In 1945 Robert Todd Duncan became the first person of color at the New York City Opera to perform with the traditional white cast. It took a long time. Opera, which history dates back to 1597, frowned upon the mixing of races, especially blacks in the theater; however today, things are gradually changing, and sopranos, altos, tenors, baritones and bass characters are chosen essentially because of their abilities to sing.
Most people probably aren’t aware of the multitude of African-Americans singers who have or who are singing opera today. Greats like Paul Robeson, William Warfield and Vinson Cole have graced the stage with their stunning and resplendent voices along with more than 500 distinguished men of color.
Russell Thomas is one of those distinguished voices. Debuting as Verdi’s Otello, he is now performing in the lead role in Il Trovatore as Manrico at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Thomas’ golden voice has gained national acclaim singing with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He has also performed with the San Francisco, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Canadian Opera companies and at the legendary Metropolitan Opera. His voice has traveled the world.
So it’s with great pleasure that Let’s Play introduces another highly acclaimed African-American operatic singer who has been called the voice of elegance, intrinsic, a refined sense of style, and exceptional; and we dubbed him the “Golden Voice,” Mr. Russell Thomas.
IN CONVERSATION WITH RUSSELL THOMAS
LP: Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to interview you?
RT: It’s my pleasure, Rick & Brenda.
LP: Russell, there aren’t many African-American males singing Opera. What got you into Opera and who inspired you the most to sing?
RT: My love for opera started as an 8 year old kid who sang in the church in my native home of Miami, Florida. One day I came home and heard people on the radio singing opera. I became fascinated with their voices and the singing, so every day after that I looked for classical music stations and listened to opera; I was hooked. As a kid I never asked for toys, I always asked for recordings of operas. I was a strange kid in that regard, but I found something that I liked and stuck to it. I saw my first opera, Carmen, at New York City Opera when I was twelve, and my love for opera still continues today.
LP: With a voice described as, “Penetrating, rich and spine-tingling,” when did you come to realize that singing opera would be your chosen profession?
RT: When I was in high school, a voice teacher came to hear my high school choir. I was singing a solo, and she pulled me aside and told me I could be an opera singer if I studied. Excited that she saw such great potential in me, I decided that’s what I was going to do.
My family, however, thought it was weird. I was an athlete, wanted to be a football player, then I wanted to be political, so singing opera took them by surprise. My plans were to go to a military academy, be an officer and become a politician – but everything changed when I was a junior in high school when this stranger told me I could be an opera singer.
She told me, ‘I’ll give you a few voice lessons, teach you a few songs, and you can go audition for all the schools, and I guarantee you will be accepted and will get full scholarships.’ I auditioned for a lot of schools, and they indeed offered full scholarships, however, since she believed in me and saw my potential, I decided to go to the school she was teaching at: New York School of the Arts.
LP: In the past, you have played Giuseppe Verdi, Otello and now graced the Lyric Opera stage as Manrico. Tell us your thoughts about playing these two magnificent characters and provide any similarities or differences between the two roles.
RT: They’re all different – the great thing about singing Verdi is that it gives more opportunity to be more individual and expressive versus Puccini. With Puccini, if everyone sang exactly the notes written it’s going to be great no matter what. With Verdi, there’s more room for you to put your individual mark on a phrase, aria or role. From Il Trovatore to Otello – the music is all exciting and different from period to period. And especially with Il Trovatore, an opera that’s very familiar – everyone knows these numbers, so the challenge is to give people what they’re used to hearing while also giving them something new at the same time.
LP: You have performed around the world. Tell us one of your favorite places and role(s) you have played and why?
RT: I would say The Met (Metropolitan Opera) of course because it was a childhood dream of mine to sing there. I like singing in Toronto – the theater is not too big, the audience is fantastic, and the staff is very supportive. I love singing everywhere – there are worse jobs to have than singing. [laughs]
I like the history of the Lyric. Every great American singer has sung in that theater. The orchestra and chorus at the Lyric are amazing. Everyone there is so supportive, and the colleagues get in the pit and on stage with you, as your cheerleaders the whole time. They are a great group of people to work with and make music that pleases the soul of the audience. And of course, Chicago is a great city…I don’t like the cold, but it’s a great city.
My favorite roles include Hoffman from The Tales of Hoffman, Don José from Carmen (I’ve only done it once, but it’s a favorite of mine). Manrico is also a favorite of mine – the whole part is fun and exciting, other than the angst that I feel for the 2 minutes during Di Quella Pira when I hold the high C keynote. Most people don’t choose to sing it in that key, and even I think I could take it down a half step or that I’m holding this high note long enough; however I wonder, are people going to complain if I don’t hold it long enough? These are the things on my mind when I perform.
LP: What is on your Opera Bucket List?
RT: La Gioconda– it’s not done very often, and it’s a fun show. Tannhäuser is my favorite – I watch it all the time on YouTube.
LP: What advice could you provide to motivate the new generation of African-Americans to help them appreciate opera music and even inspire them to be the next operatic Russell Thomas?
RT: Who can’t improvise, sympathize or relate to these emotions and situations that opera brings to the stage? Yes, sometimes the plots can be convoluted, but in the end, the circumstances are the same as far as love, loyalty, hurt, war and pain. These are natural human emotions that are done on a grand scale.
I think a lot of times African Americans feel intimidated by coming to the theater which is not helped by specific social issues that we see. I believe that when we get past that angst or insecurity about being in these spaces and get to the root of the art being presented, everyone will enjoy it and get involved.
I found that when the casting is diverse, the audience tends to be more diverse. To make opera sustainable, we must diversify the audience on stage, backstage, etc.
I also believe people feel they will not fully understand what’s going to be said – but there’s always subtitles, and a program to read regarding the plot to help the audience receive the richest of the play and what is being said and seen.
The only way to inspire another Russell Thomas is to make opera accessible. If theaters and companies bring classical music to people in underprivileged and lower-income neighborhoods, they can inspire some kid who might get “the bug” like I did. Exposure does so much. Without the exposure, there’s nothing we can really do.
I hope people understand that Il Trovatore has amazing music with larger than life emotions. It’s a very visceral experience. This opera is unlike many others – with subject matters of betrayal, love, and pain that people can relate to no matter who you are and where you are in life.
LP: It seems like Il Trovatore is the perfect production for the Thanksgiving season, with all its family drama…
RT: Yes, that is precisely what it’s like. How many times have you gone to Thanksgiving and you’ve had some big blowout with some family member? I know, in my family it’s a yearly event – we’re sitting back waiting to see who’s going to make the first move to start a blowup. And then we talk about it for 6 months. [laughs]
That’s what I love about opera – I tell people all the time that it might be in a different language, it might be people singing in an unconventional way, but the emotions and the situations are all things that we can relate to. Even if it’s a hundred-year-old story, we can always compare it to something happening today.
Let’s Play would like to thank Amanda Berrios, The Silverman Group Chicago and The Lyric Opera of Chicago for giving us the opportunity to break bread with Russell Thomas. Il Trovatore will be at The Lyric Opera of Chicago from November 17th – December 9th. Go to the link below for tickets.