Thursday, May 15, 2014

Meet Our Singers: RUSSELL THOMAS, Hoffmann

Following his first Tales of Hoffmann performance on Sunday, Russell Thomas received a huge ovation for what the Seattle Times described as his ‘mighty tenor.’ The opera lovers of Seattle have been following Thomas since he was a Young Artist here, in 2002/03, and enjoyed his mainstage debut as Foresto in Verdi’s Attila in 2012. He spoke to us recently about the challenges of singing Hoffmann, about his passion for new American music, and about the life of an opera singer.

Russell Thomas sings Hoffmann’s Tale of Kleinzach

Have you sung this role before?
Once, in Toronto in the spring of 2012.

What was it like to learn Hoffmann for first time?
The role itself is not that difficult to learn; for me, the challenge is French diction. This was my third French role, after Gounod’s and Berlioz’s Faust, and I learned it in Canada, where French is pronounced differently from what I was taught in college. With French diction, you get a lot of different opinions. Italian and German are pretty straightforward in comparison. Long ago I learned that whoever is coaching you that day—they’re right!

What makes Hoffmann different from other roles you sing?
It’s long—probably the longest role I ever will sing. I think it’s one of the longest roles in the tenor repertory. So stamina is a great challenge—pacing it so you make sure you can get through the night without feeling tired.

Russell Thomas as Hoffmann and Leah Partridge as Giulietta in The Tales of Hoffmann
Elise Bakketun, photo

What do you think this opera is about?
I think this opera is a man telling the story of his relationship with a person who has multiple sides to her personality. Sometimes she can be emotionless and cold like a doll, sometimes she can be fragile, and sometimes she can be sexy and whorish. Hoffmann is just like any of us that has ever had a relationship. Everyone has multiple sides to their personalities. I know I do. I’m not the same all the time and especially in relationships we can all be a little crazy. That’s why it’s such a relatable story. Sure, the libretto is complicated, but it’s the story of every man or woman who has experienced a tumultuous relationship.

And the other characters?
The Muse is Hoffmann’s conscience, and it depends on the production, but you could have it that nobody sees the Muse and Nicklausse but Hoffmann. And then you have the Devil. It’s a bit like the kind of cartoon where you have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.

Russell Thomas as Foresto in Attila at Seattle Opera, 2012
Elise Bakketun, photo

Last time you were in Seattle, we heard you sing early Verdi: Attila. And you’ve done some French Verdi: Don Carlos in Berlin. Are you more a French or an Italian tenor?
I like singing in Italian and I love the music of Verdi. I relate more to that style of music, but I’m going to be singing a lot of French repertory, especially in Canada.

What’s the difference between the French and Italian styles?
French Grand Opera requires clean lines. Think about it in terms of fashion: it’s straight lines, and you can see where the beginnings and the ends are. In Italian, the lines are a bit more blurred; you have more flexibility to adjust for your own vocal strengths.

I saw that you’ve worked with John Adams. How did that come about?
I worked with Peter Sellers on a Mozart project for about a year, touring all over the world, and Peter was doing a new opera by John Adams for a festival in Vienna and introduced me to John. John liked me and wrote a character in his opera A Flowering Tree for me. It was a huge success, and we did that opera everywhere. Then John wrote another role for me in another opera, The Gospel According to the Other Mary. I’m a big fan of new music, American music, and I think it’s incumbent on me as an American singer to promote that repertory.

Russell Thomas (Hoffmann) enters Luther’s Bar in the Prologue of The Tales of Hoffmann
Elise Bakketun, photo

It can be difficult to get American audiences to embrace new works the way they do the classics.
I think it’s a question of education. In this country, we grow up with this mentality that anything from Europe is better. I think we need to spend more time, energy and money educating our audiences and letting them know that there’s great American music. It’s not going to sound like Mozart. Art grows and changes over the years, in classical exactly the same as in pop, and someone needs to teach people that.

Tell us a little about the life of an opera singer.
It can be rewarding and exciting, but also a very lonely life, living out of a suitcase and in different places all the time. I know it seems very glamorous to be onstage, and even backstage, but really it’s a very boring life! Often you can’t go out for fear of getting sick, and there’s always so much to learn. I’m working on a role in Rusalka, it’s my first time ever singing Czech, and I’m trying to stay sane by breaking up my day with House of Cards and stuff like that. Your average singer may have 15 or 16 different jobs in a season, and if you’re lucky some of them will be music you’ve sung before, which is easier.

Top to bottom: Alfred Walker (Dapertutto), Leah Partridge (Giulietta), Russell Thomas (Hoffmann) and Keith Jameson (Pitichinaccio) in The Tales of Hoffmann
Elise Bakketun, photo

How did you become an opera singer?
I was a very odd kid. I’ve been in love with opera since I was 8. I heard it on the radio and I was absolutely fascinated by it, and I remember thinking, “I want to do that.” Luckily I was blessed with the ability to sing. When I was 8 I’d sing in church, and at school, and for family functions, and then I got into children’s chorus and got more involved in classical music and there it is.

Tell us a little about your family.
I’m orignally from Miami, but I currently live in Atlanta. I don’t get to see my family in Miami as often as I would like. I’m planning on adopting this year, which is a big deal. My schedule is booked well into 2018, but luckily the right situation came about: I have some free time when the baby is due. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a very long time, and I think you have to just jump in and take the risk.

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