lust for life

Rus­sell Wat­son tells how ev­ery­thing has changed fol­low­ing his two brushes with death.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FOCUS - By Neil McCorMiCk

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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