Interview with Heldentenor Adam Russell

Adam Russell

Heldentenor Adam Russell will perform Siegfried and Parsifal at the Boston Wagner Society’s concert on November 11 at Old South Church. In November 2017 he sang a selection of Wagner roles at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, including Lohengrin, Siegmund, and Parsifal.

You have sung quite a bit in the bel canto and dramatic tenor repertoires. At what age and in what way did you realize that you had an operatic voice?

In the beginning, I didn’t really know where I was heading. When I was in high school I remember having what I call a spiritual experience when hearing Pavarotti sing “Nessun dorma.” I started listening to aria collections in my teens. In college, I was in the opera chorus for Carmen and that led to my interest in studying classical voice. I wasn’t an opera fan back then, but it seemed to be the right venue for my abilities and temperament. I couldn’t listen to an opera all the way through without being exhausted by it, but that changed. Eventually, I moved to New York to work on a music career.

Did you grow up in a musical family?

I would answer no to this question. My mother played the organ in church and accompanied a volunteer congregational choir, but I feel it had little to do with my interest in pursuing an operatic career.

When you began your operatic career, which roles did you sing? And how did those develop into the more dramatic roles that you perform today?

I’ve sung mostly standard tenor roles like Rodolfo and Pinkerton and Alfredo in a number of productions. Even though there were signs that all the lyric repertoire wasn’t going to fit my voice, I didn’t realize until I matured that I was never intended to sing the Duke in Rigoletto or Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni—though I had tried for years, and was being encouraged in that direction. From the beginning I liked verismo arias the best, and relished stories of tragedy; give me Werther and Turiddu any day over The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus! Though I had sung Don Jose in Carmen, and Manrico in Il trovatore, my first real foray into the dramatic repertoire came when I sang Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos. It is a perilous and thankless role. I also had some limited success with Wagner’s “Prize Song.” Singing that aria is a little bit like playing Russian roulette. But my heart lies in the Italian verismo, in Verdi and the lesser-known works of Puccini like Manon Lescaut, Il tabarro, and La fanciulla del West.

When did it occur to you that you had a Wagnerian voice?

I can’t say if I definitively am a Wagnerian tenor. This repertoire is an experiment. For me, a definite answer as to whether I am a Heldentenor would require singing a whole role in a staged production and having it be a positive experience. I’d need to know if I have the stamina for Wagner.

Tell us where and with whom you trained and coached in the past.

I’ll spare you my vocal pedigree. That was a series of unlearning and relearning until eventually—and luckily—I emerged unscathed. I don’t claim to be the student of any teacher, though I have studied with many. I have been working on my own since 2011, though I most certainly coach and take advice from professional colleagues. I’m responsible for what I do. I do not have any degrees in music. The skills I have developed have been outside academic programs.

Is singing Wagner different from singing roles written by other composers?

In my limited experience, I would say singing Wagner is easier that singing Italian repertoire because it isn’t peppered with as many high notes. Because of that I feel less pressure during a Wagner performance. In Wagner, a tenor is singing more in his lower register. That gets tricky when you attempt to get back into the top of your range.

How do you prepare for getting on the stage and transforming yourself into an operatic character?

I prepare through blood, sweat, and tears. And by trying to find the “truth” of what I have to give in a respective performance. I basically try to find myself in the character. For me, study is a part of that, but even more so, it is using my intuition to investigate the personality of the individual in rehearsal, not really knowing what I will find. And for me the process is very personal. This is aided by working in a collaborative rehearsal environment.

I know you have sung around Boston a lot. Did you perform in other cities as well?

I have sung in Geffen Hall in New York, the former Avery Fisher Hall, but the remainder of my credits are with smaller regional opera companies. 

What do you like about Wagner’s music?

There may be the chance I can sing music well that I don’t like well. I have many misgivings about the composer. I feel Wagner is a mixed bag, the good and bad together: musically, theatrically, and morally.

What plans do you have for your future operatic career?

I would like to say I have big plans for the future of my operatic career, but singers are dependent on being offered the chance to sing rewarding music in the operatic repertoire. There are also more singers than there are opportunities, even in Boston. And we are faced with the reality of balancing our artistic passion with making a living. Those who can make a living solely with their art are extremely lucky. I have heard international opera stars make statements like this. They know how complicated a career is, how many factors impact their success, and nevertheless express gratitude for the luck that has come their way. It is my hope that I will continue to have opportunities to share the skills I have so painstakingly refined and maintained.