A chat with Russell Watson
Ahead of his intimate concert during a Tripsmiths cruise to Venice, the acclaimed tenor chats to us about his life and career, and what he most loves about the city.
Russell Watson is one of the UK's foremost musical talents and one of the country's most successful tenors. He has released ten studio albums, in both operatic and pop style, all of which have been critically acclaimed.
However, his amazing career did not get off to a stereotypical start. Russell left school at sixteen with no formal qualifications and spent eight years working in a factory making nuts and bolts before winning a local radio competition, beating four hundred other contestants. This was just the beginning of a career that has spanned fifteen years and seen him perform for the late Queen Elizabeth, The Duke of Edinburgh, King Charles and even the late Pope John Paul II.
What first got you into music and was there a particular point at which you thought, this is going to be my career?
I've naturally always loved music. I grew up in a house that constantly had music playing in it. My father was a big country and western fan, and my mother was into Cliff Richard, ABBA, and all the pop repertoires. I think my love of classical music predominantly came from my grandparents, my grandmother was a big classical music fan and listened to the likes of Mario Lanza and Chopin.
My grandfather was a classical pianist and used to own a Steinway Grand piano. When I was small I spent many evenings sitting underneath the piano and leaning against the back leg. I could feel the vibrations going up my spine and I'd often fall asleep there, much to my grandparents' amusement. I think that's where my love of classical music was born from.
Did your grandparents live to see you grow into the star you are today?
My granddad didn't, which is quite sad, really. You know when people ask whether you have regrets in life? I don't have regrets as such, but certainly, I regret certain people not ever getting the opportunity to see me perform on the big stage.
Do you have a few highlights of your career as a classical artist?
I've been so fortunate. I think the real highlight was performing for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. I have also performed for the late Queen Elizabeth on a lot of occasions. I've sung at a couple of the Royal Variety performances, and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
I did three full scale concerts in the back garden of Buckingham Palace, one of which was televised on national television, so that felt like a big deal.
Did you find that nerve wracking?
No, I don't find singing nerve wracking at all! It's what I do, if I'm on stage singing then I'm never nervous about that.
One of my first big performances, in the early stages of my career, which was probably one of the catalysts for my success, was performing at the last game of the season in 1999 when Manchester United won the Champions League.
There were about 60,000 people in the stadium, and I've never sung in front of that many people before. I literally just walked out into the middle of the field, sang Nessun Dorma and came off to a standing ovation, and the guy who was comparing at the side of the pitch, said, " Wow, weren't you nervous?" Honestly I wasn't.
The only time I ever feel any sense of nervousness is if I am not feeling 100% and worry about causing any damage to my vocal chords.
What have been some of the more challenging moments of your career?
Overcoming the illnesses that I've suffered over the years has been a challenge. It's completely changed my outlook on life and my viewpoint on what's important. That's what having a near death experience will do to you.
The second tumor that I had became dangerous when I went to bed one night and it hemorrhaged and I didn't wake up the next morning, so I was rushed to the hospital. I had emergency surgery and thankfully I survived it and subsequently endured 25 treatments of radiation therapy and that was that.
That knocked the stuffing out of me and I wasn't able to sing the repertoire that I've been used to singing for a long time. I had to do a much lighter repertoire for a good three or four years. It took a good six or seven years before I could start singing the likes of Nessun Dorma again.
I was actually told in the hospital that I wouldn't ever be able to sing to the same level that I had been. But I have defied medical cynics and I am now back to full strength and full vocal power. In fact, I think I'm singing better than ever now.
Do you have a favourite album that you've produced?
The first one I would say is definitely the special one, simply because it was the first and it was magical. Months before I had been singing in a back street working men's club. And then all of a sudden I'm at George Martin's Air Studios in Lyndhurst Hall and recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with Nick Dodds.
Can you tell us about the transition from the working men's club to the studio, and how that came about?
It was so quick, it was unbelievable. I've mentioned that I'd been singing at various different high profile sporting events, from the rugby Union World Cup in front of a full crowd at Twickenham where England played New Zealand, to the Rugby League Challenge Cup final and the Champions League final in front of 92,000 people at the Camp Nou Stadium and all of a sudden people saying, "Well, who's this kid that's singing?"
Slowly, my reputation began to build. At the time I didn't even have a manager. When I walked into Universal Studios I said, look, if you're looking for someone who has trained at the Royal College of Music for 50 years with Sir Umberto, and can sing every note on the page to absolute perfection then I might as well leave now, but if you're after somebody who's been singing to working men and women all over the Northwest, singing classical music in little working men's clubs and getting standing ovations, then I'm your man.
I said I believed that I could take classical music to a much bigger scale and introduce it to an audience that prior to me would often have felt intimidated.
I had a five album deal on the table before I'd even got home that evening, with the biggest record label in the world. The first record we made was recorded in 1999 and it was released in September 2000. It stayed at number one in the classical charts for 52 weeks, and it has never been beaten.
You are joining us on a trip to Venice, can you tell us what makes Venice special for you?
I love Venice, first of all, it's in Italy. And I love Italy. I love the culture, I love the people, I love the language. Of course I love the language, I sing in the language! But there's something extra special about Venice. I've been at different times of the year, but every time I've been there, I've never ceased to be impressed by the splendour and the grandeur of the place. It really is quite superb and it's a thrill to be going there to work.
Can you give us a teaser of what you'll be talking about on the trip?
Rather than a formal talk I prefer to run more of an informal conversation during my private performance. I will start off by singing two or three classics and then pause for some questions.
When I first started doing smaller group performances and I opened up the floor to questions, do you know the very first question I was asked? The first question was what shoe size are you? The next question was, is that your real hair? And then the third question was how much money do you have? So now I tend to open up the conversation with a topic and we go from there. I have more of a strategy now!
And are you managing to turn the work trip into a holiday?
I would absolutely love to but we are going to have to see what my schedule is looking like, it's so busy at the moment. I am juggling running a farm alongside my career. We have three dogs that need walking every few hours, one cat, one parrot, six alpacas, six chickens, one cockerel, nine horses and thirty odd sheep. My wife also runs a livery stable here on the farm, so it's all systems go! So we shall see, I would love to fit in a break in Venice if I can.