don’t have that today.  Also those singers sang in a time when they didn’t have to get on a plane and be someplace in three days and rehearse for two days and then put a show on stage.  The pleasure in it is that, even as an American from a very humble upbringing, I understand this language – it just works in my mouth in a certain way. Even if it’s turning a phrase in a certain way, it just works for me.  I don’t understand how or why, but I do take a lot of time and effort and I listen to fifteen recordings of great singers that I respect, singing this repertoire.  I listen to as far back as possible with the recordings that we have available.  That’s for me the most enjoyable part.  Then there’s so much freedom with what you can do with Verdi that you have an opportunity to make art within the confines of those phrases.

Russell Thomas as Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra © ROH / Clive Barda 2013
Russell Thomas as Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra © ROH / Clive Barda 2013

You have also sung in a number of languages – Italian, French, Czech, German, English.  Did I miss any out?

I feel most at home with Italian and German actually.  If I could sing in those two languages for the rest of my life, I would be very happy.  I think German is a very beautiful language. I think in some ways it’s even more lyrical because of how the consonants are.  In German you really sing through the consonants to get the colours and the effects.  I guess you do the same in Italian but German is a very musical, lyrical language.

French is difficult for me.  You can ask five different French-language specialists how to sing a certain word and each one of them will have five different ways to do it.  In Italian there are certain hard-fast rules about vowels for example, you have five pure vowels and then a couple of them can be open or closed.  In French you don’t have those hard-fast rules so it makes it for me very difficult to sing. I’m always self-conscious about singing in French.  Funnily enough, the language suits my voice, very well actually – the Hoffmann that I did in Toronto was a big success, I’m doing more French repertory there, but it’s not one of those languages that I’m most comfortable with.  I thought I would be the least comfortable with Czech, but the Czech after I learned it was actually very easy to sing.  The memorization was the hardest. It took me the longest that it has ever taken me to learn a role before.  I can memorize an entire Italian opera in less than a week; it took me about four and a half weeks to memorize the Prince in Rusalka.  I’d love to sing more of that repertoire.  I would love to sing some Janáček and people have asked about it and for a while I kept putting it off.  When the opportunity came to sing the Prince, and Rusalka is done a lot these days, I felt that it would be a role that would be very useful to get under my belt.  I did it in North Carolina, the audience loved it and it was with Joyce El Khoury and Heidi Melton – a great cast.

There’s a richness and strength to your instrument that is really quite remarkable.  How did you build up the range and what do you do on a daily level to get the voice in top shape?

That’s a tough question.  The height in my voice was God-given – I always knew how to sing high. I’m still working on making the lower voice stronger, especially because of the repertoire that people are asking me to sing.  I feel that my voice is leaning towards a heavier repertoire but I don’t want it to sound feeble or weak at the bottom.  I’m trying to do things, whether they’re going to be successful or not, who knows?

I don’t really have a daily routine.  I remember a tenor telling me once ‘I may have a thousand high Cs in my lifetime and if I use them all up in the dressing room, where are they going to be when I really need them on stage?’   So for me, if anything, I steam and I do very light warming up, light scales in the shower.  If I had to say that I had a routine, it would be staying in the shower for a very long time, steaming, relaxing my throat, just humming and very light scales.  I try not to sing, full out, full on, every day.

Russell Thomas as Foresto in Attila at Seattle Opera, 2012 Elise Bakketun, photo
Russell Thomas as Foresto in Attila at Seattle Opera, 2012
Elise Bakketun, photo

Your career is really getting into its stride with some major debuts recently including your company debut as Pollione in San Francisco and soon you’ll be doing Manrico in Cincinnati.  I imagine you must be getting quite a few very tempting offers. How do you decide which to accept and which to put off until later?

That’s another tough question.  I think that for me, I would like to sing as many appropriate roles as possible so that I can have the experience of doing them.  When I get an offer, I consult with as many people as possible.  I sit with the score, I read through it – that doesn’t tell you a whole lot because sight-reading something and putting it in your voice has a completely different effect, but you can get a basic feel for how long the role is and the expectations of the part.  I listen to recordings.  I go on Operabase and look at the other singers who are singing the part right now.  So you find out what the expectations are of the public when they hear someone sing this repertory. Then there’s my own wish-list.  It all plays a part in it.

The decision is also really mine.  For instance, I’ve been getting offers for Radamès and Otello for the last five or six years but not yet for me.  Would I like to sing Radamès and Otello? Absolutely.  Do I think I could sing Radamès and Otello? Absolutely.  But it’s about when and what’s around it. If I were singing a run of Taminos and some more Mozart – and I love Mozart – will I want to have an Otello right after doing that? Absolutely not – my voice would be in the completely wrong place to sing something like Otello.  All of those things play a role in deciding whether or not to do something.  For me it’s a long process – there are some things now that I still haven’t said yes or no to because I’m still figuring them out.

You’ll be returning to Pollione next March in València alongside Mariella Devia. What other exciting things can we expect from you? 

I’m adding three new Verdi roles to my repertoire over the next two seasons.  One is the Manrico, I’m singing Ismaele in Nabucco, and the third one is Stiffelio.  Then there’s my first Florestan which I’m really looking forward to.  That’s another one that I asked a lot of people about because we’ve become accustomed to hearing a Heldentenor sing it.  But then Gedda sang Florestan as did Vinson Cole, so I don’t necessarily think of it as a Heldentenor part as I don’t think I’m a Heldentenor at all.  Those are the projects I’m really looking forward to and those are coming up over the next couple of seasons.

Russell Thomas on Facebook


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