Q & A: Tenor Russell Thomas on His Career’s Journey in Opera, Advocacy for Opera Singers & Life That Happens in Between

By Mike Hardy
(Credit: Fay Fox)

Content Warning: Please note the following includes some explicit language.

American tenor Russell Thomas is now one of the most sought-after tenors of his generation having established his reputation in key lyric roles such as Don Carlo, Manrico in “Il trovatore,” Don Alvaro in “La forza del destino,” and Pollione “Norma.” As an alumnus of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Program, Thomas most recently returned there as Don Carlo in David McVicar’s staging and under the baton of Carlo Rizzi, and previously performed as Rodolfo in “La bohème” and Ismaele in “Nabucco,” the latter of which was broadcast worldwide via the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series.

In 2021, Thomas became the first Artist in Residence at LA Opera, a new role that takes him to the heart of the company not only as a performer but as a curator of the new After Hours recital series and as a mentor to the Russell Thomas Young Artists, alongside performances of “Aida” (Radames) and his ​“heart-breakingly beautiful” (LA Times) Otello, under James Conlon last season. In the 2022-23 season, Thomas sang in the world premiere of “Fire and Blue Sky,” a concert work commissioned by Thomas and inspired by his personal journey as an artist, composed by Emmy Award-winning composer Joel Thompson and written by Imani Tolliver.

OperaWire caught up with Thomas during rehearsals at the Royal Opera House, where he is performing in “Tosca” with Angel Blue and Ludovic Tézier from July 1, 2024.  

OperaWire: How does it feel to be back at the Royal Opera House?

Russell Thomas: I’ve done “Simon Boccanegra,” “Otello,” and “Turandot,” so this will be my FOURTH time. I love it here. I’m a little surprised I had to wait nine years before I came back after my debut because those performances of Gabriele Adorno went very well.

OW: You finished last season with “Turandot,” how did that go?

RT: Yeah, it was the end of the season; I always find the end of the season is always tough with the schedule. All the things get condensed, and the schedule was a little weird because I was doing a world premiere at the same time during the World Opera Forum, and I’d just received the music, like a month before, so that was a very stressful period. But Calaf is a great role for me, I love that role.

OW: So here we are with “Tosca.” You’ve performed this role before. How does this production differ and how did you prepare for the role?

RT: I don’t think this performance is that much different; I think it’s certainly the most important stage I’ve done Cavaradossi on, that would be the biggest difference. It’s a pretty traditional production and that helps. Basically, you do what you sing. Although I love a crazy modern production, this is a pretty traditional production so that always helps. In terms of any special preparation, I was in the throes of Calaf in this world premiere production so I didn’t really have a whole lot of time to do a lot of preparation on it but it’s a role that I know very well, and of all the things I sing now, it’s probably the easiest, so this is a very stress free situation for me and I love that.

OW: You mentioned stress earlier. Do you find the job stressful, and if so, what is it that stresses you? The voice?

RT: Yes to stress! I mean, no…. you sometimes do worry about the voice because people are paying money for a product. You are a product. And the art, whether you want to admit it or not, is also a product. It has always been a product. And you have a responsibility, as an artist, as a musician and as a business owner, (because we’re all independent workers). So as a business owner, a musician and as an artist I have a responsibility to the work and to those people who paid their hard-earned money to come and see it. So, that part of it is about stressing about the voice; I have a lot of respect for the people who come to the theatre.

And then you have the history of these stages…..you know? To think that I’m on the same stage that Corelli was on and Jon Vickers was on and all these titans that I’ve looked up to and listened to since I was a boy. I have a lot of respect for the art form and so that’s what makes it very stressful for me. Not “Is my voice going to work today?” I don’t think about that so much. I think more about, “Am I giving one-hundred percent of what I have on that day?” Some days I may only have fifty per cent, but I have to give 100 per cent of that fifty. And that is a thing that, I don’t know if all of my colleagues have….I would hope it is…..but from experience I know that is not always necessarily the case…but I don’t cancel performances. I do my job to the best of my ability on the day, whatever I have to give, and that’s what makes it so stressful.

