San Francisco Opera | Power and passion: Tenor Russell Thomas dishes on Verdi’s ‘Ernani’ and the future of opera

Power and passion: Tenor Russell Thomas dishes on Verdi’s ‘Ernani’ and the future of opera

It all started at age eight, with a young boy twiddling the radio dial, fatefully landing on a station that played opera. That moment of discovery, of bliss, of clarity and direction, led tenor Russell Thomas to pursue a career on some of the world’s greatest opera stages, his voice — by turns soft and earth-trembling — winning him legions of fans.

This summer, Thomas (Norma and Roberto Devereux) makes his third appearance with San Francisco Opera, bringing his incomparable artistry to an operatic gem: Verdi’s Ernani. In it, he makes his role debut as the title character, a swashbuckling, 16th-century bandit who has to fight off Spain’s most powerful rulers in order to claim the hand of his true love, the noblewoman Elvira.

Being one of Verdi’s earlier works, Ernani is rarely performed, so San Francisco Opera reached out to Thomas to ask why he’s tackling the role today — and what influences have brought him to this point in his career.

Tenor Russell Thomas

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How did growing up in Miami shape you as an artist?

THOMAS: Miami shaped my artistry mostly through my faith. I grew up with a grandmother who was a minister, so I was always in church — I loved church! I learned how to communicate with an audience and be unashamedly passionate about something… and then I heard opera on the radio. I saw some of my first operas at Greater Miami Opera (now Florida Grand Opera) and fell in love with opera.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Who has been the most influential figure in shaping your career, and why?

THOMAS: There were many people who helped me, particularly Elaine Rinaldi, my first mentor. A pianist and conductor from Miami that trained in NYC, she nurtured my natural talents and taught me about Italian style. Then there was Ken Noda at the Met. He taught me to sing Mozart and bel canto with my voice, which was so important for me.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You’re coming off a number of recent, high-profile turns in other Verdi operas: Your performances in Otello with Canadian Opera Company and Washington National Opera were smash hits, and you recently played Radamès in Houston Grand Opera’s Aida. What attracted you to yet another Verdi role, this time the title character in Ernani?

THOMAS: I feel like I understand Verdi and my voice serves the demands of the music well, particularly the higher roles. Ernani is an opera that isn't performed often, so when the opportunity came along to sing this iconic role I didn't hesitate to say yes. I’m performing the role with the additional aria that Verdi composed for Parma in 1844. It’s a challenging aria at the end of Act 2. I figure if I’m going to sing the role, I may as well attempt to sing all the hard parts!

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How do you take a character like Ernani — this nobleman in disguise from 16th-century Spain — and make him relatable both to yourself and a 21st-century audience?

THOMAS: This depends on the production — in an older period production, it can be harder to modernize. However, as with most operas, there are themes dealing with very human emotions and situations that people throughout the ages have had to contend with such as love, betrayal, forgiveness, and revenge. If the production is clear, the artists on stage will be able to tell a story that’s relatable.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You’ve told interviewers that you stumbled across opera on the radio as a child and simply fell in love with the art form. What are the barriers to opera appreciation for young people today?

THOMAS: I believe the biggest barriers are exposure and music education. When I was a kid in elementary school, I took a music class and sang in a choir. I don't think I had a choice. Today, in most cities around America, school districts tend to cut the art programs when the budget gets tight. There also doesn't seem to be enough outreach to communities that normally wouldn't experience opera or classical music. Some institutions are better at this than others. If we can consistently educate kids about opera and expose them to it, we will get some new fans, I’m sure of it.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you while on stage? And how do you improvise the unexpected when singing opera?

THOMAS: I can't recall any particularly funny occurrences, but the beautiful thing about live performance is that you can't stop when something goes wrong. You have to keep going. In the moment every artist just knows what has to happen and you make it work.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: In an ideal world, what does the future of opera look like?

THOMAS: Grand! I've read articles and various criticisms about the state of opera from 30 or 40 years ago. They declared it dead then too! It’s not going anywhere, but artists have a responsibility to be the best possible advocates for this beautiful art form. Companies have a responsibility to put on a product that makes people feel something — good or bad — to have a visceral reaction to what they've experienced in the theatre.

Where Opera Meets Illustration: An Interview with Shawna X