Russell Thomas defies categorization in a business that is all about genus and order. As a child, when he was first turned on to opera by the radio, he stood apart from his peers. "There was nothing else I did with my spare time," he remembers. "My friends got G.I. Joes and He-Mans. And I got Maria Callas recordings and Leontyne Price." Ever since, the thirty-year-old tenor has developed an identity and career that, at least on the surface, don't fit neatly anywhere. "I'm sort of a conundrum, because I'm a gay, black Republican," says the Miami native (who actually doesn't remember the last time he voted Republican). "Those things shape the person I've become over the years."
Thomas, a graduate of the New World School of the Arts, completed his last season as a Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artist in 2006, and he goes on to London next month to reprise the Prince in Peter Sellars's production of John Adams's multicultural fairytale, A Flowering Tree, a role he created in Vienna. Recent outings include Sellars's take on Mozart's Zaide in Vienna and New York, Tybalt in Michigan Opera Theatre's Roméo et Juliette and the First Prisoner in the Met's Fidelio, in addition to numerous recitals. Still, the winner of the 2006 Liederkranz Competition hasn't left his studious side behind - Thomas holds forth easily, with firm opinions on politics and the responsibilities of young-artist programs, and it's clear that his unbound curiosity and analytic nature carry over to the detailed portrayals and meticulous delivery of text that accompany his blazingly ringing, burnished timbre.
Despite the rich opportunities Thomas has had, he knows his career has progressed this far amid "a lot of 'no's" and will continue to encounter prejudice, an inescapable fact of life for a black tenor. He recalls one of his first auditions for a young-artist job, "The guy was very complimentary about my voice. He said, 'I think this is a major talent,' and then ended by saying, 'Too bad you're black.' I was totally shocked. That was the first sort of wake-up call."
Holding ever-pragmatic views about his career, and burning to sing Peter Grimes, Thomas takes as a role model Jon Vickers, "who sang some of everything. I don't think singers today can afford to be one-dimensional. I think it's necessary, and even more so for me, because as a black tenor, I don't think I'll be able to fulfill my potential if I don't diversify." The field of opera may set Thomas apart, but he stands on his own above the fray, with deep musical interests that range from Janáček to Adams. "I'm drawn to those kinds of projects, because I feel like I need something to set me apart. I wouldn't be satisfied only doing one thing."
–Janet A. Choi