But what also makes it stressful is that I’m a single dad to a ten-year-old boy. I don’t get to see my son. He’s with [me] right now when he’s out of school I get to travel with him. It’s also a career that everybody who can never DO what it is that we do has an opinion about what it is that we do. So that’s also a level of stress. Then you have to contend with the director on one side and the conductor on one side, hopefully they see eye to eye about things but not often they do. So the person standing on the stage, the person’s face on the stage, is always the first to get the shit. You know, if the director tells me to stand ten feet away from the soprano, no-one says that. They’ll say “Oh, Russell didn’t even want to touch the soprano.” You know, those kinds of things. But I love critics. They play a role in what it is we do.

OW: I agree, but there’s also a particular fad on the internet at the moment where certain people, so-called “critics,” like to juxtapose performances by certain artists with artists from the past in order to try and illustrate how bad current performers are. That kind of thing has a huge following, but it surely has no role in what artists today do.

RT: Again, I love the discourse. The fact that they’re talking about it is what I think this industry needs more than anything else. I mean, people say opera’s dying. Listen, if you read the critics from the early 1900’s, they were saying “Oh, opera’s dying. These people can’t sing!” And then you can read from the 1940’s, they were saying “Oh, opera’s dying, these new people can’t sing!” Then in the 1980’s it was the same thing. It was the “death of opera.” It comes in every generation.

Has the state of singing changed? Absolutely. But they didn’t have to get on a plane and go from one job to another. They got to go either on a ship or on the train, and they usually sang, probably, the same two roles for about six months. And then in another six months they did two more roles. Or rather, they took six months to learn those two roles. We don’t have that luxury today. We get one job, then we have to get to the next job…..to the next job…..to the next job. And in most seasons, my colleagues and I, we have maybe three or four new roles in a season. And we’re going from continent, to continent, to continent to continent, every other month, singing.

So YES, the quality of singing HAS diminished. I’m the first to admit it. Significantly. Also, the way we’re trained, as modern singers, versus the way they were trained forty of fifty years ago, is completely different. Forty, fifty years ago, people had voice lessons, voice instruction, language instructors….and they worked with conductors all the time. The great conductors would take a few singers under their wings, and they would work with them on a role. Like von Karajan and Leontyne Price on Donna Anna for instance, (“Don Giovanni”). They would sing it all the time together. She learned that role by singing it with him all the time together. We don’t have that luxury now. Conductors aren’t in one place for very long… they have contracts in four different theatres, they’re there eight weeks if they’re musical director, nine weeks, max twelve. They don’t have these relationships they had with singers back in the day and singers don’t have relationships with teachers and pianists like they had back in the day, where they were also with that person for four or five lessons in a week on a role. We don’t have that luxury today. Not to say that we can’t, but the business moves very fast. So, with that speed and the increase in technology, everything moves faster. Because of that, there’s not a lot of time to develop things properly.

This is why you find a lot of singers, sometimes, in repertoire that just doesn’t sound like the quality is there. Great voice. Great actor, even, but something is missing in the quality of the product they’re putting on stage. And that’s simply because we don’t have the luxury of time. We don’t have the luxury of time. If we say no to too many theatres; “Sorry, I want to work only on this role for now”; they’ll be like “What!?”, and then go on to the next guy who’s willing to do it for probably cheaper and for more performances.

OW: You spoke of these “Titans” that you looked up to as a boy, but you didn’t start singing until you were eighteen, I believe. Was there a time before then when you wanted to be an opera singer?

RW: Oh, yes. I fell in love with opera when I was eight. I came home from school one day and I turned on the radio and I heard people singing “funny.” I don’t know what it was about those sounds that I heard but I was hooked. And, so, every single day I came home from school, and I turned on the radio to listen. And then when all my friends were asking for GI Joe, I was asking for Joan Sutherland CD’s and records! I wanted a recording of Joan Sutherland singing “Lucia.” These were the things I wanted to hear, so I was very interested in opera from a very early age. I don’t know why, but it was like a magnet, for me.

