Saturday 24 August 2019

Double brain tumour survivor Russell Watson describes his career as Billy Elliot meets the classical world

Russell Watson (48) is a best-selling classical tenor who has sung for Queen Elizabeth II, the late Pope John Paul II and Bill Clinton. He has recovered from two brain tumours, and lives in Cheshire with his second wife, Louise Harris, and their many animals

Tenor Russell Watson's career has spanned 25 years. Photo: Nathan Cox.
Tenor Russell Watson's career has spanned 25 years. Photo: Nathan Cox.

Emily Hourican

I think I have some nocturnal qualities. I don't like going to bed early - hence, normally I end up going to bed around 2am or 3am. But I still need eight hours sleep, so I get up around 10.30am.

I live in Cheshire. As a kid, when I was growing up in the back streets of Salford - my dad was a steel worker and my mum worked in Woolworths - I used to dream of living here. I remember, as a kid, in the back of my grandma's Morris Minor, we passed a row of large houses, and I said, 'Look grandma, one day I'm going to live in one of those big houses,' and I got a clip round the back of my head. I always had ideas above my station, but with a bit of drive and dedication, it paid off.

Since I met Louise, nearly six years ago, the house has been transformed. It was a big, lonely place, where I got the two brain tumours that I recovered from. It was quite dark and morose, and I had a really rough time. I had no expectation of moving on or finding a partner, and then I met Louise, and the house has been transformed into, basically, a zoo. It's brilliant. Every room has life in it now, and I'm a much happier human. I sing for a living, and I go on stage and I perform, but it can't all be about that, or you'd become very lonely and dull. There has to be a driving force behind it, and now I have that.

Louise usually gets up a bit before me. She goes down to the yard and starts feeding the horse, and lets the hounds out. Then I roll down the stairs and get myself a bowl of Alpen. We have chickens and ducks. The ducks lay fantastic eggs, so maybe I'll have a bacon-and-egg sandwich. Over breakfast, we always sit and watch a bit of crap television; recently, it's been The Biggest Loser.

To kick-start my day takes two or three strong cups of coffee, and for me, the day really starts around 12.30pm. If it's a work day, a concert day, I'll start preparing by doing vocal scales and getting my voice ready, then we'll jump in the car and drive to the venue. More often than not, after a concert, we're getting home between 1am and 3am. That's where my nocturnal habits come from. It takes a good couple of hours when you get off stage to come down.

If it's what we call a general day - not a concert day - at 12.30pm, I'll start thinking about going to see my business manager, who happens to be my sister, and she has an office in the house. I'll see her, and sit and talk business for a bit. Then, around 1.30pm, I've usually got something sporty in my schedule, so I'll have an hour's session of working out in the gym with my personal trainer, boxing, or a couple of hours playing tennis. I always liked lifting weights, and I enjoy my gym time, but it's only in the last two or three years that I've been able to do that again. When you've had two great big lumps growing in your skull, the first thing they say to you is, 'Don't be pushing 200lb on the bench press'.

Around 3.30pm, I go back home, to the office, to finish off the daily business. I usually get a call around 4.30pm from Louise: 'What do you want for your tea tonight, love?' She'll come home around 5pm and make all our food. While we're having our dinner, we'll watch the second half of The Biggest Loser. Then Louise will watch the soaps, and I'll go on the PlayStation. Sometimes before dinner, I'll go and do vocal scales to make sure I'm on top of everything. I'll be in the hall, and Louise will listen to me singing while she's making dinner.

For me, the more I do - the more I'm out there performing and singing - the more resilient my voice becomes. But I think the division between work and play has to be very clear. The thing about the music industry is, it's all-consuming, and if you don't take yourself out of that circle, you can end up living a strange kind of life. Most of my friends are the friends I've had since I was a kid. I'm not given to mixing in the celebrity circles. It's never something I've bought into. Being grounded, to me, represents recognising the difference. I did the last night of Proms in the Park recently -that was 55,000 people, with a 50-piece orchestra roaring behind me. I walked on to the stage, threw my arms wide open and said, 'Good evening, Hyde Park'. Now, that's not the way I'd walk into the local pub. It's about recognising the differences - what is the industry and what is not. I don't find it difficult to keep grounded. I'm sure things about me have changed over the years, but fundamentally, I'm the same person. I still drink the same beer, with the same friends, and talk the same rubbish.

With any career that hasn't been created by a talent show or record company, there is this idea of the single moment of discovery. But my career spanned from 1990 to now, 25 years, and it's difficult to say, 'This was the moment I was discovered!' I remember, in 1999, I was described as an overnight sensation. I thought, 'Wow, that was a long old night. A night of 10 years!'

I suppose the best way to describe my career is Billy Elliot meets the classical world. I come from a working-class background in Salford and, against the odds, have managed to succeed and sustain a career in an industry that, even now, doesn't want to accept me. There are certain parts of the classical world that still frown on me. But they've not done 80 concerts this year!

Late at night, Louise and I like to watch Netflix in bed - The Walking Dead, The Killing - and then, around 2am or 3am, I'll go to sleep. I feel proud that I've been able to sustain my career for so long. It took me until now to realise that bringing in family and people I can trust is the way forward. Now, I have a big family unit surrounding me, and I've never been as busy.

Russell Watson plays the Cork Opera House on November 27, and the National Opera House, Wexford, on November 28. See

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