Embracing Tradition & Moving Beyond It – Tenor Russell Thomas On ‘Don Carlo,’ ‘Otello,’ & How To Learn From Artists & Audiences Of The Present & PastBy David Salazar
This Saturday, March 3, 2018, the Washington National Opera will be staging a four-act version of “Don Carlo” with a superstar cast. While many might turn to the likes of Leah Crocetto, Jamie Barton, or Eric Owens, for the star power, tenor Russell Thomas is poised to have a big night in his Washington National Opera debut.
Thomas recently spoke to OperaWire about his foray into the opera as well another big Verdi role he recently took on. Along the way, he spoke about his process, which includes listening to his favorite singers.
I bring this up because, throughout the conversation, the tenor mentioned Carlo Bergonzi as being a major point of inspiration for him.
“For me, he is the ideal for Verdi singer. It’s clean and accurate and he’s everything that I think singing should be,” he noted.
And in many ways, Thomas is an heir to Bergonzi. He is a perfect fit for the repertoire as he has shown in his numerous performances at such companies as the Metropolitan Opera, Washington Concert Opera, Seattle Opera, Cincinnati Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and Opera Frankfurt, among others. He possesses a potent squillo sound one often asks for the heavier Verdi repertoire in addition to fine legato and delicacy. He has explored a number of major Verdi roles throughout his career and listening to him, one often finds that the vocal lines of the great Italian master fit his voice perfectly.
He isn’t necessarily one to shy away from this fact either, noting that the role of “Don Carlo” isn’t necessarily a difficult one for him from a vocal standpoint. This is just his second engagement with the opera, his first one coming five years ago when he took on the four-act version in Berlin.
In Washington, he will also sing four acts, but his concern in terms of the challenges of taking on the opera has nothing to do with the production or his other colleagues. In fact, he expressed excitement at working with the other artists on the cast, noting that he’s worked with them before but hasn’t seen them in a while.
His biggest concern is being given the musical freedom that isn’t always easy to come across in the modern opera context.
“One thing I found interesting about my experience the first time I did I would try to sing everything in the score as written and was constantly told no one does it that way,” he revealed. “Every time Don Carlo sings, the dynamic markings are always piano. And people don’t do that.
“My challenge was to convince the musical powers that it was okay to sing it as it says in the score and bring the orchestra down and let the singers not have to fight against it. Not have to sing it a monochromatic mezzo forte the entire time.”
This inevitably led into a discourse on the nature of audience expectations and the weight of tradition on those expectations.
Thomas noted that expectations of the audience play a lot into how conductors approach the score with singers.
“They’re right to,” he stated. But he did note that it was impossible to try and do things the way they were done in the past.
“But let’s put it this way. I’m a fan of singing and everyone who goes to opera is also. We don’t hear singing like we do in recordings of the past. And some people even go so far as to say that it doesn’t exist anymore,” he analyzed. “And I agree, because the training is different, and the schedule is different. And how we go from country to country to sing different roles in a week; they never did that before and earlier. And I think that nowadays that people are excited about a level of singing that wouldn’t have excited the public years ago.”
But he did note that the level of musicianship in the modern era among singers might actually supersede that of the previous generation, which included his beloved Bergonzi and the likes of Franco Corelli and Mario Del Monaco.
“I think back in the day the singers weren’t necessarily the best musicians. They were worried about being the best singers and let the orchestra and conductor worry about making the best music,” he argued. “And now we’ve gone away from that and I want to be the best musician as possible because I cannot compete with the likes of Corelli and Bergonzi and those guys.
“For me, what I can do is give a vocalism that is intelligent and a reading of a score that is intelligent. Because I don’t have the visceral voice of a Del Monaco when I approach Otello. So, what do I do instead? I look at the score from a more purely psychological point of view and try to find something intelligent to set myself apart and still bring an equally compelling character to life without that volcano of a voice.”
…And Embracing It
The tenor is actually coming off of his first set of performances in the iconic role of “Otello,” one that he noted he was constantly offered over the years.
