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Opera Star Visits VOA - 2001-09-03

British singer Russell Watson didn't think he was destined for stardom in the classical music world. However, in just eight months, the former engineer has gone from a singing in smoky, working-class pubs in his native Manchester, to some of the most prestigious concert venues in the world. Russell's debut album, The Voice, highlights his operatic tenor, along with some pop repertoire for his younger fans. The rising star visited VOA and spoke with Bernie Bernard.

When he was growing up, Russell Watson listened to everything from Mario Lanza and Luciano Pavarotti to Meat Loaf and 1980's new wave pop. His debut album, The Voice, includes arias as well as rock tunes, including a cover version of "Vienna," by one of his favorite rock bands, Ultravox. Russell says he chose the material because it was close to his heart, and he wanted non-classical listeners to understand the passion he feels when he's performing. He said, "For me, personally, I suppose it's a goal that I've set myself to introduce classical music to people who might normally or sometimes feel intimidated by the world of elitism and snobbery that is sometimes attached and associated with this particular type of music."

In the past few months, Russell Watson has been performing all around the world, and has reached the Number One spot in seven countries with his album The Voice. He even had the chance to sing in London's Hyde Park with his boyhood idol, opera great Luciano Pavarotti. Russell recalls when he and another young star, Charlotte Church, were ushered in to see Pavarotti for the first time.

Mr. Watson said, "We walked in, and he said, 'Come in and sit down.' He went, 'You sit there' to me, and 'You sit there' to Charlotte. It almost felt like meeting Father Christmas [Santa Claus]. It was these two young people meeting this figurehead of classical music. I just felt like turning around and saying, "I'll have an Action Man please, Father Christmas.'"

During his performances, tenor Russell Watson always insists that the lights are shining on the first 10 or 15 rows of people. He admits that he gets the most fulfillment out of people's reactions, not necessarily the act of singing. And, he always likes to speak with fans after each concert.

"And they say, 'Wow, when you sang such a song you made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.' Or somebody coming up to you and saying, 'You sang Caruso and it made me cry.' It's nice to know that I've had an impact on somebody, whether it be for three minutes or 10 seconds."

Russell Watson says he's always been down-to-earth and unpretentious. He's worn his hair in a spikey style since he was 12 years old, and has kept up with the latest fashion trends.

He took an equally casual approach with Universal Classics, when he auditioned for his recording contract. As Russell tells the story, he walked into a room where 10 top executives were waiting. He continued, "One of them said, 'Have you got a CD for us to listen to' and I said, 'No.' 'A tape?' 'No' 'You brought a video?' 'No' 'Any press?' 'No,' 'Well, how do we know what you're like?' And I said, 'Because I brought my voice with me.' And I sang, and within about two hours, there was a deal waiting back on the table in Manchester. I suppose I went in with my usual, typical, northwest Manchester cocky lad attitude and they liked it!"

During the next few months, Russell Watson will be recording a follow-up album in the United States, with a major concert tour planned for early 2002. He's also featured on the soundtrack to the new film, Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

Russell's debut album, The Voice, has made it to the Number One spot on Billboard Magazine's Classical Crossover chart.