Q & A: Tenor Russell Thomas on His First ‘Otello’ & Historic Met ‘Bohème’

By David Salazar

For years, tenor Russell Thomas has developed into one of the rising stars of the opera world, his incredible lyricism and potent dramatic voice making him a fixture for some of the greatest operas. He has dominated in Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini alike at the greatest opera houses around the world including the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Lyric Opera of Chicago, LA Opera, and Canadian Opera Company and in just days the tenor will be climbing to the peak of the tenor repertoire for his first ever “Otello.”

After that, he heads to the Metropolitan Opera to join soprano Angel Blue in a historic night as both singers become the first black singers to share the famous stage as Rodolfo and Mimì in Puccini’s “La Bohème.”

The tenor recently talked to OperaWire about these two momentous occassions and what they mean for him.

OperaWire: What are the greatest challenges of taking on the role of Otello? Why do people warn against taking it on too early in a career? 

Russell Thomas: The greatest challenge of a role like Otello is the pacing. It’s not particularly lengthy but there are long stretches of declamatory singing. Although It only has a few high notes, it sits in the lower middle of the voice which takes more effort to project over the thick orchestration. Keeping the passion and emotion contained as much as possible is extremely difficult and once the emotion gets into the vocalism it takes more energy and effort.

OW: Many see it as the Mount Everest of tenor roles. What made you feel ready to take it on at this moment in your life? And why with ASO? 

RT: It definitely is the Mount Everest of tenor roles!! After singing Stiffelio at Oper Frankfurt in early 2016, I realized Otello could be a possibility. Although my voice is on the lyric side of tenors that would sing this part, I believe I have enough experience to sing the role convincingly. I always thought if I would try to take on such a monumental task, the first outing would have to be in concert so I can focus only on the singing and not have to worry about staging and costumes, etc. When the ASO began floating the idea, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to try it.

OW: What is your favorite moment of the score? Why?

RT: I have a few favorite moments – Act two – just because it’s so difficult. If you can conquer that act, the rest of the role will cause less problems.

The soft dynamic markings throughout the score. They are ignored a lot, but I’m trying to honor them. I believe this will set my Otello apart from many others.

Also, the iconic Act three monologue “Dio mi potevi” because it shows everything about the role. The legato, the wild declaratory phrases, and the piano singing.

OW: What do you think are the keys to taking on this role carefully but effectively?

RT: Unfortunately, I don’t know yet. It’s the type of role you don’t know how to sing until you sing it. I can try to pontificate about how one should sing it, but I would only be speaking theoretically because I don’t know.

My intention is to sing lyrically and quite soft whenever marked to make the forte declamations have more bite. I hope this will make my Otello a success.

OW: Historically, who is your favorite Otello and why? 

RT: Mario del Monaco for the sheer power and visceral nature in which he sang the role. Jon Vickers for the drama and emotion.

I’ve only heard Pertile and Lauri-Volpi sing the arias but I love them.

OW: What do you hope to bring to the role? 

RT: I hope to bring the qualities I love about del Monaco and Vickers, with a vocalism akin to that of Bergonzi. Above all, I hope it will be a success.

OW: Will taking on your first Otello open up new repertoire possibilities for you?

RT: I have been offered these very dramatic roles for some time. I have declined them until recently. I believe if these concerts are successful, I will get more offers for Otello, Forza, etc. but I wouldn’t want my repertoire to be limited. Imagine how boring that could be, even with such phenomenal choices.

OW: Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about your upcoming Met performances in “La Boheme.” It’s going to be a historical event for the house. It’s the first time in the company’s history that two black singers share the two lead roles. What does it mean for you and what excites you most about sharing the stage with Angel Blue? 

RT: Angel Blue and I have only communicated via social media. We don’t know each other. It’s always an honor to share the stage with other artists of color. I’m excited about that. The diversity that the Met has begun to embrace more recently is equally exciting.

I don’t like to think about the history of it. So many great artists of color have come before me and helped pave such an opportunity. I’m grateful and thankful for their hard work and sacrifice. That’s the history, I’m just lucky to be walking in their footsteps.

OW: What do you enjoy most about Rodolfo in “La Bohème?” 

RT: For me, Act three of “Bohème” is some of the best music in my opinion. I enjoy it and believe that vocally I have a lot to offer that act.

OW: Finally, what is the best part about singing at the Met? 

RT: The history of that great hall. That orchestra. That chorus. It’s an experience that brings me such emotion each time I’m about to step on the stage.


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