The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russell Thomas is much more than a black tenor. Now, he’s tackling ‘Otello’ and the field’s stereotypes.

Russell Thomas in 2017. (Fay Fox)
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Russell Thomas is a single dad to a 5-year-old son. He’s an opera singer who was bitten by the opera bug when he was 8 and wanted to be a singer ever since — “even before I knew I could sing,” he says. He has performed in the world’s major opera houses, gradually working his way from Mozart roles, which tend to be on the lighter end of the repertory, to the vocally heavier operas of Verdi. Now, Thomas, 42, is taking on Verdi’s “Otello,” one of the most punishing roles in the repertoire, which he will perform to open Washington National Opera’s season Oct. 26. And suddenly, it seems that Otello is all anybody wants to hear from him.

Thomas is black and Otello — or Othello, the title role of the Shakespeare play on which the opera is based — is black, or at least a Moor. You can debate how dark a Moor is supposed to be in Shakespeare’s vision, or in Verdi’s, but as the predominantly white world of the performing arts gradually opens its eyes to the world around it, it seems increasingly problematic to cast white people in roles written for and about people of color.

The problem with Otello, however, is that there are very few tenors, white or black, who are able to sing the role. Thomas, now, is one of them, and the opera world is eager to seize on him, not only as an Otello but also as a representative of the diversity that the field claims to be desperately seeking.

Yet in forcing Thomas and other black artists to be spokespeople for diversity, the field is essentially overlooking just what it is that makes them such notable artists in the first place. It’s a sign of how opera, as well as other areas of the classical performing arts, continues to stubbornly otherize people who don’t conform to the white template that has been the norm for so long — and hasn’t, in fact, come very far at all.

“I am not an Otello,” Thomas says over a recent brunch at a restaurant near Chinatown. It’s a weekend morning that happens to be free of rehearsals, and Thomas is taking a break to discuss life with his son, Austin (who stays in Atlanta with his grandmother now that he’s started school); his dream roles (he’d like to sing more bel canto, the lighter melodious operas of Bellini and Donizetti); and, of course, diversity in opera, the topic he can’t avoid. There needs, he says, to be more black administrators — an avenue he’s starting to explore himself. “If you’re not going to change the structure of the institutions,” Thomas says, “what’s really going to happen?”

As to his not being a true Otello, Thomas has some people fooled: The WNO production is his third outing this calendar year. (He has also sung the role two times in concert.)

But what Thomas is saying is rooted in a vocal self-knowledge he has had since he was a young singer. His voice, he says, is on the lighter end of the spectrum of voices capable of singing the role at all. Otello calls for a big, loud, dramatic voice that can pump out sound over the orchestra. “I can put out a lot of sound,” Thomas says, “but my voice doesn’t thrive on that. It thrives on the softer moments. It thrives on the finesse.

“After I do it,” he adds, “I just want to drink a whole bunch of water and lie down. And the next day I want to do nothing.”

As a result, Thomas is wisely restricting future Otello performances. His next stage outing in the work will be in 2022. Yet the invitations continue to pour in.

Thomas always knew that as soon as he started doing Otello, he would risk being pigeonholed in the role. It’s an extension of what has long been a problem with “Porgy and Bess,” an opera once again in the spotlight because of the current Metropolitan Opera production. That opera has traditionally been a mixed blessing at best for talented black singers; once you were invited to sing in “Porgy,” opera companies had even less incentive to cast you in anything else. Times have changed, though, as most of the Met’s current “Porgy” cast have appeared in other roles with the company, and black male singers, who used to have particular difficulty breaking opera’s color barrier, are better represented today on international stages than ever.

Yet there’s still quite a bit of pigeonholing. Issachah Savage, another black tenor who sings Otello, says he has a similar problem. “I don’t want to be only Otello,” he says, “even though I love the role.”

Savage notes that standards may not be equal, either. “For so many years as Otello, we have endured Caucasian men in painted face,” he says. “Now that they’re finally allowing African American men to do the role, the pressure is very steep.” Black singers are examined under a more exacting lens than white ones in the same role.

Stereotyping black tenors certainly isn’t new. George Shirley, 85, was the first African American tenor to perform a leading role at the Met. He recalls that in 1965, Gian Carlo Menotti asked him to do “Otello” at the Spoleto Festival, despite the fact that his lyric tenor voice was more suited to Mozart and the lighter Puccini operas. And that was long before houses saw any social pressure to start casting roles with more racial sensitivity and awareness.

But now that audiences and companies are becoming more aware of the cultural complications of casting white singers in nonwhite roles like Otello, Shirley is also concerned about typecasting.

“Opera is about the singing voice,” he says. “It doesn’t have to do with what you look like. If it did, most of the stars we revere wouldn’t have been onstage in the first place.

“That’s what costumes and makeup are for. You can’t costume and makeup the voice.”

What you can do is add shadings to it — the finesse that Thomas describes, which he has been working for years to attain. When he arrived at the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious Lindemann Program as a young artist, James Levine promptly told him that he should sing only Mozart — no more Puccini. Thomas swallowed and plunged into learning Mozart roles. Eventually, he saw the benefits. “Over time, I noticed that my voice was able to do more things,” he says. “It had a bigger range of colors.”

Thomas gradually returned to the heavier repertoire that suits his voice — to Levine’s chagrin. Long after leaving the program, after he had begun establishing himself on the world’s stages, he returned to the Met to perform, and Levine asked him anxiously why he was singing so much Verdi. Thomas eventually gave him an answer — by singing aria after aria in a private vocal session, until Levine was convinced that Thomas had, after all, found his vocal home.

“But don’t sing Otello!” Levine warned him, before wheeling out of the room.

“I had already agreed to do Otello in concert in Atlanta,” Thomas says with a chuckle. “But I didn’t tell him that.”

Still, the greatest compliment an opera company could pay Thomas, after hearing his Otello, would be to see him not as a black singer, but as just a singer — in short, to invite him to sing something else.

Otello Oct. 26-Nov. 16 at Washington National Opera.

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