lust for life
Russell Watson tells how everything has changed following his two brushes with death.
Singer Russell Watson tells how everything has changed following his two brushes with death.
Ilisten to recordings of my voice from 10 years ago, and think, ‘Oh Jesus, that’s bloody awful’,” confesses Russell Watson, laughing heartily.
“i feel like a completely different human being now. My appreciation of what i do, the music, my life, my focus, my preparation, my sense of personal well-being – everything has changed.”
the album Watson refers to so disparagingly is his 2001 million-selling debut The Voice, featuring lusty interpretations of operatic arias. it topped classical charts on both sides of the Atlantic and placed Watson in pole position in a new wave of crossover stars. staunchly working-class, a former factory worker and pub singer from salford, who learned his Mario lanza songs from his grandmother, Watson insists he always understood his appeal lay in “the gulf between what people see and what they hear. i knew what my world was.
“if you want Hamilton smeeton-smythe, who’s trained at the Royal College of Music in london and is technically amazing, then i might as well just walk out. But, if you want someone who can have a natter about Coronation Street then sing Nessun Dorma, i’m your man.”
At 43, he is no longer quite so cavalier about his oeuvre. “illness opened my eyes,” he says. Handsome, earthy, with a vigorous, no-nonsense manner, Watson has been to the brink of death and back – twice.
in 2006, a large tumour was removed from his brain and he began a slow, painful process of recovery. then a year on, it was discovered there had been a re-growth, with bleeding into his brain. “When i was lying on the hospital bed and i was told that i needed immediate surgery or i probably wouldn’t live much longer, i thought to myself, ‘Holy s***, i’ve got to go through this again! i don’t know if i can, or if i even want to.’ But making that choice, to go for it, to live, somehow that has changed everything.”
He underwent emergency surgery in October 2007. it has, he says, been a long, hard journey back. “When i did start singing, i realised when i was going up for the top notes, the strength that i’d had before, the effortless power i’d felt, had gone. When i was trying to hit the top notes, i felt dizzy, as if i was blacking out.”
But Watson hadn’t been wasting his time as an invalid.
“i’m a very competitive person, so, if i’m playing tennis, it’s great fun, but my ambition is to get better and win more games. it’s the same with music. i guess when i got ill, i saw that as an opportunity. so i haven’t been sitting on my arse doing nothing. i’ve been studying music, reading medical journals on how the voice box is constructed, taking the opportunity to find out all kinds of things. And i’ve been working with a voice coach, every day practising, going through my scales, building my stamina back up, getting the strength back. And not just that – getting the confidence.
“the physiology of singing is quite complex. People say it’s all about the breathing and projection, but that’s absolute rubbish. there are so many different factors that can affect the sound of a voice – the smallest cavities of your soft palette, your hard palette, the nasal passages, the size of
Classical crossover singer Russell Watson wants to try his hand at performing classic operas like
by Puccini. your vocal cords, the strength of your diaphragm.
“And, when you’re going up for the top notes, the psychology of singing is just as important as the physiology. especially when you know that you’re right at the top of your range. You start taking yourself out of the comfort zone when
you’re going for the big notes, the money notes, like the ones at the end of nessun Dorma, the top-B natural – they are the ones people want to hear rattling around the Albert Hall. All the rest of it is the build-up.
“it might be a spectacular and amazing show, but they’re waiting for the top B. is he going to hit it? How long is he going to hold it? How is it going to resonate? that’s what makes what i do so incredibly difficult because the effort that requires is massive. For the past two years, i’ve had a right battle to get my stamina back in place, my throat back in place and my mind back in place.”
On albums and in concerts since his illness, Watson has stuck with less demanding pop repertoire (“i’ve got to earn a living, and i can sing Frank sinatra and Ray Charles all day without stretching”), but he has been eager to return to the classical arena. A half-way step came with his role in the english-language premiere of Kristina, a critically acclaimed musical composed by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of Abba. Watson gave three performances at Carnegie Hall in new York (in september 2009) and the Albert Hall (in April this year).
“At the end, there’s a section where i’ve got hold of Kristina, and she’s dying. it’s a show, but it felt real, and i just gushed; i collapsed emotionally on stage. there were tears rolling down my face. Coming off, people were saying that was some of the best acting they’d ever seen, but it wasn’t acting at all. it got me right there.
“ten years ago, i was like a puppy dog with a wagging tail, and i didn’t really see much that was going on around me. But when you’ve nearly died a couple of times you feel things in a way that you could never have imagined.”
now, he says, he would like to tackle a classic opera. “i genuinely believe i could do it. Probably Tosca, Puccini. that would be a great opera to start with.”
this month, he releases a new classical crossover album, La Voce, recorded in Rome with ennio Morricone’s orchestra, the Roma sinfionetta.
“When i walked into a studio for the first time in 1999 with the Royal Philharmonic, i was petrified. i’ve been all over the bloody place since then and worked with some of the best orchestras on the planet, so i’m more experienced. the record is still similar material – neopolitan arias and core classical – but delivered in a less innocent fashion. From Pucccini’s Manon lescaut, we’ve got Donna Non Vida Mai, an amazing aria and something that technically i wouldn’t have been able to approach 10 years ago.”
Watson’s enthusiasm for the album, and, indeed, for life, verges on the belligerent. “in all fairness, most people who bought a Russell Watson record won’t have been classical critics, so they won’t have known the difference between an aria being sung incredibly technically perfect or not,” he acknowledges.
“But when they listen to this next record, they are going to get something completely different.
“it’s like a good bottle of wine. You taste a fresh one and you go, ‘ Um, lovely.’ And then you taste one that’s matured in oak barrels and been in a bottle for years and it’s like, ‘ Oh, yeah!’ You don’t need to be an expert to know that it’s better.” — © the Daily telegraph UK 2010 n Russell Watson’s La Voce is released on Nov 22 by Sony Music.
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