Gloomy opera singers galore have spent the pandemic in enforced silence. But not Russell Thomas. For excellence, variety, and adventure, the video triptych he has starred in over the course of the lockdowns would be hard to match.
The king with the complex in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, with the Los Angeles Opera. The tormented kingpin of strolling players in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. A bookish village lad lost to a gypsy in the Dallas Opera’s mini-series Vanished, a daring same-sex mash-up of the artist’s beloved Janáček with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Thomas, now 44, is the face and ringing voice of all three, not to speak of his imaginative outings as an on-screen recitalist. Next week he returns to live action at the San Francisco Opera, as Florestan, the visionary desaparecido in Beethoven’s Fidelio.
Growing up with his grandmother in Miami, Thomas fell hard for opera around the age of eight. By 12, he was devouring reviews and related online chat. But it wasn’t just opera that caught his ear. The gospel music he heard in church, he tells me, hit him “like a brick,” as did R&B.
You’ll have guessed that he sang in the choir. And when the international mezzo-soprano Joy Davidson, by this time on the voice faculty of the New World School of the Arts, in Miami, came to his high school to coach the soloists for an upcoming choral concert, a future he had never dared to dream of suddenly opened before him like Ali Baba’s cave.
“I think you can sing opera,” Davidson told him. “You just have to study. I guarantee that if you audition for conservatories, you’ll be accepted at every one, maybe even with full scholarships.”
“That was the catalyst for me,” Thomas says. “Everything I ever thought I was going to do before was over, because now I was going to study opera.” Davidson’s prediction came true, and her school’s scholarship was the one he accepted. Next stop: the star machine of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.
Thomas’s first assignment on the company’s main stage at Lincoln Center was as the Royal Herald in Verdi’s Don Carlo, a one-line, nine-bar blast of unaccompanied pomp and circumstance bracketed by salvos from the chorus. “I got a review for that!,” Thomas marvels. “A review for the Herald! I was so happy! I’ll never forget that!”
A second critic singled him out for his next cameo, the starry-eyed First Prisoner in Fidelio (one line, 17 bars, again in a choral context). Thomas can quote that shout-out verbatim: “He called my voice a ‘melting trumpet.’” The phrase conjures up Thomas’s burnished, metallic timbre—and also his powerful way of sculpting a legato line. What it misses is the sense of color, the velvet.
“What got to me as a boy was never just the power of an instrument,” Thomas says. “I’m very text-driven. I spend so much time reading text, forming a point of view about what the words mean and how they feel in my mouth. And all that colors how I spit the text out. I think of myself as a very honest singer. If I don’t got it, I don’t got it. But what I have on that day, you’re going to get. I think people connect with that honesty.”
With racial justice in the arts high on the international agenda, Thomas, who is Black, has inevitably attracted opportunism of a sort he could do without. He finds the role of Otello, Verdi’s louder-than-life avatar of Shakespeare’s dark-skinned Moor of Venice, uniquely exhausting. Yet impresarios clamor for him to sing it, and when the circumstances suit him, he rolls the dice.
“There are passages,” he says, “when there’s so much I can do with the text and the color and the way the text rolls off the tongue that is more poignant than all that yelling.” Notices for his interpretation have been respectful or better, and the bombardment of offers continues. His next Otello is on the calendar of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, in July 2022.
“The press office called,” Thomas reports, “and the first thing they said to me was ‘You’re the first Black Otello in the history of the Royal Opera. We want to highlight that.’ And I said, ‘If you do, I will walk.’ There’s no place for identity politics in classical art.”
The San Francisco Opera’s Fidelio, starring Russell Thomas, premieres October 14
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii