Forget the fat lady. It ain’t over until the slim tenor sings at Last Night of the Proms at Lytham Proms on Saturday.
Russell Watson, People’s Tenor, is the man of the hour - and arias.
By way of ingratiating - some might say unctuous - introduction I tell Russell, 46, how I went to a concert of Alfie Boe’s at Fleetwood Marine Hall some years ago. A thank you to friends and family. Thirty minutes in, during a sudden lull, my mother, a serious opera buff who doesn’t bolt for the bar even during the final rinse of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, asked “when is the PROPER opera singer coming on?”
Conscious of massed ranks of extended Boe clan I hissed he had been on. Several times.
“Well, he’s not very good then, is he?” she boomed, with the vocal volume control of one whose hearing aid was on the loop system.
Russell chuckles. To his credit, Alfie guffawed when I told him. Tell her to say hello on Saturday night, Russell says. It’s probably not a good idea. Not if he sings Caruso, the song he made his own. She prefers the original by Lucio Dalla. Didn’t like Pavarotti’s version either.
One of England’s foremost tenors is in good company.
But Nessun Dorma? Still gives us the tingle factor to recall his effect upon summer season audiences at North Pier when he sang it during Lily Savage’s run there. Brought the house down nightly. It became his definitive football arena anthem.
Back then he learned how to sing in Italian - phonetically. Now he’s fluent. He sings all over the world. He’s sung to the Pope, the Queen, at least one President...and the Beckhams.
But Lytham feels like home, says the singing star from Salford, who served his time on the Blackpool working men’s club circuit.
He sang for his supper while others supped pints, smoked, waited for the pies to arrive or the bingo to start.
“I had to go out cold, draw them in, win them around. Now I sing to people who come to hear me. The converted.”
The former engineering apprentice was in his 20s then. Ten years on the club circuit honed his art, helped him handle hecklers.
Talent shows tended to feature fellow clubland artists then - not the newcomers dropped in at the deep end of overnight success today.
“Now you tend to get young people who are basically singing along to YouTube in their bedrooms.
“When you’ve got someone so green coming into the music industry it can be harsh. You need a strong management team with your best interests at heart.”
Russell recalls Blackpool as a turning point. “I was Russ back then. Lily Savage was topping the bill - rather than Paul O’Grady.”
O’Grady’s alter ego packed North Pier theatre most nights. Adoring old ladies would titter as he stepped out and snarled “I can smell your Charlie from here.” Today he plays to the Vera Wang perfume market. Better to keep mum, eh?
Blackpool was O’Grady’s treat, the season he dreamed of when playing small time drag clubs and the cabaret circuit.
Russell has similar sentiments for the resort - and fears for the working men’s and social clubs, many on their last legs.
“I did a programme on the demise of the WMC, took the team round places I played in the early days. Some have a waiting list for members but others have gone. They all have their place in British culture.
“There are people who spend their entire career working the circuit who don’t make it. I was lucky. But it was a 10 year apprenticeship.
“Blackpool’s a great leveller.”
We recall the night Ian McKellen went to the end of pier show, in his pre-Gandalf days. Clad from top to toe in black leather, silver zip up front. Russell remembers his younger self, his Russ self, being over awed. “He was a friend of Paul’s, very pleasant, down to earth. We met again at a big show at the Royal Albert Hall, the first time I played there.
“When I achieved my success in 1999, the best part of 14 years ago, I had no idea how brutal the music industry could be.
“To create a career, sustain it, requires a huge amount of hard work.
“I’ve a huge amount of respect for those who make it today. The likes of Olly Murs and Will Young are smart guys.
“Lots are told: go here and do this. Those with the courage to say I’m not sure I want to do it that way, sustain careers on their own terms. Or get out.
“There are great rewards to be had but you don’t go to music industry university. You learn through mistakes, people who don’t like you, people who might be a bit jealous. I always return to the Alex Ferguson analogy - I’m not interested in the other team, just how I’m playing.”
He loves Blackpool. “I say that without any compunction. I have lots of fond memories there, friends there. It has some of the best theatres in the land. The Opera House is a tough venue to fill, 3,500 when I sold it all, and the audience was brilliant. News of my health problems had broken and I walked out on stage and the response gave me goosebumps. I fought back tears. There was genuine warmth. I have a real affinity with the Fylde coast.
“I’m looking forward to Lytham on Saturday. The location’s superb. I don’t do arenas any more, I prefer proper theatres or events such as Lytham Proms where you’re close to fans. An arena’s too impersonal.”
The man who performed at the Queen’s Coronation Festival with Katherine Jenkins loves more intimate settings too. He’s on the Warners circuit, joining other big name entertainers played at stately homes in the adults-only holiday empire.
“Seven, eight years ago I wouldn’t have entertained the idea. But I love it. I’ve matured. I love the idea of stripping the whole set down to voice and piano.
“The fantastic musical director plays piano, I sing, we banter, the audience responds, the whole thing is life enhancing, constructive.
“There’s something so energising in having people just there, in front of you.
“That’s why Lytham Proms will be a blast.
“My heroes, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra - for I still love the ballads - did much the same. They played massive venues, then clubs, or their friends. Just for the hell of it, the fun of it.”
His albums take opera, classical music and ballads to a new audience and Russell’s won a worldwide reputation for stunning live performances. “My first record (The Voice) remains incredibly special to me, it was new and fresh. I’d just been plucked from obscurity after 10 years of hard slog. I had a number one both sides of the Atlantic, very quick and fast, amazing.
“But I was still growing into my skin. I’m now in the process of planning my next record. I can’t say much yet but it’s very exciting, will be released around Christmas and is the very best project I’ve had by a long way.”
Russell’s also made a triumphant return to health after life threatening battles with pituitary tumours. Gruelling courses of radiotherapy, steroids and rehab followed.
The man who once feared he would never play with his kids, let alone sing again, is back on top form.
The Voice is bigger and better.
Russell declares: “My health is really good now. There will never be an all clear but the situation’s safe, under control. More to the point I’m singing better, with vitality and a new enthusiasm for what I am doing.
“I’ve got my strength and stamina back and my joy too. I walk out on stage and even in the darkest mood as soon as the light hits my face it’s like it’s been raining a week and the sun has finally come out.
“I live for it, to be honest. And to see all these people who have come to see me.”