Chicago Sun-Times

Photo by James Foster

Photo by James Foster

Russell Thomas, a mighty voice in opera, champions the need for more diversity

Tenor Russell Thomas believes in the power of music.

After all, music — specifically opera — changed the course of his life.

“I started singing in church as a kid. Grandma was a preacher and I was in the church choir, so I traveled with her and sang all the time,” Thomas recounts, with a chuckle. “I had a very sweet voice — except in church. We went to a Southern Baptist/Pentecostal church. You had to get the point across.”

At the age of 8, Thomas got his first taste of opera after turning on the radio one day after school, where he heard people “singing funny.”

“I had no idea what it was,” he says, “but I came back the next day and searched for it on the radio again and listened. I continued to listen every day after school. I had no clue what I was listening to, but I knew I liked it.”

He saw his first opera, “Carmen,” when he was 12. Later, at his Florida high school, he found students could get free passes to dress rehearsals at the local opera company, and he “saw a lot of opera.”

“I was in chorus in high school, and one day our teacher invited an opera singer to work with us on our solos. After class, the singer came up to me and said, ‘You could do this for real. You could be an opera singer.’ ”

That singer turned out to be mezzo-soprano Joy Davidson, who would become Thomas’ teacher and mentor after graduation, when he received a full scholarship to the New World School of Arts in Miami, where Davidson was an instructor.

“I loved opera, but never thought I would sing it professionally until she believed in me and made me believe I could do it,” Thomas says. “I got accepted at nearly every [music] school I applied to, with full scholarships. … I went to New World because [Davidson] believed in me from the start and changed my life.”

Thomas, praised by the New York Times as “a tenor of gorgeously burnished power,” returns to one of opera’s most iconic roles — Manrico in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Il trovatore,” which opens Saturday night at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. An opera cursed with a delightfully (and nearly) incomprehensible plot, and blessed with some of the most sumptuous music you’ll ever hear, “Trovatore” demands much from its Manrico tenors. Thomas is well-versed in the role, having performed it most recently with Cincinnati Opera and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. Starring opposite him in the role of Azucena in the Munich production was renowned mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who joins Thomas in the Lyric staging as well.

Thomas’ other critically acclaimed roles have included some of the most revered in opera, including Rodolfo in “La boheme,” Ismaele in “Nabucco” and Andres in “Wozzeck,” all at The Metropolitan Opera; Alamiro in Opera Rara’s “Belisario”; Cavaradossi in the Los Angeles Opera production of “Tosca”; Don Jose in Canadian Opera Company’s “Carmen”; the title roles in “Les Contes D’Hoffmann” at Seattle Opera and “Don Carlo” at Washington National Opera, and Adorno in the Royal Opera’s “Simon Boccanegro,” among many others. He made his Lyric Opera debut in 2017, singing Pollione in “Norma.”

Even with his distinguished repertoire, Thomas, an African-American, does not shy away from expressing his concern over the lack of opportunities he sees for minorities in the world of opera.

“There are a lot more working African-American [opera] singers who are amazingly talented and they don’t get the opportunities,” he says. “And I think that it starts from before people decide what they want to do with their lives. If I wasn’t inquisitive enough to turn on the radio one day and hear opera I wouldn’t have experienced it. No one came to my elementary school and sang or told us about opera, and I grew up in a pretty decent suburban community, not necessarily in the ‘hood. Imagine the kid that grows up in the projects — they don’t know that there’s something else.  I heard of more black stars in opera in the ’80s, ’70s and the ’60s than there are now. And that’s very telling. … You had Leontyne Price, big star. Shirley Verrett, big star. Kathleen Battle, big star. Simon Estes, big star. We don’t have that today.

“… I knew it would be hard being a black tenor singing romantic [opera] repertoire,” Thomas continues. “I can’t complain because I stay working. But I see so many of my friends and colleagues that don’t. A lot of that is due to the fact that [opera company] administrations are white, all over the country. I preach about that a lot because I believe the way you diversify an audience [is] by diversifying the stage. But if there are not people backstage that are thinking diversity, you don’t have it. Lyric Opera is one of the big companies that makes an effort to have diversity on their stages. But I think, and I haven’t done this, but if you go back and count all of the named parts in the [season’s] operas, then you [ask] how many of those are done by African-Americans? … The arts should represent or look like the community that they’re in. Disproportionately that doesn’t happen in America.”

In a statement, Lyric Opera’s general director Anthony Freud said the company “is committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion throughout our organization. We are actively working to increase our diversity in all aspects of the company — onstage, backstage, throughout our administration, and within our professional training programs. This season, approximately 28 percent of named roles in our opera productions are performed by artists of color.”

When it comes to music outside of opera, Thomas chuckles and admits his taste runs a unique gamut. “Well, there’s two sides to that. There’s the Nina Simone/Dame Shirley Bassey [side], and then there’s the ghetto trap music [side]. I’m a huge fan. I’m a kid of the South!”

Miriam Di Nunzio

Beth Stewart