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Superstar Tenor Russell Thomas on Being a Black Queer Man in Opera

Russell Thomas

Thomas, who's currently artist in residence at the Los Angeles Opera, also discusses what he calls the best decision of his life: becoming a father.

Blessed with a golden, honeyed voice that fills the halls of stages around the world, out and proud tenor Russell Thomas could be content with being one of the rising stars in opera. Instead, he uses his Black and queer identity to change what we see onstage and off.

Thomas's voice has had great impact his entire life. "I was a child of very unfortunate circumstances," he says. "Music was always a thing for me. Ever since I was very young, I knew I could sing. I sang in church from a very young age. When I got to high school, I met this teacher who said that I could be an opera singer. I took her up on that offer."

In college, he sang in the chorus of the Miami Opera, auditioning and quickly getting jobs and into training programs. "I was lucky enough to meet and sing for representatives of the Metropolitan Opera's Young Artist Program and then got invited in 2002 to audition at the Met," he recalls. Under the Met's guidance, invitations from opera houses followed, and Thomas was singing around the word.

But does his success challenge the idea that opera is elitist? On the contrary. "Opera is elitist," he says. "Especially in this country. It's funded by wealthy people. What makes it accessible is that these stories can be done in ways that are relatable to our present-day lives. Companies must show that these [characters] may be in 17th-century costumes and they may sing in a foreign language but that these experiences are real-life experiences, and people experience them all the time. It is important to include all communities onstage -- Asian, Black, gay, straight, transgender, nonbinary -- so that people see themselves reflected and they feel welcome in these spaces. I've fought for 15 years to show that when you put diverse people onstage, your audience is always going to be packed. You're going to have people from varying communities that see themselves represented. Even if they don't know a whole lot about [opera], they think, Hey, there's a Black guy on that poster outside the Met. I wonder what that is, I wonder what that's about. I want to go see what that is."

Thomas is currently the artist in residence at Los Angeles Opera. "One of the things I wanted was to engage [Black and Asian] communities," he says. "I suggested that we provide music lessons to high schools in under-served communities. The students get lessons in voice, acting, music theory, and vocology. We already have a high school student who has a full ride to [the University of Southern California]."

Thomas works with students from historically black colleges and universities, offering virtual music classes and introducing them to the business of opera. "Students meet general directors and [people in various administrative departments]," he says. "They learn what these jobs are so that they know that even if they're not successful onstage, there's a place for them in opera. A lot of [students] come out of school with large debt, but the debt can be canceled if they work in nonprofit. I would love to get 10 amazing Black singers in my program, but it's important for me that they know that if their career does not work out, they can still work in opera."

In addition to his successful opera career, Thomas has another treasured job: fatherhood. "There was never a time when I didn't want to be a parent," he says. "I grew up in a very [difficult] situation, so for me, I could be better than that situation. I can be better for somebody else. That's sort of an overarching theme of my life."

He became a father through adoption. "I found a law firm in Atlanta that specialized in helping queer men adopt," he notes. "To this day, it's the best decision I've ever made in my life. My son is now 8 and he is the best possible kid in the world. My family has a culture of adopting. My grandmother used to take in kids when their parents were getting on their feet. She adopted five kids after her own children were adults. I wondered if it was the right time, and she said that there's never a right time. So I just did it. Again, it's the best decision I've ever made in my life."

Thomas's season is packed with engagements in Paris, London, and Los Angeles. "In February, I have a recital in Los Angeles with mostly new music I've commissioned from Black composers about Black men, our bodies, and sensuality. Next summer, I go on tour with Renee Fleming and the Met Orchestra to do act IV of Otello in Europe and Carnegie Hall. And there will be an autobiographical piece -- a world premiere -- in Los Angeles in 2024. I've engaged the Debbie Allen Dance Academy."

When asked how his Black queer identity influences his artistry, Thomas quickly responds, "I use every experience, every breakup, every one-night stand, good and bad, to shape a character and shape of phrase in music. I don't shy away from who I am. When I was a closeted gay man and not secure in who I was, I don't feel I sang well. People could see -- they didn't know what it is -- but they could feel it. Something was not right. Once I let that go, things were different. As soon as I was more open and free with who I was, I feel like I sang better. People started to receive my art and realize I had something to say. Being Black and my Black experience, growing up in church with my family in Miami, and being a gay man -- I use all of those experiences in my music and my performance."

Russell Thomas recently starred as Don Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera. Watch an excerpt below with him and Eleonora Buratto.

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