American tenor Russell Thomas makes a double debut in Houston Grand Opera’s production of Aida, a sweeping tale of love and tragedy amid war written by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi in 1871. It's the first time he’s sung the male lead of Radames, and the first time he’s appearing with Houston Grand Opera. The Atlanta-based Thomas admits he’s feeling some pressure but thinks he’s ready.
“The rehearsal process has been great so far, and I’m very familiar with Verdi,” says Thomas, who has performed the composer’s work around the world.
In Aida, Radames, an Egyptian army commander during the time of the pharaohs, is in love with an Ethiopian slave, Aida. However, he's unaware that she is, in fact, a princess and the daughter of the Ethiopian king who’s marching on Egypt. Meanwhile, Amneris, an Egyptian princess, is in love with Radames, and, discovering his relationship with Aida, becomes enraged with jealousy. When Radames unwittingly reveals military plans to Aida, Amneris turns him in as a traitor.
Convicted and sentenced to death, Radames is buried alive in a tomb. He accepts his fate, hoping that Aida has escaped. Instead, she has hidden herself in the tomb to wait for him so they can die in each other’s arms. When she first appears, he’s unsure if she’s real. “In this production, we play it as if he’s hallucinating when he first sees her,” says Thomas. “The air is going out of the tomb, that’s affecting him. He doesn’t know if she’s real until they start singing together.”
HGO’s modernized version of the Verdi classic also features American soprano Tamara Wilson, an HGO Studio alumna, as Aida. It’s a role she’s sung before with companies including the Sydney’s Opera Australia, The Metropolitan Opera, and the Washington National Opera. Thomas and Wilson, who are set to reprise their roles in Aida in Toronto later this season, have previously worked together in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Il Trovatore and the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Verdi’s Othello. Thomas has also worked with American soprano Melody Moore, who alternates the role of Amneris with mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin.
The role of Radames has two big challenges for Thomas, who The New York Times previously called “a tenor of gorgeously burnished power.”
“One, making sure the audience doesn’t hate the guy at the end. You want people to sympathize with him. That’s not easy.” he says. “And two, the third act has a duet and trio that go on for 16 minutes. And it’s a long 16 minutes for me.”
Those 16 minutes are among the most exciting of the show.
Thomas says he identifies with Radames’ sense of loyalty. “What resonates with me most about this character is his resolve," he says. "He can give up Aida and her father in order to save himself, but he doesn’t. He sacrifices himself for them.”
Jan 31–Feb 16. Tickets from $25. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-228-6737. More info and tickets at houstongrandopera.org