Russell Watson on life after a brain tumour: ‘I still take one day at a time’
- Credit: supplied
He’s played for the Queen, the Pope and former Presidents but operatic superstar Russell Watson, 55, says surviving two brain tumours is his greatest achievement
Here, in a quick-fire Q &A, the tenor talks Sussex, starring in Chicago and surviving two brain tumour operations
Sussex Life: We were at opening night when you played Billy Flynn in Chicago at Eastbourne’s Congress Theatre and you were fantastic.
RW: Well, I’m still in that actually. We are on our way to Dartford to play tonight. Last week we were in Dublin and then I had a break and went to Venice to perform there, which was amazing. Now I’m back from Italy and next stop Dartford. [Laughs] I signed up for 14 weeks and I’m going into the last four weeks. We’re off to Leeds, then Bristol – I can’t believe it’s been 10 weeks already.
We were so impressed with your performance. Of, course we knew you could sing, but we didn’t know you had acting chops. How have you kept that secret?
Thank you – that’s so nice to hear. So much goes into each performance and I’m glad that came across. It’s a challenge. I’m helping to tell a story and portray a character that people know, so I needed to use my own interpretation of Billy Flynn. I have seen him portrayed as a very charming character, but I wanted to show that the charm is just a façade that he can switch on and off at will and beneath is a very selfish, calculating man. He is just interested in women and money and what he can get for himself. There’s nothing genuinely charming about Billy Flynn. When you peel back the layers, he is a deeply unpleasant man.
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I treat learning the dialogue like learning lyrics to songs. You have to be very regimented about it so that you don’t slip up on stage. Chicago has a lot of dialogue. I’ve done other shows before, like War of the Worlds, but that had very little dialogue. Chicago is singing and a lot of scenes and dialogue so I just approached it like a song – and, luckily, it worked.
How hard has it been touring? You only did some of the tour – why was that?
When I took on the role, I said I could only do 14 weeks and not the full run. I already had other commitments. It’s a challenge to live this role, day in, day out. It’s been very intense having to live in Billy Flynn’s skin 24/7 and so even though I’ve absolutely loved being in Chicago I’m looking forward to no more Billy Flynn. I will miss him and the rest of the cast and crew but I’m looking forward to getting back to performing my own repertoire.
You’re playing Last Night of the Heritage Proms at the South of England Showground in Ardingly on 17 July. How excited are you to perform there?
Very. The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra will be there as will the NHS Choir. They are fantastic. There will be a Spitfire fly over, which will add to the sense of occasion and gravitas. I will be singing some traditional songs – Land of Hope and Glory, and Jerusalem. It’s going to be a great show, hopefully.
It’s the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in June, of course, - will you be performing for Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace?
Not this time. Last time I sang for her diamond Jubilee, celebrating 60 years, and I did three concerts at Buckingham Palace, but nothing this time.
What’s been the highlight of your career? You’ve met so many people – monarchs, rulers, presidents and other celebrities. Can you pick one?
It’s impossible to say – there have been so many incredible people that I’ve been lucky enough to perform for throughout my career from Pope John Paul II to the Emperor of Japan, in the Imperial Place, to singing with Pavarotti in Hyde Park. Her Majesty on various occasions.
I’ve done private events, too and ones that meant so much to me personally, like the [1999 UEFA Championship League in Barcelona] for the Champions league for Man United [against Bayern Munich]. That was a wow moment. The July 4 concerts for President Bush on in Washington with the Capitol Building as a backdrop which was broadcast live across America was something else as was the opening ceremony for the commonwealth games in Manchester. There was a sea of flags, these incredible athletes and as well as the crowds in the stadium, there was a TV audience of one billion people watching – it is just unbelievable being part of something like that.
You must have been so nervous?
It was 2002 and I wasn’t nervous but I didn’t have a full appreciation of what I was doing. Now if I was doing that, I would be but back then I was so young and I was the number one classical artist in the world and I just kept thinking: ‘This is good isn’t it?’
You’ve done so much in your career and sung with so many superstars. Who do you wish you could sing with?
Good question! It would have to be Whitney Houston. I would have loved to have done a duet with her at her peak. I used to do lots of impersonations of singers when I first started out, before I was famous, and I would do Elvis a lot. I loved him but if I could only choose one it would be Whitney. She had a big voice and she could command it – she could sing lightly and then she’d let go with that full power. Amazing.
You’ve been quoted as saying that you had a premonition that you wouldn’t see 40. You were diagnosed with a brain tumour on the eve of your 40th birthday. How happy are you that you were wrong and does it still affect your life? [After it was removed in November 2006, by October 2007 it had come back and Russell suffered bleeding into his brain. He underwent emergency surgery and radiotherapy.]
Well, I’m very happy that my premonition didn’t come true. I try to take each day as it comes. My friend Sheila Ferguson [the American singer, who was in The Three Degrees and his Chicago co-star - she plays Mama Morton] who always says: ‘Russell, you just need to get from A to B.’ That’s all we need to do. I still take one day at a time. I look forward to a lot of things and love each day. I try to stay upbeat. I never take anything for granted.
What do you do when you’re not performing or singing?
I like tennis and play a lot. It’s one of those things when you can’t say ‘I’m fantastic’ - it’s up to someone else to make that comment, but I’ve got to a decent level. That’s my vibe.
You’ve toured the world and performed in Sussex. Where is your favourite place to be on stage?
There aren’t many theatres in this country that I haven’t performed on. I’ve been pretty much everywhere from the Royal Albert Hall, where I’ve played with a 50–60-piece orchestra, and I’ve also been in 450 theatres with just a pianist. They all present their own challenges but I enjoy each one. I’m looking forward to coming back to Sussex with the Philharmonic – that's going to be a great show.
Last Night of the Heritage Proms with Russell Watson is at South of England Showground, Ardingly, West Sussex on 17 July, 2022. He will be performing with the Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and guests, The NHS Choir. From £37.15 adult, £14.05 child. Ticketmaster.co.uk