Power to the People’s Tenor
PUBLISHED: 11:46 07 August 2009 | UPDATED: 11:40 28 February 2013
Russell 'The Voice' Watson took the music world by storm ten years ago before twice fighting an aggressive brain tumour. In 2009 he launches the Audley End concert season. Pat Parker spoke to him about why this is so important to him and his f...
WHEN Russell Watson, AKA The Voice, takes to the stage at Audley End this summer, it will mark an amazing return to form for the singer. He's recently completed a 20-date tour after twice beating off a life-threatening brain tumour over the past three years.
'It's fantastic to get back on the road and start performing again,' says 42-year-old Russell, who rose from a Salford factory worker to become an international opera star. 'The vocal strength is starting to come back and I'm hitting the high notes again. I think I've been singing better than ever and I feel a real sense of achievement.'
For his last two albums, he avoided the demanding Italian arias which made his name, sticking to jazz, swing and blues instead. 'There's a difference between singing Stranger in the Night and Nessun Dorma,' he says. 'With the classical stuff, the noise resonates around the front of the head, where the tumour was. I felt like an athlete who's been injured and has recovered - they're not going to go straight back into running their fastest times.'
But at Audley End he will be back to his best performing the likes of Nessun Dorma and O Sole Mio. He's also planning a new album and a return to the American market later in the year.
'When I sang Elvis, I sounded like him, and when
I sang Nat King Cole, I sounded like him. But I
just thought everyone could do that'
It's a remarkable recovery for the singer who nearly died after the benign tumour which was removed in 2006 grew back and almost killed him a year later in what he describes, with typical wry humour, as, 'its comeback tour'. The emergency operation to remove it saved his life, but he had to undergo extensive radiotherapy, and will have to remain on medication for the rest of his life.
There is something impressively stoical about how he talks about his ordeals with wit and good humour; the man who pioneered classical-pop crossover has a northern, down-to-earth warmth.
He was born in Salford in 1966, the son of a former steel worker and a shop assistant. His mum loved the classics and he grew up listening to
all kinds of music. But no one, least of all Russell, ever recognised his remarkable musical talent. 'I used to sing in the privacy of my bedroom. When I sang Elvis, I sounded like him, and when I sang Nat King Cole, I sounded like him. But I just thought everyone could do that.'
He left school with almost no qualifications at 16, and yet, he says: 'I always had the feeling there was something special around the corner for me, but I didn't know what. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to become an international opera singer.'
'People say it must be difficult to walk on stage at the Albert Hall. No! Walking out at the Back Belly Working Men's Club in Wigan in front of five people each with a pint is difficult'
He started work in a local nuts and bolts factory, married Helen (they were divorced in 2001), and earned a bit of extra cash singing in local clubs. After winning a local radio talent contest, he quit the day job and sang in working-men's clubs for a living. It was pretty soul-destroying.
'People say it must be really difficult to walk on stage at the Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra behind you. No! What's really scary is walking out at the Back Belly Working Men's Club in Wigan in front of five people with pints in their hands talking about Coronation Street.'
One night, a club secretary suggested he sang Puccini's aria Nessun Dorma, instead of the usual pop standards. He learnt the Italian parrot-fashion, and when he performed it, he brought
the house down.
His big break came when he performed the aria at Old Trafford in 1999 for Man United's Premiership-winning match. He gained a standing ovation, and has graced a host of prestigious sporting events since, including the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester.
A record deal followed his Old Trafford appearance. His first album, The Voice, sold millions worldwide making him the first British artist to top both the UK and American classical album charts. His next album went platinum within a fortnight, and topped the classical charts for 30 weeks. He has since gone on to perform before popes, princes and presidents.
Fame at a price
But fame came at a price. The heavy touring schedules led ultimately to the collapse of his marriage, although he remains a devoted father to his two daughters, Rebecca and Hannah. Then, in 2002, he developed a lump on his vocal chord, which threatened to wreck his singing career. This was successfully removed, but in 2005, he started to suffer excruciating headaches eventually attributed to the effects of the tumour.
'Out of adversity comes, I believe, a better person,' says Russell. 'Maybe I've gained an appreciation for life and an understanding of my mortality. I think I've become more tolerant and more sympathetic to people who are unwell.'
In May, Russell completed the ten-kilometre Great Manchester Run, raising money for charity, and he now trains regularly in the gym. 'I've never seen keeping fit as a chore,' he quips. 'I actually enjoy sweating and making myself ache.'
He has taken part in two TV talent shows - winning the duet contest Just The Two of Us, with Sian Reeves in 2006 and as a judge in Last Choir Standing. But he is scathing about the treatment of Britain's Got Talent contestant Susan Boyle, who was admitted to The Priory suffering from exhaustion after the final recently. 'Am I the only one who could see that coming? She was clearly a poorly person, she clearly had issues and she really shouldn't have been there in the first place. The whole thing has just become a circus, and the catastrophic outcome of the whole thing has affected somebody's life. That's not entertainment. It's just unfair.'
He also has sobering advice for anyone intent on entering the music industry. 'Getting there is relatively easy,' says Russell. 'Staying there is a slog. It's hard graft. You have to keep coming back every year with new ideas, you have to keep delivering. It's like a footballer - you can't have a bad game or you end up on the subs' bench.'
When he first became famous, he felt he was in a fairytale. 'I used to think, "I'm so lucky to be here, thank you," like a puppy with a waggy tail. But now I think, "I've deserved this". I've worked hard for it. It's not been handed to me on a silver platter. It's not been gift-wrapped. I've had to work for it, fight for it. I've had to come through a hell of a lot.'
At last, he feels fit enough to take his career to a new level. He is brimming with new plans, new ideas. He is excited to have just been awarded the male lead in the English version of the musical Kristina, written by Abba's Benny and Bjorn, which he will perform at the
Carnegie Hall in September.
'It's a fabulous piece and it's going to be absolutely fantastic to get back into America. My international career has pretty much been on ice for the last couple of years. But now I feel the time's right to go over there and make it happen.' Best of luck, Russell. You deserve it.