From “The West Australian” newspaper of Tuesday 6th September.
Brain tumours fail to stop Mr Watson
by WILLIAM YEOMAN, The West Australian, September 6, 2011, 10:30 am
“If somebody had said to me five years ago, ‘Mr Watson, you have a choice: you can have two brain tumours and at the end of it you’ll be a much nicer man or you can stay an arsehole and be healthy’ I would have said ‘I think I’ll stick with being an arsehole, thanks’.”
The 44-year-old multi-platinum-selling tenor Russell Watson once confessed he was “a bit of a tosser” earlier in his career. He is well along the comeback trail after finishing a course of radiotherapy for a second pituitary tumour in 2008 and says he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I don’t look at it as a curse,” he says on the line from Sydney during a promotional visit for his Australian tour in November.
“Admittedly over a period of something like four years I’d had one throat operation and two brain tumours and was getting to a point where I thought somebody really had something against me.
But certainly over the past year or two I’ve begun to feel as though if I wasn’t meant to be here, I wouldn’t be. And I just accept whatever life throws at me.”
Most importantly, Watson’s whole attitude to performing has changed for the better.
“There always used to be this ‘I’ve got to deliver the best, I have to make people clap, I’ve got to get a great review’ stuff going on inside my head. Now I just go on stage and sing because I enjoy it.”
“I also want to make people feel what I’m feeling when I sing, which is almost, dare I say it, a spiritual connection. It’s the most fundamental change in my career and in my life and that’s why I wouldn’t change what has happened to me.”
The story of Watson’s rise to stardom and triumph over adversity reads like a modern-day fairytale.
Born in Salford, Greater Manchester, to a steelworks welder and a mother who worked in Woolworths, Watson left school early to take a factory job. Although he played piano from age seven and took up the guitar as a teenager, he found singing gave him the greatest pleasure.
Soon he was performing in working men’s clubs, where he demonstrated a rare talent for mimicry. One waggish compere used to introduce him – tongue placed firmly in cheek – as “Russell Watson, 1001 voices – all of them crap.”
On one occasion a publicist heard him sing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Music of the Night and afterwards said “You have a smashing voice, have you ever tried any of that Pavarooty stuff?”
Watson promptly learnt Puccini’s Nessun Dorma by ear. The first time he sang it he received a standing ovation. He won a radio talent contest, and was signed by an agent. That was in 1990. After years of setbacks and hard work, in 2000 he released his first album, The Voice.
A winning mix of opera and popera, The Voice went straight to No.1 in the US and UK classical charts and won two Classical Brit awards. His second album, Encore, spent 30 weeks in the UK classical charts and won two more Classical Brits. Every album since has reached the Top 10 in the UK classical charts.
But even before his two tumours, the first of which appeared in 2006, Watson had to contend with ill health. Again, he puts a positive spin on the experience. “In 2003, I picked up a sore throat from somewhere and rather than taking my doctor’s advice I continued to sing,” he says.
“I managed to get a polyp on my vocal chords and basically wrecked my throat.”
Watson says that since then he has been “hyper-vigilant in a scary way” about his vocal health.
As a result, his voice has improved immeasurably.
“Yes, it’s matured as well, but because I now use it in a correct fashion the sound I generate is much better.” He even attributes an increased resonance to the most recent tumour operation opening up his nasal cavity.
Now, following successful surgery, radiotherapy and some serious gym sessions, Watson is back on top of the world – 2010 was a good year.
He received a standing ovation at the Royal Albert Hall for his performance in Kristina, a new musical by ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson – apparently they waited for him to get better before offering him the male lead.
And he released his ninth, and what he says is his finest, album, La Voce, a stirring collection of light Italian classics including La Viva Senza Te, Mario Lanza’s Arrivederci Roma and Speak Softly Love (The Godfather love theme), in which Watson is accompanied by the Roma Sinfonietta.
“We started recording The Voice in 1999 and I can’t believe how much has been crammed into the 12 years since,” Watson says. “There have been some amazing highs and some catastrophic lows, and all of that has culminated in the person and the artist I am now.
“That’s where the new album comes in: all the energy, all the ups and downs – everything has been bundled into one ball and gone into making La Voce.”
Russell Watson performs on November 8 at the Burswood Theatre.