OW: So when did you discover you may have a voice?

RW: Well, I never even attempted to sing opera or anything classical until I was in high school. But in high school I had to do this competition where you sang with a choir. So this one year my choir teacher said: “Maybe you should sing a solo this year,” so I entered this solo competition….she gave me these solo songs to sing…then she had this retired opera singer come and listen to us work and maybe help us out. So, about thirty seconds in this lady stops me and says: “What are you doing for college?” And I said: “I don’t know I’m going to the military academy.” When she asked WHY? I said “Because I want to be a politician!” (laughing), so through the military, is the way to become a politician. And she said, “Well, I think you should consider becoming an opera singer.” I told her that I loved opera. I went to all the dress rehearsals in Miami, I heard Pavarotti sing in 1989 and ’91…Before the Greater Miami Opera became the Florida Grand Opera House we had superstars there. I would hear Ghena Dimitrova there, I would hear Luciano there, Placido sang there, Simon Estes, James Morris, all these great singers who came to Florida and I would hear them sing, every year in dress rehearsals. And so, I was like…..I LOVE opera. So, this retired opera singer says to me, “Learn these songs, and then go and audition. Come and I will help you make tapes and send them to all of the conservatories. They will all give you auditions; go and do all the auditions that you can, and they’ll all give you scholarships and invite you to the school.” And they all did. She was absolutely correct. And so I said, “I’m not going to the military academy; I’m going to be an opera singer!” And she was teaching in a conservatory in Miami, and I decided to go to school there.

OW: So you really did end up living your boyhood dream?

RT: Absolutely. It was the only thing I ever wanted to do in my life, other than be a politician. And then to be able to make that happen and realize that, I’m very lucky.

OW: Why Politics?

RT: I love politics. Again, I love the discourse, I love the idea of getting to know people and doing things that can affect their lives in a positive way. And people don’t engage enough with politics. I don’t know what the percentage is, here in the UK, but only about forty percent of Americans get involved, in a Country that has 330 million people. Yes, there are divisions, but be on whatever side you’re on, and be active. Don’t sit back and say “Well, my vote doesn’t count, it doesn’t affect me.”  

And listen, working in THIS business is also politics. There’s a lot of politics here, for one reason or another, but it is there. So, I’m still in politics, just not ready for Senator or Governor yet!

OW: You were a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artist Development Program. What role did that play in advancing tour career and subsequent development?

RT: Yeah, from 2003 and 2006. Absolutely it played a role in advancing me. I think if I hadn’t…there are people and experiences I’ve had over my career, pushing me. If I hadn’t had those experiences and met those people, I wouldn’t have had the career I’ve had. If I hadn’t gotten into the Young Artist Program, I would never have met Peter Sellars, John Adams and people I worked with….John Adams wrote pieces for me. Then I came to Europe with Peter Sellars and John Adams, for different concerts. I sang a lot, in Europe for the first two years there. At the Metropolitan opera in the Studio, I met John Fisher, who was running Welsh National Opera right after that time. He brought me to Wales in one of my first jobs in the UK, at Welsh National Opera, singing twenty-two performances on tour with them: Tamino and Pinkerton, my first ever Pinkerton. These were huge for me. Then doing competitions where people like Peter Katona were on the jury. Again, all these things I had the opportunity to do over the years were tied directly to the Met; meeting James Levine, Peter Sellars, John Fisher and all these people who helped me along the way.

OW: You mentioned you were a single parent father to a ten-year-old boy. How does what you do impact Fatherhood?

