Is rising tenor too karaoke?

Russell Watson was once a factory worker, now he's 'the Voice'

The fresh-faced, rangy British tenor Russell Watson is a sudden pop phenomenon whose first recording, "The Voice" (Decca), has sold more than 800,000 copies in England (outdoing Andrea Bocelli) and more than 135,000 in the United States.

"The Voice" approaches different kinds of music, from the Verdi aria "La donna è mobile" to songs like "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with the same pop sensibility, to audience-pleasing effect.

Known as "The People's Tenor," Watson's American debut was televised on PBS stations across the country, and his singing is featured on the soundtrack of the new Nicholas Cage movie, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin." How did he reach such career heights, seemingly out of nowhere?

Just a couple of years ago, Watson still held a day job in a precision-tool factory outside Manchester in his native northern England. Having left school at 16, he sang during off-hours at soccer matches and grungy locales like the Wigan Road Working Men's Club, performing a repertory of songs from Elvis, Neil Diamond, and "Les Miz."

Then he added the Puccini aria "Nessun Dorma" (a Luciano Pavarotti trademark), and his popularity zoomed. By 1999, he was the star attraction before matches at rugby and soccer stadiums like Wembley and Nou Camp in Barcelona, Spain. He had signed a Decca recording contract.

Decca was so surprised about this possible replacement for the Three Tenors (Pavarotti, José Carreras, and Placido Domingo) that its publicity materials got several things wrong. Even now, Watson is presented in press kits as a 27-year-old bachelor with no vocal training. In fact, as he admitted three months ago to The Guardian newspaper, he is 34, was married to an Englishwoman and is now divorced, and has had strenuous vocal coaching from William Hayward, who studied with the eminent maestro Sir Adrian Boult.

For all this classical preparation, Watson is a Broadway tenor, a voice that would garner cheers in any karaoke contest because of its loudness and intensity, but is unsuited for opera because of rocky technique and generic Euro-pronunciation.

At his American debut in the circuslike Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, N.J., he was overshadowed in duets with the gifted Broadway singer Lea Salonga, and the stage-smart Natalie Cole. His cocksure persona of a grinning, overconfident lad one might see in a sports bar is refreshing - if eventually bland - onstage.

Watson says that he listens to records of mighty opera tenors like Beniamino Gigli and Carlo Bergonzi, but comparing him with such artists is unfair.

Even a popular tenor like Mario Lanza had a strong grasp of the Italian language and dialects, as well as fresher pipes than Watson. Like Bocelli, who can be enjoyed in his triumphal street-singer persona but fades if compared with real operatic voices like Jussi Björling, Watson must be taken on his own terms, and as such, mostly delivers what he and Decca promise.

Some British critics have taken him all too seriously, like veteran Sunday Telegraph music critic Michael Kennedy, who states, "He is an untrained singer, and personally I would not rate him at all. People like the story of the chap from nowhere who makes it, but ... I would not expect his voice to last more than five years before it starts to give."

But by pop standards, five years at the top is an eternity - where will Britney Spears be in 2006? Five years of Watsonian success should allow him to purchase the tool factory where he slaved away in former times for a reported $130 a week.

Watson's ride looks to be an enjoyable one, however long it lasts. Currently recording his second album in New York, he may even have one of the Three Tenors spooked: Last month during a benefit concert in London's Hyde Park, with only a few minutes' warning, Pavarotti canceled a planned duet with Watson without giving a reason. Perhaps he had heard that Watson is known back home as "The Slimline Pavarotti."

But Pavarotti, as did the other Three Tenors, worked with great conductors before turning to pop. Watson might therefore want to decide to avoid his tacky orchestral arrangements, performed by nonstar ensembles like the London Session Orchestra and no-name conductors. By working with distinguished colleagues, he might further his stated plan of bringing (good) music to the people.

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