Russell Watson: Working class hero
One of the world's most prominent tenors, Russell Watson chats to Jenny Lee about the highs and lows of his career, including performing for Pope John Paul II and recovering from a life-threatening brain tumour
THE 'People's Tenor' Russell Watson has described his outlook on life and fame after surviving two brain tumours - and his fight to return to his beloved singing, ahead of performing in Derry next week.
Having survived two life-threatening brain tumours, Russell Watson is enjoying life and looking forward to getting up close and personal with Irish audiences again as he brings his tour to Derry to Belfast next week.
The Manchester singer's life reads like a Hollywood movie, but throughout his career – as the UK's most successful classical singer – he has remained grounded in his working-class roots.
Having followed in the footsteps of his father and become a nuts-and-bolts factory worker in industrial Salford, Watson, without any formal vocal training, pursued his passion for singing on the pub and club circuit in his spare time.
He never imagined he would one day be one of the world's most prominent tenors, selling in excess of seven million albums worldwide – until a chance meeting with a top Manchester United official.
A lifelong United fan, his big break came in May 1999 when the club's chairman at the time, Martin Edwards, approached him after a function at a hotel in Manchester and invited him to sing in front of 50,000 fans at Old Trafford before United's Premiership-winning match. His performance of Nessun Dorma gave him the first of many standing ovations and days later he was invited to sing again at the Champion's League Final in Barcelona's Nou Camp stadium to an audience of 90,000.
"At that time I was singing in working-men’s clubs in front of 40 people; the transition was indescribable. I flew out with the 1968 European Cup winners and performed before the biggest game in the club’s recent history, which was unbelievable. But it was even more amazing to sit in the second tier with Paddy Crerand, Wilf McGuinness, George Best and my dad," recalls the 48-year-old.
A five-album record deal with Decca quickly followed for Watson. His first album, The Voice, became the first collection to hold simultaneous classical number one slots in the United States and the UK, where it spent a record-breaking 52 weeks at the top of the charts. He went on to perform for the queen, Pope John Paul II, then US president Bill Clinton, the emperor of Japan, the king of Malaysia and win four classical Brit Awards before overcoming life-threatening illness – twice.
It was while making his fifth album in 2006 that Watson was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He underwent a five-hour emergency operation and following his recovery, finished the record. Then, in October 2007, he fell ill again and an MRI scan revealed the tumour had regrown and was causing bleeding into his brain.
Watson, who is celebrating 25 years as a performer and 15 years as a professional recording artist, is now back to full strength and back on the road with his Up Close & Personal tour.
“It was a bit shaky for a while, but I’m keeping well. We rode the storm out," says the jokey, yet frankly spoken performer. "I’m very fortunate in the last few years to get my health back. My voice is as good as it’s ever been. I'm visiting Ireland for the first time in a long time. I can’t wait.”
He admits the health scares have put his life in perspective, though he says fame has never been his goal.
"I think when you’ve been through turbulence of the nature I went through, particularly after the second tumour, which nearly put the lights out on me, it does alter your outlook and perspective on life. As much as that sounds like a cliché, my view on everything changed.
"But if I'm honest, fame hasn’t really ever interested me. Recognition for what I do and appreciation from the people that come to watch my shows are much more valuable to me than walking down the street and being recognised or stopped for an autograph. That’s why I’ve never bought into mixing in the big celebrity circles. I’ve got my mates, who have been my mates since I’ve been at school, and I’m fine with them.”
Early in his career Watson received the affectionate title of 'The People's Tenor', a title he is proud of and maintains through his close relationship with his audience, reflected in his forthcoming tour.
"When I do a stage show I want each individual to leave the theatre feeling like the show was just for them. That connection was something I discovered and homed in on with the 10 years I did in the working men's clubs of the north west of England. It's the one thing you can't teach people," he says.
Indeed a reviewer in the New York Times wrote of Watson: "He sings like Pavarotti, and entertains the audience like Sinatra."
So what can audiences expect when he visits Belfast and Derry? “There will be the big arias, such as Funiculì, Funiculà, that everyone seems to love and we generally finish the night with You Raise Me Up, which is very similar to Danny Boy in the way it is constructed. I never do the same show twice because I don’t like to stagnate with what I’m doing."
Watson's mix of music – from operatic classics and hymns through to Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell – has helped to introduce many new listeners to classical music. His collaborations include Pavarotti, Lionel Richie, Michael Bolton, Cliff Richard, Lulu, Sarah Brightman, Sean Ryder, Mel B and Alexandra Burke, to name but a few.
His greatest "pinch yourself moment" came at the Vatican, where he was invited by the late Pope John Paul II to perform. “I remember being on the stage at the Vatican and there was a 140-piece Italian symphony orchestra and 400 robed choral singers roaring behind me," he tells me.
"There were 40 red-robed cardinals in the front row, 3,500 specially invited dignitaries from across Europe, half a billion people watching on television across Europe and the Pope in his private box and little old me in the middle thinking: 'Blimey, two years ago this used to be Wigan Road Working Men's Club.'"
Despite the heights of his success, Watson is grounded and all he desires for the future is "health and longevity". And his advice to young people entering the music industry?
"I’ve always maintained that achieving success in relative terms is easy, but sustaining it in the music industry is really hard. It doesn't just happen: you have to be savvy. You have to have a good business acumen and most importantly you have to work bloody hard. Success does not come for free; and if it does, then it ends just as quick."
Next year Watson is hoping to return to the studio to record a 10th album, featuring a return to his core classical-crossover repertoire.
:: Russell Watson plays Belfast's Waterfront Hall on November 24 ( waterfront.co.uk) and Derry's Millennium Forum on November 25 (millenniumforum.co.uk).