Interview with tenor Russell Thomas

Tenor Russell Thomas

One of the real treats of performing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York is the simple pleasure of sharing a meal with friends in the cafeteria.  In this setting, I had the pleasure of meeting tenor Russell Thomas while he was with the Lindemann Program, the Metropolitan training program for young artists.

The purpose of interviews on TenorTalkBlog is to create a repository of knowledge of what the best tenors experience during the execution of their vocal technique (at least those willing to share).  Thomas Russell’s will be the first interview conducted with a tenor that is not an international star, but that is a serious contented in becoming such. 

A native of Miami, Tenor Russell Thomas is making a lot of waves in the opera world. Recently he was the First-Prize winner of the prestigious  Francisco Viñas International Voice Competition in Barcelona (First Prize, Audience Favorite and Best Tenor), and winner of the Competizione dell’Opera in Dresden.  You can find recordings of his on his website www.russell-thomas.com.

I can’t help but mention this: when I listen to Russell I hear a timbre of voice that is very reminiscent of Mario Lanza.   I think that is a big compliment.  It’s a very beautiful color of voice.  I always tell people that ask for technical advice that you can learn technique, but you can’t learn beauty of voice.  That is a gift from God that you either have or you don’t.

An exciting season begins for Russell with the Duke in Rigoletto at the Teatro Municipal in Santiago de Chile, followed by Tamino in The Magic Flute and Andres in Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera, Faust in La Damnation de Faust in Frankfurt, the title-role in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with the Boston Symphony and James Levine and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly with the Atlanta Symphony and Robert Spano. Other notable concert appearances include the Mozart Requiem with the Milwaukee Symphony and Edo de Waart, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Dallas Symphony and the Rossini Stabat Mater with the San Antonio Symphony. Future plans include debuts with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Seattle Opera, all in leading roles.

As you can see, Russell is very busy and will give us many opportunities to witness first hand why he has been so successful in the first phases of his international career.  Much of that success stems from the quality of one’s voice, and much from technical proficiency. We should all recognize that technical proficiency increases with experience on stage.  So when a young tenor like Russell shows the kind of skill that he does, you really have to take notice.

Without further ado, here is my interview with tenor Russell Thomas.

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JL: Tell us about your history in learning technique. While young, you have a robust tenor voice. What have been the technical ingredients for developing a free and robust sound?

RT: I began taking lessons in 1995 at 18 years old when a voice teacher from a local conservatory heard me sing a solo in my high school choir. She told me I could be an opera singer and as a lover of opera that was all I ever wanted to hear. She gave me some lessons and told me she was positive I could get into any school I auditioned. She was right, I did. So my entire life plan changed. My first teacher at conservatory in Miami was David Crawford, a tenor with great, if unorthodox ideas of support and singing with a low larynx. He told me to overdo everything. Be aggressive with my support and be aggressive about keeping my larynx low. He felt that if I went too far, it was easier in these 2 areas to scale back. But not going far enough you never know what is possible.

He told me at our first meeting that my larynx sat naturally in a ‘very high position’ and I needed to be conscious of it. I had no clue what that meant at 18, but I paid attention. So I was conscious of my larynx from the very beginning, sometimes too much, but I believe this has helped me throughout my vocal development. He had me use my tongue to push the larynx down to feel the sensation of a low larynx. We would vocalize like this in the beginning. I was walking around all day shoving my larynx down. He taught me to support by using what he called a ‘necessary resistance’. He would ask me to take small breaths and exhale on a voiced ‘s’. As I exhaled he would apply pressure near my belly button and tell me to resist this pressure, and don’t allow my breath to fall because of it. After working like this for more than a semester we relaxed those and put them together. As I took a low breath I allowed my larynx to relax lower and the throat opened. Today I don’t have to think about it as much, it happens more naturally or automatically.

He told me never to ‘place’ a cover on the voice, allow the voice to tell you when it wants to cover. He felt that if you sing pure vowels with an open throat, as well as a strong and steady support the voice will cover itself when its ready or needs to. I did it and it works for the most part. It was from a place of purity in the vowels. And the last part of his teaching was to allow the voice to ‘place’ itself using the breath. He advised me not to place it forward because that had the tendency to cause nasal singing or the throat to close. Allow the breath to place the voice. All of these things came together, but the singing was very ‘rough and ready’. I didn’t know how to make music with my instrument, only sounds or noise, depending on who you ask. I only knew how to sing high and loud which works for some people. After 2.5 years I felt we were at our limit as a team. I understood those tools he had to offer, I wanted new information. He warned, ‘if you ever begin to find difficulty in anything God gave you naturally, get the hell out of there’.

I had some other teachers 2 that ruined me. I started singing with very poor intonation and a short top. It was, in my opinion too much about placing the voice in the mask and ‘tucking’ the support. I guess they tried to get me to sing more ‘forward’, but the idea of the mask didn’t work. One summer at Aspen, I met a wonderful teacher Phil Frohnmayer who taught me about the use of the hard palate to gain more squillo. It worked for me. shaping the vowels more along the place where the soft and hard palates meet. Which is probably the same thing people mean about singing in the ‘mask’. However, the idea of singing in the ‘mask’ made me sing nasal and cut off space. Singing on the hard palate gave my voice more presence and for some reason gave me more control of it. Nikki li Hartliep helped me explore for a year and a half and put all of these things together to make music. I learned how to connect my breath more to the text and hard palate. I began to learn how to sing legato by not jumping around in the positions. The singing became classier, but still wasn’t technically efficient.

