Russell Thomas : Traveling Tenor

Not many singers can trace their interest in opera back to hearing it on the radio when still in elementary school—but for tenor Russell Thomas, that’s how his curiosity about opera was sparked. And despite not growing up in a particularly musical family, Thomas nurtured this curiosity, developing an appreciation for opera singing, joining the choir in school, and eventually doing his undergraduate degree in his home town of Miami and then beginning his professional career with Florida Grand Opera.

Quickly rising through the ranks of prestigious Young Artist Programs, Thomas was eventually accepted into the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera and won several awards, including first prizes in the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation Competition and the Liederkranz Foundation and a career grant from the Richard Tucker Music Foundation.

His career continued to progress quickly from regional houses in the United States to impressive debuts with major houses in the U.S. and abroad, including Deutsche Oper Berlin, San Francisco Opera, and LA Opera. Though still young—recently praised as one of Operavore’s “Forty (More) under Forty”— Thomas’ repertoire is moving incrementally heavier, with upcoming performances including Verdi roles such as Radamès and Otello, and even Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

When not working, Thomas calls Atlanta, Georgia, home and makes time for his three-year-old son, Austin, who adorably interrupted the following telephone interview to ask his father to shake his hand so that he could practice meeting people. Thomas has a genial and friendly demeanor and he was as at ease answering my questions as he was helping his son.

I’ve heard you referred to as both a spinto and a dramatic tenor. How do you see yourself?

That’s hard. I’ll put it to you like this. I think that I’m a lyric tenor. That’s me. I let everybody else put labels. I’m just a lyric voice that can put out a little extra sound. I think in terms of Pavarotti or the heavy side of the vocal weight of Corelli, which was always still very lyric. Even when he was singing Radamès, he was singing Roméo too. And the same with someone like Bergonzi—he was always singing Nemorino even though he was singing Radamès and Manrico and that kind of thing.

I like to think my approach to singing is lyric—that I approach everything quite lyrically, no matter how heavy it is or what the demands of the roles are.

Can you name three roles you sang when you were younger that you feel ready to let go of—and three roles you haven’t sung yet but see in your future?

In the next three years, I’ll add Don Alvaro in La forza del destino, Radamès, and Tannhäuser. Two of those roles people think go hand in hand and the other one is strange, but I don’t think it’s so strange. The better singers who have sung Tannhäuser have been great in the Italian repertory—and they usually have a higher voice because Tannhäuser sits a little bit higher than most Heldentenor repertoire. I definitely don’t see myself as a Heldentenor, but I figure since I have an ease in the top, why not sing a Tannhäuser where you can sort of show off that area of your voice?

I thought I’d given up Tamino, but I jumped in at the Met while I was singing Ismaele in Nabucco. The tenor in [The Magic] Flute got sick, and it’s a role I’d done a lot and it was the English Julie Taymor production and I’d done it a few times, so I jumped right in and did it. But that’s definitely a role I’m taking out of the rotation. Other than that, I can’t see taking anything out of the rotation.

I know you like the quote “A tenor may have 1,000 high Cs in a lifetime, and if he uses them all in the dressing room, where will they be when he needs them onstage?” How much do you sing on the day of a show and how much do you sing on a week that you’re not performing?

That’s very individual. I don’t do a lot of warming up. In the morning I’ll steam, and I’ll warm the voice up, sing a few notes in the passaggio, and a bit lower. But I won’t sing anything in the extreme top. I wouldn’t sing a high C just to make sure it’s there, because you never know if your body has one or two of them in a day.

When I’m not rehearsing, I don’t sing very much. I try to sing as little as possible. When I’m learning a new role for a production, I’ll do everything that doesn’t require singing—like the translating, and speaking the text, and making sure I understand the rhythm and how the text flows with the rhythm. And when I have time, when I feel like I’m in a good place physically and health-wise, I’ll sing maybe an hour and a half, max, in a day, and that’s actually a lot.

We have so little time and so much to do as singers. I try to make sure I have what I need for the stage. I’m really cautious about that. I’ve seen my colleagues sing an entire role in the dressing room and then they can’t understand why they’re tired onstage, but these kinds of roles are not meant to be sung twice in a day.

Who are the classic voices that have influenced you the most, and what aspects of that singing do you hear and think, “Oh, I couldn’t get away with that these days”?