RT: I mean, I love being a Dad…I don’t know whether I’m doing it right. You know, I’m always gone all the time, and at this time in a boy’s life, not having that constant fatherly presence…you know…? But I do what I can…I would fly home after a show just to give my kid a hug. People are like, “Woah, that must be very expensive!” Yes, it is, but I’d rather that than go weeks and weeks without seeing him. So even though I can only be there in the middle of the night, he wakes up, I can take him to school and he’s like super happy that I can take him to school, even though I probably won’t be there when he comes home. But I think those moments are incredibly impactful for him. I’m hoping that he won’t be saying, when he’s 16: “You were never home!” that kind of thing. He seems to understand now. He seems to be a very understanding kid, so we’ll see if it stays that way. You know, teenagers can be a pain in the ass! I was a pain-in-the-ass teenager!

OW: Well, I have read that there were aspects of your childhood that you have described as “unfortunate” and were instrumental in your wanting to be a father.

RT: Well I got into a lot of shit, but I wasn’t as bad as some of my friends. But I wanted to be with the tough crowd. I wanted to be one of those guys. I WASN’T one of those guys, but there was something about being with them that made me feel…. protected? I knew that if I had those guys in my corner, then no-one would fuck with me. If I was with those guys, no matter what shit I got into…. If I was with those guys, I knew I was OK. Because in the street, they were going to have my back. And that’s what I wanted to be around, more than growing up and starting trouble. I didn’t want to go up and start trouble, but if you picked a fight with me….if you got into trouble with me and my group of people, my friends; I knew that I had some tough-ass guys that were going to have my back. And that was important to me growing up. Miami is a tough city. It’s a fun city, but it’s a really tough city for a young guy growing up, and I grew up in the suburbs. I lived in the suburbs when I lived with my grandmother, but when I moved with my mom, we lived in a rough hood. So, you had to have a crew, you know, people in your corner so that if shit went down, you had someone that was going to help you out.

That was a rough period of growing up, living with my mom… and we didn’t have a great relationship. I’m sure there was love there, but I can’t honestly say I always felt love. I learned later in life that I was a product of sexual violence against my mom. I can’t imagine what that may have been like for her, having this constant reminder of that trauma around every day. That’s why I wanted to be a father, to show and share the love and support I don’t think I always got as a kid.

So yes… I wouldn’t want that for MY kid, but growing up a poor kid in a rough neighborhood… I needed that.

OW: You have said, “I will always speak for the idea that we need to have diverse voices” in opera. You have previously worked with students from historically black colleges and universities, offering virtual music classes and introducing them to the business of opera. Is this something you are still involved in?

RT: Absolutely. All the time. The thing is, I’m an advocate for singers. An advocate for opera. I think that’s important. Because the world is such a melting pot… the world is more diverse and the way this art form survives is by including everybody, by having enough people in its corner. So, I’m not necessarily an advocate for black people in the arts; I’m an advocate for the arts in general. The avenue for that, for me, if we can get more black people back behind the scenes; behind the stage, we get more black people on the stage, we get more black people in the pit, and you’re going to get more black people in the audience. More people in the audience means opera lasts longer. That’s my rationale. There has always been black people in the arts, but unfortunately, there are also stories of black people being marginalized and kept out of certain spaces and certain positions. I’ve experienced that myself. But I’ve overcome those challenges, some say because of the talent, some say because of how hard I work… who knows what it is? But I have been very privileged to have from being an outsider in the business to being one of the privileged in the business.

So, again, it’s about responsibility and my responsibility is to the opera. My responsibility to the art form is to make sure that somebody else who is on the outskirts… no matter if they’re black, Asian, Latino… wherever they’re from… Indian… I don’t care where they’re from. But if you’re on the outskirts and you have a talent and you have a passion for it, then that’s what I’m working for; to make sure they have a space if they want to be involved in this art form which I think is so amazing.

So THAT’S more the mission for me than anything else. But my vehicle for that, because I’m a black man, the easiest way for me to do that is for black people.

OW: So what’s next for Russell Thomas?

RT: Well, NEXT is a vacation! I finally get a vacation. Then in the fall I have “Fidelio” in Chicago, then I’m doing my first Emperor in “Die Frau ohne Schatten” at the Met.


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