I went without a teacher for about 2 years. I worked by myself to figure out some things technically, like how one should never ‘reach’ for the top notes because they will always fall short. The higher I sing, the lower I feel it in the body and it works for me. I auditioned for the MET without having a teacher for more than a year and a half. I was invited to the studio and I met Mark Oswald who gave me legs to stand on in terms of the technique. I learned of a second passaggio. I learned of a connection between the intervals and vowels. I gained the confidence to keep the space open and free below the passaggio and learned how each vowel turned/covered differently depending on the pitch and whether the vowel was open or closed. I learned my voice does a weird ‘mix’ just below the turn on any given vowel. After working with him for 6 months I was able to do things with my voice I had never done before like a true messa di voce in and above my passaggio. It’s a style of teaching that is very micro-managed down to the smallest interval on each vowel in various parts of the voice. It was the first time I left a studio and felt like I knew how to sing. I could make my voice do what I wanted it to do at any given moment, when healthy or sick. I feel now that I have a technique, which for the most part, is efficient. The challenge now is consistency, which is difficult because I can be a lazy technician sometimes.

JL: How do you approach the passaggio, and could you shed some light into how you worked on developing it?

RT:  This is very tricky for me only because I feel the way it developed was by my not manipulating so much and allowing the voice to do what it was naturally inclined to do. My first teacher always said never ‘over protect’ the voice. He believed that takes the brilliance off. I have heard examples of singing that lacks brilliance and seemingly because singers cover ‘just because they think or were told they should’. Using most of what I stated before, low aggressive support, singing on the hard palate, and low larynx are all ingredients of my singing in the passaggio. Just below the passaggio on any given vowel the voice is in its most open position. For instance on an ‘a’ vowel at F-natural the position is very open and if I could describe its placement I would say ‘back and high’ while always maintaining a low larynx and connection to the hard palate. Depending on the day an F# is not as open but definitely not covered. A G-natural is truly in this mix of ‘almost covered’, and an A-flat is completely turned over. These things all happen a half step lower on ‘o’, and a half step lower than that for ‘E’ and a half step lower than that for ‘I’ and ‘u’. Of course these are just guide posts. But this is how my voice naturally moves through the passaggio, with the help of Mark Oswald I am just more conscious of it.

JL: What are the sensations you experience when you sing in the low, middle, passaggio, and top?

RT: I honestly don’t know how to answer this only because I don’t think in terms of sensations in my singing. I don’t have much of a low voice and I haven’t figured out technically how to manipulate one. It’s getting better, but it’s not where I would like it. Which is interesting to me and people that hear me because the color of the voice would make one believe I had a great low voice. To keep some resonance I try to keep very narrow/gathered position in the vowels. In all parts of my voice I want to go for freedom and efficiency in the production. Sometimes getting that is easiest when I stay out of my way. Doesn’t really answer the question but I honestly can’t think of a sensation to describe, even as I am vocalizing and typing.

JL: What are your ideas on breath support?

RT: This is the most simplest, I think. I inhale and direct the air to the lower back on the inhalation. I feel I have more control over what happens when I am directing the air there and its stronger and more grounded. As I am singing a phrase I resist allowing the breath to collapse by focusing the energy low, like toward the groin and having the tension or work be around the belly button, never much higher. I find that if the musculature in the upper abs are tight and tense the throat will soon follow. I also only take as much or as little breath as it takes to sing a phrase. I don’t believe in ‘tanking up’, or making a big belly on the inhalation. I don’t believe in ‘tucking’ the lower abs as you sing. I believe from a purely physical standpoint this is the opposite of support. In any event it’s never worked for me. The higher and the softer I sing the more work/energy lower in my body is required.

JL: Can you shed some light into how you have developed your wonderful sense of legato?

RT: You are too kind with ‘wonderful sense of legato’. When I was working with Muti on Foresto, I realized I have a long way to go with singing legato… trusting the need not to change the positions again and again. Using the breath better and consistently to travel through the registers. Shaping the text without interfering with the flow of the air is a difficult thing for all singers. I am still working that out. Sometimes its great and other times, not so much. Sometimes I think I over pronounce the text, but I believe that the text is so important to what we do on stage that its hard for me to sacrifice the clarity of the words to ensure the most consistent legato. I don’t think one has to, I just haven’t learned to do both ALL the time.

JL: Are their technical challenges linked to the different languages you sing in; and how do you manage these?

RT: The only challenge is singing a consistent legato. Over active text is a problem. I understand the way some languages work better on my tongue than others. Italian and German works best for me, then English and Spanish. French I have the hardest time with, but I think that has more to do with the insecurities created by coaches of French vocal literature. In Italian or German there is little variation on pronunciation, while 3 French coaches will tell you 3 different things about 1 phrase. I just haven’t gotten comfortable with it yet. A language study in France next summer is in the plans.

JL: How do you manage different acoustics from theater to theater?

RT:  I sing the same way no matter where I am singing. I always try to sing with lots of colors and dynamic contrast no matter what. The only time I think I truly sing differently is in song recital. I take a lot off the voice to try and sing more ‘intimately’. Most times its successful. When have tried this on the operatic stage I am told it isn’t as effective.

JL:  Can you describe for aspiring artists what it means to have a career in this field?

RT:  Without going on any sort of tangent, I will say it’s the most frustrating and rewarding thing anyone could ever do. Using my heart, mind, and body to make music and theatre has produced some of the most satisfying experiences in my life… Performing Janacek’s Diary of One Who Vanished with Kaye Voyce and Robin Guarino; creating the role of the Prince with Peter Sellars and John Adams, reprising the role with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, performing Zaide with Louis Langree and Peter Sellars, coaching with James Levine and Riccardo Muti… It doesn’t get much better than that. However, the lonely nights and the ‘business’ of making art is at times unbearable, but I couldn’t imagine not doing it at this stage in my life.

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