That’s another tough one. In terms of singers who have influenced me the most, Carlo Bergonzi is probably number one. Then there’s Mario Filippeschi, a singer I discovered just by happenstance when I was an undergraduate. A record store had a CD of his arias and they were giving it away for a dollar, or a buck fifty—and I got it because he was singing a lot of things that I liked and I was curious, because on the record this guy sang everything from Puritani to Radamès.

When I listened, I was in awe that such a hefty voice could be placed high enough and consistently sing C-sharps easily, without hesitation. He sang the second act aria from Rigoletto, “Ella mi fu rapita,” and in the cabaletta sang a high D, and I thought, “Wow, this is stunning!”

There were only two voices I can recall that have that kind of voice, and that was Franco Bonisolli and this guy, Filippeschi, so those are two tenors I feel have been very influential. I also love [Mario] Del Monaco—but I don’t listen to him much because if I do, I’ll probably try to mimic, and I don’t have that kind of big cannon of a voice. I don’t think anybody does today.

What’s missing in singing today is a freedom and abandon that people sang with 30 to 40 years ago. A way that is now thought of as sloppy or old fashioned. Everything today is so over coached, and not by conductors. It’s coached by répétiteurs. Nothing wrong with that, but there’s no one advocating for, and encouraging, an individual sound or an individual approach to the repertoire. I know many coaches disagree with me on this.

Reviewers seem to always be calling your sound “bronzed” or “burnished” or “lustrous.” I can’t keep all the shiny adjectives straight. What do you think of all of that? Do you have a jar of silver polish somewhere backstage, or are you one of those who doesn’t read reviews?

I read every single review. It drives me crazy, but I read every single one and there’s good reason for that. If you read several reviews and they say, “He had a problem with the passaggio” (not that they have a clue what they’re talking about), but if you hear the same criticism over and over, there may be something true about it and it may be that’s something you need to look at or address.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, companies and presenters look to reviews, as does the public, to see whether they want to buy a ticket. And without critics, people don’t stay informed—and without people staying informed, the culture dumbs down. I could go into a long rant about it. But if you hear the same thing over and over again, why not address it? I think it’s silly to ignore them. But if you hear a critic calling you the baritone singing a role you didn’t even sing, maybe that critic didn’t even come to the performance and, yes, you can ignore that. But also, if you want to believe the good things, you have to believe the bad things. You can’t pick and choose what you want to believe. It’s unrealistic.

I think the “burnished” and “bronze” come from the fact that my voice is on the darker side in terms of color, but it still has a ring and a brightness that lets it carry and be present. That’s the balance all singers look for. You want to have a warmth to the sound that’s appealing aesthetically, but you also need to make sure that the voice can be heard at the back of the hall—and that’s where the shininess or the ping comes in handy.

It was James Levine who told you to take Puccini off the table for a while and stick with Mozart. I have two questions about that. First, I’m guessing you feel like that worked out well for you?

It did.

Why do you think that worked for you?

Because I listened to singers of the 1940s, 50s, 30s, and 60s who sang with this abandon. I appreciated their sounds, but I didn’t understand how they got to that point. I heard the end result. Trying to re-create that in my own voice was seen, as I mentioned, as sloppy. It wasn’t always accurate. I was young, 24 or 25, when I sang for Levine before I came to the Met, and the voice was great on the top, OK in the middle, and there was nothing on the bottom. Singing Mozart helped me get all of those things a bit more lined up and even.

Does that work for everybody? Absolutely not. It was what I needed, what Russell needed. There are some singers, if they start singing Mozart and try to put a large sound, a lot of sound, or an unruly sound into a small, narrow, organized space, it won’t work. I think a good example of that would be someone like Christine Goerke. That voice wanted to be free and be what it is. It’s a big, wild, exciting sound that she was sort of having to pare down 10 times smaller to fit into a Mozart or Handel box. It wasn’t until she got out of that and let her voice be what it is that she had such a huge success.

Everybody tries to put these formulas on singers saying, “Oh, sing Mozart!” But it’s not for everybody and it can ruin a voice, just like singing Wagner at 22 can ruin a voice. Singing Mozart when you don’t know how to sing or don’t know how to use your instrument in an efficient manner can also cause just as much damage.

