DECEMBER is a busy month for churches, and St Mary’s, Astbury, near Congleton, in Cheshire, is adding to the usual Advent and Christmas plans by hosting three fund-raising concerts by the self-styled “people’s tenor”, Russell Watson. Such is the demand for places, a post on the church’s Facebook page urges music-lovers to obtain tickets only from the official outlet, a post office near by, as tickets advertised online will probably be fake.
Mr Watson, who lives on a farm near Astbury with his wife, Louise, has developed a strong relationship with his parish church: “I raised £20,000 for them last year, when the paving around the outskirts of the church was stolen, and we fund-raised to get it replaced. This year, I’m doing the same thing.
“The Rector [the Revd Anne-Marie Naylor] came to me after the performance and said, ‘Thank you so much for this, Russell. It would take our church years to raise these kinds of funds, and you’ve done it in one night.’ And I replied: ‘Let’s do it again next year.’ And it looks like we’re going to raise another £20,000 for them this time, as well. So, as much as I can’t be with them every week, they are very much in my thoughts.”
Salford-born Mr Watson worked in a factory when he won Manchester Piccadilly Radio’s “Search for a Star” competition in 1990, singing Neil Diamond’s “Love on the rocks”. A decade of performing in clubs and pubs followed, until an invitation to sing “Nessun Dorma” at Old Trafford for the last match of the Premiership season brought him to the attention of record companies.
His debut album, The Voice, a mixture of operatic arias and covers of pop songs, released in 2001, made him the first artist to be simultaneously number one in both the British and American classical charts. He performed for the former US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Pope John Paul II, and at Buckingham Palace for Queen Elizabeth II, for the 2013 Coronation Festival Gala.
Mr Watson recalls his 2001 performance for Pope John Paul II as taking place in a magnificent Vatican room with painted ceiling: “We met the Pope in the Sistine Chapel, and I kissed the papal ring and had a quick conversation with him. But the performance was in Vatican City.”
Reflecting on his childhood, Mr Watson maintains that, although his family were not churchgoers, their values mirrored their faith. “I was still brought up in what I consider to be a Christian way. I was taught the morals of life. The fundamental thing was integrity and honesty. There was always lots of love in the house. And I’ve taken that with me throughout my life.
“I came across a lot of dishonesty in the music business. But the necessity for people to be dishonest and deceptive is still a confusion to me. I wasn’t taken to church, but I do believe my parents had — and to this day still have — a Christian outlook on life, as much as they may not practise Christianity as we know it.”
IN 2005, Mr Watson underwent extensive surgery for a brain tumour. The tumour returned the following year, and treatment shaped his faith and ideas on the life of the world to come. “I’d gone to bed, and the tumour growing in my skull haemorrhaged and was bleeding into my brain. I didn’t wake up the next morning, and my assistant found me and called an ambulance.
“The doctors needed to assess the damage; so I was wheeled into an MRI scanner, and all I can remember is huge furore around me. I was flicking in and out of consciousness. My vision had gone. I was just seeing a sheet of black with shadows around. MRI scanners are quite noisy, and and there was clap-clap-clap, bang-bang-bang noise. The pain in my skull was immense. I felt like I was going to die.
“There was a singular moment when it felt the noise of the scanner began to drop. The pain stops. And it felt like I was leaving my body. I could see a visualisation: I was sat in a dark room, and there was a door in the corner, with a sliver of light. As a child, I’d get frightened in the dark, and say, ‘Can you please leave the door open slightly?’ and there would be a sliver of light down the door.
“Then I felt like I was leaving to go wherever — hopefully, heaven. And I imagined myself walking to the door and opening it, and, if I did, I would never be returning to my body again. The thought of my two children Rebecca and Hannah and how they would manage without their dad was foremost. I began thinking: I’m not ready to go yet, my kids need me. And the clatter of the MRI scanner came back, the pain in my head was back, I was back in the room. If I’d have walked through that door, I would have been going to another plane.”
Such a close brush with death has strengthened Mr Watson’s belief in an afterlife, but his conviction comes with a caveat: “If I was 100 per cent certain there is an afterlife, I’m not ready to go there yet — even if it’s a better place; even if it means that all my woes, worries, and troubles are gone, and all the people that have gone before are waiting with open arms. Death frightens me, because I have so much to do here, and so much more time to spend with the people that I love. The prospect of my mortality does still scare me.”
St Mary’s AstburyRussell Watson sings at the 2022 fund-raising concert at St Mary’s, Astbury
Recovery was interlaced with faith and prayer. “I drew on my faith more than I’ve ever done. I don’t pray for material things — a better car, a better house, more money. If they come to me, then it is a bonus. I pray for health and longevity for my children, for my mum, my dad, and the people around me. And, when they go through difficult times, I pray for them, too. If I see situations on social media where others are in trouble, I will pray for them, but rarely for myself.”
Mr Watson swaps Bible and theological readings with a friend — disappointingly, not Aled Jones, the co-creator of Mr Watson’s 2022 Christmas album — and the tenor will reveal his scriptural partner’s identity only as a wealthy businessman. “I don’t read the Bible every day, and not as much as I’d like. But a friend who is a very devout Christian will often swap certain passages from the Bible.”
Last week, they exchanged the writings of the Victorian Baptist Charles Spurgeon, “prince of preachers” and founder of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London: “The more grace we have, the less we shall think of ourselves, for grace like light reveals our impurity.” Mr Watson says this crystallises his fears for his loved ones during his health issues: what would be left for them if he was not there?
The “code for Christianity”, he says, is contained in John 14.21: “He that hath my commandments, and keeps them, he it is that loveth me; and he that loveth me shall be loved of my father, and I will love him and will manifest myself to him.”
Referring to the verse as a “guide to life”, Mr Watson elaborates: “I don’t necessarily think it’s something that we should rigidly stick by, because, in this world, it’s impossible. But if as Christians we endeavour to be the best versions of ourselves, that represents good Christianity.”
GIVEN his Cathedral Tour, which runs into next year, as well as his local fund-raising events, what effect does seeing performances in historic places of worship have on audiences? “Whenever we walk into these magnificent buildings, there’s a sense of ‘I must show a certain amount of decorum and respect in here.’”
Balancing the audience’s respect for the space with their enjoyment, Mr Watson says, “I don’t want them to feel that they can’t let themselves go, or be themselves. I will inject some light humour into the proceedings, to loosen things up. And I’ll usually start with a big, upbeat, buoyant aria, something I know will get their attention; so we’re all aware that this is a concert, in a place of God, and I want you to enjoy it.”
The repertoire for religious venues includes Ave Maria, César Franck’s Panis Angelicus, “Abide with me”, and “How great thou art”, and “some of the big classical arias that I love to sing, and even a touch of musical theatre as well. But the songs that lend themselves best to those types of venues are the big ones.”
Reverence for churches also extends to performers. “It’s a perspective thing. I’m aware that I am going into their house, and respecting their rules is something that I’m happy to do.” Complaints about uneven sound quality along the nave receive short shrift. He says, “This building has been here 700 years. We can’t change the nature of its acoustic.”
The one day when Mr Watson will not perform is Christmas Day. “It is sacrosanct. No way will I perform on Christmas Day. Christmas is when the furore of the music industry finally dies down. I walk into the house, close the front door, and it becomes all about family: bringing everybody together, all our loved ones, and spending a significant day together.”
Russell Watson’s Cathedral Tour runs until March 2024. russellwatson.com