Had Russell Watson followed some early career advice, the classical tenor might be singing ‘N Sync-like pop tunes instead of arias.
“I was told, ‘Oh Russell, join a boy band, leave the opera to the Italians,”‘ the 27-year-old Brit recalls hearing from agents. “That just made me more determined.”
His determination has paid off handsomely. Watson, who is not classically trained and who got his start singing Meat Loaf and Lionel Richie songs in the pubs of Manchester, has become an opera sensation with the release of his debut disc, “The Voice.”
Already a best-seller in Britain, the album has spent weeks on top of Billboard’s classical crossover charts. It’s won praise from two of THE tenors – Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. In fact, Pavarotti recently invited Watson to sing with him at a concert. An invitation to sing for the Pope also stands.
Watson’s boyish good looks and self-effacing humor have only added to his appeal. This month, PBS stations will air “The Voice,” a special featuring Watson in concert, and on Aug. 18, he will be among the artists performing for President Bush on “An American Celebration at Ford Theatre,” airing on ABC.
“He’s a normal guy, and people relate to that. He’s almost the boy next door of this music,” says Kevin Gore, president of Universal Classics Group, the parent company of Watson’s record label, Decca.
There are plenty of people in the classical world, however, who wish Watson had taken that early career advice. Most of the arrows come from critics who characterize his tenor as they have that of Andrea Bocelli – lightweight.
But Watson believes the criticism has little to do with his voice.
“I think the problem is that people – certainly some of the classical buffs – feel that ‘He’s not been to college, he hasn’t gone through the traditional route, he’s not from a middle-class background, he can’t be good,”‘ he says.
Bill Hayward, Watson’s vocal coach, agrees.
“I think the critics are people who are jealous,” says Hayward. “Certainly in England, the opera establishment… is very snooty and very cliquey.”
“He’s not part of that, and he does not want to be,” he adds. “He’s the people’s tenor.”
Watson dropped out of high school at age 16, and most of his knowledge of classical music comes from his childhood, when his working-class parents played arias, along with pop tunes, in the house.
“I was pretty much growing up in an environment where classical and pop were almost interlinked, so it didn’t seem unnatural to me at all,” he says. “There was no facade with classical music to an 8-year-old’s eye. One doesn’t see necessarily the elitism and the snobbery that’s attached to it.”
Watson, who worked briefly as a laborer, began singing in local bars, taking requests while people played pool.
“I must admit there where nights where I felt like, ‘What the… am I doing in this place?’ Absolute diabolical venues,” he says.
It was a performance in one of those pubs, however, that changed Watson’s life.
As he tells it – and he likes to tell it often – he was getting ready to sing one night when one of the club managers requested a certain song: “Nessty Dormat.”
“Of course, he meant ‘Nessum Dorma,’ which I was familiar with anyway, because of my childhood,” said Watson.
Watson took some time to practice the song, from Puccini’s “Turandot,” since he knew no Italian. When he sang it for the audience, the response was overwhelming.
“It was the first time that I’d ever had a standing ovation. So after that, it wasn’t really a difficult decision as to what my vocation might be,” he said. “And that was when I began to develop my voice.”
Watson began studying with vocal coaches and sang opera almost exclusively. He graduated from pubs to cabaret lounges to small theaters, and eventually had enough of a following that he was asked to sing “Nessum Dorma” before the 1999 European World Cup final.
He believes part of the reason for his success is that he didn’t spend decades training at musical academies trying to perfect his voice.
“I’ve sort of taken the backdoor route into the classical industry, and maybe that’s what’s made me a little bit more popular, and gives my voice a popular touch,” he says.
He knows, however, that his voice needs training. He recalls that Hayward, on first hearing it, compared him to a novice driver at the wheel of a Ferrari – “Lots of power but very little control.”
And Watson is learning, Hayward says. “I think if he’s careful with it – and he is careful with it – it will mature into a very beautiful instrument.”
So far, “The Voice” – which mixes traditional operatic tunes with pop classics such as “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” – has sold 135,000 copies in the United States, according to Soundscan.
Although many of his fans appear to be first-time classical-music buyers, Watson says he is now getting invitations to appear at classical venues that had shunned him in the past.
“If classical music is going to progress… and attract younger, fresher newer audiences, then it needs younger, fresher, newer people to champion that… people like (Charlotte) Church, people like Bocelli, and the Nigel Kennedys and Vanessa Maes,” he said. “Otherwise, classical music is going to die.”
He tries not to let the critics bother him. After all, he reasons, he’s the one singing with Pavarotti.
“When you’re getting accolades from artists like Domingo and Pavarotti, who essentially are the greatest tenors of the last 20, 30 years… who cares what the critics say?”