The other question I have about Levine and the Met’s Young Artist Program, which were so foundational for you—I don’t mean to put you on the spot, and we can omit this question if you prefer, but I do like to give people a chance to talk about difficult aspects of the business—how did it affect you when you heard the news about Levine’s removal?

It’s very difficult for me, and I don’t mind talking about it. He was always extremely generous to me, always extremely professional. I wouldn’t say I’m a defender of any action he’s taken, but I’m a defender of honesty and truth and of innocent until proven guilty. Proven. I’m a person that was abused as a child and I come from a history of abuse. It’s not something I’m afraid to talk about. I’m a child of abuse in terms of the fact that I’m a child of rape. It’s something I take very seriously and I’m very sympathetic to people who have experienced any kind of being wronged or abused in any way, shape, or form. That goes without saying.

However, the man that is described in these various articles, and through the rumor mill and gossip mill, is not the man that I’ve ever experienced. Again, not to say he is not that man. That’s just to say that’s not the man that I know. The man that I know was always kind, generous, and professional. There was not ever a time when he made me feel uneasy. I’ve never seen him be inappropriate with anybody. . . .

It’s sad, and unfortunate, if these people were indeed wronged by him in any kind of way, [and] they have every right to speak up and let their piece be known. But for him to be unceremoniously ejected and embarrassed—I’m sure it’s embarrassing for him—I would have liked to see this happen in a different way.

I’ll tell you this. I’ve heard these things since I was an undergraduate . . . and none of the people at my undergraduate program . . . had ever met or worked with Levine. This is a well-oiled rumor. What annoys me about the entire thing is that people say, “We’ve known this for a very long time.” And I’m saying, “Did we really know this, or have we heard this for a very long time?” Those two things are not synonymous. We’ve heard these things for a long time, but we didn’t know this.

As I’ve said on social media and to people who have known him for a very long time, if you’ve indeed known this for a long time, what did you do about it? Your silence makes you complicit. If you knew something . . . but did nothing because you wanted to protect your place in the orbit, you’re just as much at fault as he is.

I love your online posts because they are so honest. If you’ve got a recital and you’re not feeling well, you’ll say so. On Twitter your bio says that you sing as an escape from “the ugly realities of life.” But I don’t have the sense that you escape the ugly realities, but rather that you face them—the way you just spoke so openly about being a child of rape and having experienced abuse. Is that your personality? Are you an open book, and does that make your job easier as an expressive artist, because you don’t spend a lot of energy trying to present the perfect façade?

It’s both easy and difficult. It makes things easier because for so long I tried to hide those things, to be something that I felt like I had to be to make the career. And we take abuse from conductors and directors and people in the room just because we want to be asked back. And for a long time I played that game and I didn’t see it getting me anywhere, so I said to hell with it. And it’s also therapeutic, I must admit, for me to say openly, “I’m a child of rape and I was abused as a child.” Saying these things out loud is therapeutic in a way that I need, and I think they would also be therapeutic to someone who reads them.

Some might think, “That’s too much, you shouldn’t talk about these things and put these things out in public.” People of a certain generation may feel that way. I grew up as a very religious kid, in a very religious family—my mother not so much, but my grandmother very religious, in church all the time. Abuse was not something we spoke about in public or out loud. But that sort of atmosphere makes a bottled-up, halfway-depressed individual, and the weight of that is a lot for someone to handle. So letting loose, being free of that and more open about it, just speaking about it, and saying it out loud has freed me up a lot.

On the other hand, my being an outspoken person or saying exactly what I feel doesn’t always make for the best professional situation if you’re working with somebody who’s a bit insecure. I’ve been in situations where [I ask], “Can we try this, maestro?” and they say, “No” or get very offended. Or I say to a conductor, “I can’t find a reason for that appoggiatura. Can you give me a reason other than ‘because I said so’?” I’ll do it, but I’ll try to find a justification to please you and please me.

This is a collaborative art form. I can’t just stand up there and sing a cappella—I need music. Somebody wrote the music, somebody wrote the words, somebody else put me in costume, somebody has to put the lights on. It’s all about integrating all of these various entities or areas to collaborate to make a finished product. None of us can do this by ourselves. Even you, as a writer—you can write in a journal, but somebody made the paper, somebody made the pen. I think of life in that way, I think of all the parts. It’s something I take seriously and not at all for granted.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.