Tenor Russell Thomas is named L.A. Opera’s artist in residence
It was last summer when Russell Thomas — a tenor familiar to audiences of Los Angeles Opera, the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Lyric Opera of Chicago, among others — began to publicly express his desire for the type of experience that would help him eventually make the leap from the stage to an executive office.
That caught the attention of L.A. Opera President-CEO Christopher Koelsch, who had been a fan of Thomas’ work for years and who reached out last July to find a new role for the performer.
L.A. Opera is expected to announce Monday that it has appointed Thomas its artist in residence, a position that will extend through the end of the company’s 2023-24 season. Thomas, 44, succeeds Matthew Aucoin, a composer-conductor who held the position from 2016 to 2020.
“Singers can do more than just sing,” Thomas said. “It’s important that opera companies and those that are leading them today start grooming the next generation of leaders in the arts world.”
Building the pipeline for Black leaders in opera is also important to Thomas.
“There are a lot of us performing. But on the administration side, there aren’t a lot of Black administrators,” Thomas said. “Unfortunately, until we change the way the back office looks, nothing really is going to change because institutionally or structurally it’s still a very white industry.”
As artist in residence, Thomas will be embedded creatively with the company, curating programming; participating in the company’s community engagement, fundraising, marketing and public relations efforts; performing in a starring role at least once a season, beginning with “Aida” during the 2021-22 season; and running two new training programs for young artists.
“His set of skills and his perspective was one that the company could benefit from enormously,” Koelsch said. “We started a conversation that I found incredibly inspiring and he shared with me a vision that I think was really very inspirational in terms of its expansiveness.”
L.A. Opera cancels all in-person performances for spring and places vaccine-driven hopes on a fall reopening. First up: Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.”
Thomas made his L.A. Opera debut in 2015 as Pollione in “Norma” and performed in company productions including 2017’s “Tosca” and 2019’s “The Clemency of Titus.” Thomas also has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, including John Adams’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” in 2012 and 2013 and in the title role of “Otello” at the Hollywood Bowl in 2018.
As part of the appointment, Thomas will host and curate L.A. Opera’s “After Hours” recital series, which began in 2016 as a postshow experience. “After Hours” will resume virtually in February, with a program featuring songs by Black composers. The company is anticipating returning to in-person “After Hours” recitals and mainstage productions in the fall.
Thomas asked Koelsch to commission composer Joel Thompson to write an evening-length work tackling sexual abuse, a piece anticipated to premiere in the 2022-23 season.
The artist in residence role, Thomas said, presents an opportunity to receive mentoring from L.A. Opera staff on leading a company and, in turn, to mentor a new generation of young artists.
Thomas, who studied at the Miami music conservatory New World School of the Arts, created and will lead a virtual program for eight to 10 students and recent graduates from historically Black colleges and universities each season, offering guidance on audition techniques, repertoire and the many ways to build a career in opera.
“I just thought, wouldn’t it be great if HBCU students, who don’t get a lot of attention from the big opera companies and orchestras, if they had an opportunity to work with professionals and be mentored by people who are working at the highest levels of the business,” Thomas said.
Another program, called Russell Thomas Young Artists in Training, will offer voice lessons and mentorship for a small group of students from underserved L.A. high schools.
Training to become an opera performer is expensive, Thomas said.
“We pay for weekly voice lessons, we pay for musical coaching, we pay for acting classes. Generally, those persons who come from money are likely to be the people to succeed in this industry, and I would like to, with the help of L.A. Opera, even the playing field,” he said.
Expanding L.A. Opera’s reach to diverse communities throughout the city is important for Thomas. “This is not just about filling in the gap of race-specific programming or race-specific community work,” he said. “It’s more about developing the next level for the next generation of artists and, in my case, administrator.”
There are signs that the industry is beginning to change. On Monday, the Metropolitan Opera announced that Marcia Sells has been hired as the first chief diversity officer in the company’s nearly 140-year history.
Thomas plans to use his forthcoming experience to run an opera company one day.
“A lot of singers don’t think about their future, or what the [next] thing is until after it’s over,” Thomas said. “I know what it is I want to do, and I want to gather as much experience as possible before I’m ready to make that move.”
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