Karaoke on a grand scale

Karaoke on a grand scale
(Filed: 08/04/2002)

Rupert Christiansen reviews Russell Watson at Wembley Arena

RUSSELL WATSON is a New Zealand tenor [Ed: Or so says this reviewer] plucked from the working men's clubs, signed to Decca, then groomed and promoted into one of the biggest-selling singers of today. At the heart of his mystique - parroted in endless celebrity magazine interviews - is the notion that he is a dead ordinary cheeky chappie who can do Nessun dorma and Vesti la giubba like Pavarotti.

Sing-along: Russell Watson

"I have matured as an artiste," Watson claims in the (embarrassingly illiterate) programme to his current tour. Artiste, or even artist, is not a word I would have used: Watson's essential skill lies in his knack of copying things he's heard on other tenors' recordings. Nor does he have any real personality beyond a whippet-thin laddishness - Jamie Oliver gone Mancunian, adept at winking at a pretty girl and giving her gran a hug, too.

Nothing much wrong with that, nor with the whole "phenomenon". Watson gives innocent pleasure to millions of middle-aged people with middle-of-the-road tastes. When he launches into those melodramatic romantic ballads that are a staple of Italian pop music, I readily admit that he puts them across with panache. At Wembley, he was joined by a 14-year-old New Zealand girl called Hayley Westenra, whose vocal abilities seem more authentic than those of Charlotte Church, and they sang the Maori Pokarekare Ana with some charm.

I admire the guy's nerve - he's got a voice, and he's making a pile out of it. Fine. But what must be firmly objected to is the way that the word "opera" is dragged into the equation. Nobody would have paid any attention to Watson in the first place had the idea not been circulated that he was "like Pavarotti", and that remains his prime selling point. It is a blatant lie.

He is no more "like Pavarotti" than I am. His performing ability, as revealed at Wembley, is entirely reliant on massive amplification, and I would very much doubt whether he has the stamina (or the desire) to sing an entire role in an opera house. His technique is negligible - he sings flat and breathily. Stylistically, he is coarse and flat-footed, without grace or subtlety of interpretation. As amateur tenors go, the late Harry Secombe had far superior natural gifts. This is the apotheosis of karaoke, not operatic artistry. Let's get that clear.

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