Few people would have expected Russell Thomas to become a leading man in opera. Nobody in his family listens to opera, and even now that he has become a singer, they don’t often go see his performances.
“It’s not for everybody,” he says. “But the times when my family has come to the opera, they were extremely moved by it. … They gave it a chance.”
It was this chance that transformed Thomas’s own life when, as a young child, he turned on the radio one day and heard opera for the first time.
The boy found it strange—he had never heard the human voice used in this way before, and in an unfamiliar language, but he was intrigued. From then on young Thomas listened to opera every day, trying to decipher its structure.
At 12 years old, his grandmother took him to see his first staged opera. It was love at first sight—the lights, the drama, the music captured his heart, and the boy told his grandmother that day he was going to be an opera singer.
“It changed my life. It made a little poor black kid from Florida realize that there was something more than football, basketball, R&B, hip hop—there was something more,” said Thomas who has performed at some of the world’s leading opera houses in the past two decades, including New York’s MET and the Royal Opera in London.
He now hopes more people will get the chance to experience the art form. But he admits there are challenges in reaching people today. One is the notion that opera is elitist.
“Opera is elitist, and it’s been unapologetically elitist, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not accessible. Pop music is equally elitist. Pop musicians make millions of dollars because the public likes the music,” he explains. “I think that we need to not think of it as being elitist. We need to think of it as, ‘Is this something that I can relate to?
“Who cannot relate to being loved or loving somebody? Who could not relate to death or losing someone they love? Who could not relate to war, especially today? Who can’t relate to these things? That’s what makes it accessible,” he says noting that opera has always reached different audiences—not just the wealthy.
Opera today also faces another obstacle, namely that people—especially young people—often lack the patience to give it the consideration it deserves, he says.
“It’s more challenging today to get a younger generation interested in something that’s not going to be spoon-fed to them. Everybody wants things to be easy. Opera and other arts and literature today, a lot of them require you to think, and people don’t necessarily want to think right now. But I would say, give it a chance.”
For Thomas, who suffered from abuse in his childhood, the opportunity to sing opera was a precious one. It offered him a needed escape—a haven from the difficult circumstances of his life at the time. And it continues to play this part for him today; stepping into other people’s shoes gives him a means to deal with his own emotional baggage, he says.
Currently Thomas is performing the leading role of Pollione in “Norma,” Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece, with the Canadian Opera Company (COC), running in Toronto until Nov. 5.
The character is a callous one—a Roman general who has an illicit relationship with Norma, a Druid high priestess. After having two children with Norma, he goes on to pursue an affair with Adalgisa, her good friend.
Yet in the last 20 minutes of the opera, Pollione undergoes a change. Touched by Norma’s sincerity and devotion, the Roman general rediscovers the depth of their love and sacrifices himself for her people.
Thomas has sung the role in over 40 performances with different opera companies and has developed a special connection with Pollione, who has been looked down upon by many “Norma” audiences for his lack of integrity, he says. However, Thomas has endeavoured to bring out the nobility in the character by emphasizing the contrast between the first and last acts.
“I think it’s because as a human being, I always want people to see the good in myself,” he says. “It’s our responsibility as human beings … to show the good in people, in humanity.”
Throughout his career, Thomas says he has experienced his share of difficulties as a black singer. He explains that tenors usually play a romantic role in opera and this poses a challenge for cultural minorities.
“It’s very difficult for some people to see or to grasp that that’s a possibility.”
One reason could be racism, but it could also be that opera companies haven’t seen cultural minorities play such a role before, he says. “[In some cases], they haven’t seen a positive romantic lead being a black man before, and until they’ve seen it, and until there’s been a positive response to it, they think it’s not possible.”
This is changing however, and while he says opera houses have been less open in the US, than in Europe, gradually the bigotry is fading.
Fortunately, Thomas had some great role models to look up to in the past, such as George Shirley, the first black tenor to sing a leading role at the MET, and other great voices. But fundamentally it is his love of opera and the art form pushes him to go forward, and carry the torch for his generation and other generations.
“I think everybody has to do their part and I think that’s the only way that we can end systemic racism and bigotry against people for their faith and for their ethnicity or whatever the case is. We all have a responsibility to do our part … and I take that very seriously,” he says.
Thomas believes it is especially important for young people to see inspirational role models. Just as young people in America can now see it’s possible to have a black president, they also need to see themselves being represented in the different professions, including opera, he says.
Thomas has now found a warm welcome in Toronto at the COC, where last season he realized his dream of singing the leading role in “Carmen”—the opera that first inspired him to become a singer—and where he will be returning for upcoming seasons as well.
This December he will also be back on the MET stage in “Nabucco,” singing the role of Ismaele, alongside legendary tenor Plácido Domingo, who has recently shifted to baritone roles.
He says that while it’s been intimidating to work with legendary singers in the past, he has always been impressed by their kindness and generosity, and is now looking forward to working with Domingo whose work has inspired a love of opera in audiences and singers alike.
“Opera is a culmination of all the arts. Everything comes together with opera more so than anything else, and this is what I think makes opera so special,” says Thomas, who is committed to helping more people appreciate the art form.
The Canadian Opera Company’s production of “Norma” runs until Nov. 5 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. For more information, visit: www.coc.ca