He held off on singing it for a while, noting that he needed time to prepare it and that his first dive into the Verdi opera would require a concert performance first.
That’s exactly what he got in the fall of 2017 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (he spoke to OperaWire in the lead up to those performances about his expectations; read more here).
Prior to that, the tenor spent a full year learning the opera, going through the score page by page with numerous highlighters.
“I have a different colored highlighter for dynamics, phrase markings, text,” he explained.
He looked through the source material and analyzed the score to find what he wanted to explore in the character from a psychological perspective.
Then came the recordings. Some singers refuse to listen to recordings for fear of copying phrasing and not finding their own individual interpretation.
Thomas doesn’t worry about tradition. In fact, he seeks it out and embraces it.
“I try to find the commonalities in each and find the tradition in the piece. The ‘Things I have to do,’” he noted. “Then I find something I can do that is different or new that wasn’t done before and could be equally exciting.”
Among the recordings he favored most were those of Mario del Monaco. But he also looked at Francesco Tamagno and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. Though of course, he felt that he missed out on one.
“I wish Bergonzi had recorded it.”
The tenor noted that his first performances went exactly as he’d hoped though the circumstances were certainly taxing. He had to perform in two concerts with only one day of rest in between. But the kicker for him, was the three days of rehearsals that preceded the first performance, meaning that he sang the opera for four straight days.
“Otello” isn’t an opera most tenors sing more than twice in a week, much less five times.
“The challenge with this role was that when you’re singing that role, every moment is high intensity. You’re not singing for a long time, but every time is high intensity,” he noted. “Don Carlo you can sing really pianissimo and relax in the last duet. Even ‘Stiffelio’ has a few moments of relaxation. There is no relaxation in ‘Otello.’ Every moment is full force, high octane singing.
“To date, I haven’t met a Verdi role that is more challenging.”
He noted that performing it in concert also came with an added challenge inherent in the opera itself.
“It’s written for the drama,” he noted. “It’s meant to be seen because it has a ton of dramatic moments, like killing Desdemona. You can’t see that in concert. So, trying to make those dramatic moments only with the voice and vocalism isn’t always easy.”
But he did note that just being able to focus on the singing for his first experience with the opera was the greatest benefit he reaped.
“I didn’t have to worry about moving around stage. I could just stand there and get to know the music intimately without other variables,” he explained. “Without costume changes or all the other things that go with putting an opera onstage. It lowers the stress levels a bit.”
More importantly, “to be an African American tenor singing the role, it’s a wonderful thing. There aren’t that many of us able to do that and so it felt like a bit of a weight on my shoulders. But it was wonderful to be able to meet to that challenge.”
He did note that he didn’t consider himself an “Otello voice” in the traditional sense.
“I think our ears have become accustomed to a certain quality. And the public’s ears as well. It’s like people hearing Vickers sing ‘Peter Grimes.’ Everyone hears him when they think about what the voice type is for that role. I don’t think I’m an Otello voice. But what is an Otello voice anyway?”
Rich Future Full of Surprises
The tenor is slated for a few staged productions of Verdi’s final tragedy, first in Toronto in 2019 and then in Berlin.
But he has even more exciting projects incoming, including a number of major role debuts. He heads to San Francisco for “Roberto Devereux” and Chicago for “Il Trovatore” to kick off his 2018-19 season before taking on the aforementioned “Otello” in Toronto.
Then he sings his first-ever “La Forza del Destino” in Berlin, with a reprisal of the role coming to Toronto in the near future. Speaking of Toronto, he is also slated to do his first Radamès in “Aida” there. And in Houston, he will be doing his first “Tannhäuser,” a step into the Wagner repertoire after a successful appearance last year as Loge in “Das Rheingold” with the New York Philharmonic.
“I almost didn’t sing those performances because it’s a style I wasn’t completely familiar with,” he noted. “People are asking me for it, but the two I’m focused on are ‘Parsifal’ and ‘Tannhauser.’ I’ll be doing quite a few of those in the near future.”
Also in the near future? “Peter Grimes.”
“I’ll be doing it around the world.”