With this move, the organization, which has been facing a stubborn decline in attendance in recent years, has at once secured a nationally regarded vocal expert and a favorite local son. Russell, 54, worked at the Washington Opera before going on to run the Wolf Trap Opera as general director and co-found, with Stephen Crout, the Washington Concert Opera in 1986. Russell left Washington in 1997 to take over the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindeman program for young artists, and he then served as general director of Opera Colorado from 2001 to 2007.
Now he’s back home, and — in short — Vocal Arts DC is just about the only vocal organization in Washington that Russell hasn’t run. Furthermore, his experience means he is well positioned to continue Perman’s tradition of attracting some of the biggest names on the vocal scene — Joyce DiDonato, Gerald Finley, Stephanie Blythe — to sing recitals in Washington.
The song recital is a more rarefied taste even than opera, and Vocal Arts DC has learned that the Washington opera audience isn’t necessarily easily sold on it, even though Vocal Arts regularly presents some of the biggest stars in opera in some of the D.C. season’s best and most interesting performances, year after year. Russell is well aware of the challenges but doesn’t see a job outside the opera field as a real departure.
“I would say that the classical voice is what has always held the greatest attraction to me,” he said in a recent e-mail, “and, if the right combination of artists are let loose in collaboration on exactly the right poetry and music, the rewards of either can be equally rewarding.” He added, “Of course, the scenery, costumes, props, lighting and big orchestral and choral forces are exactly the elements that make opera palatable for those who find the simplicity of a recital too ascetic. But I have to believe, having been bitten as a child by the opera ‘bug’ in all its ridiculous, over-the-top glory, before parlaying that love gradually into ‘all things vocal,’ that others can make the same journey I did with the proper tools and education.”
Vocal Arts DC has two more recitals this season: Anna Caterina Antonacci, April 11, and Gidon Saks, May 30.