Obituary: Edward Russell

THE AMERICAN basso cantante Edward Russell (formerly known as Edward R. White) was at the time of his death enjoying a successful career in the opera houses of the United States, and had also sung in Europe. His roles were steadily becoming more and more important, while his huge stature - he was 6ft 6in tall - and large, beautiful and resonant voice secured him a notable triumph as Hagen in Gotterdammerung, although his own sweet and gentle disposition was the exact opposite to that of the black-hearted Hagen.

However, despite this and many other recent successes, and a full engagement book for the future, Russell suffered from depression, and reacted strongly to incidents that others might consider trivial. While rehearsing the role of Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Cleveland Opera, he was upset by just such an incident, and took 80 of the pills intended to calm his nervous attacks. He was taken to hospital, but two days later hanged himself.

He was born Edward Russell White in Newark, New Jersey, in 1952. A prize- winner in the 1985 Baltimore Opera Competition, he was awarded a three- year fellowship with Opera Music Theatre International, New Jersey, under the supervision of the bass Jerome Hines and the conductor Henry Lewis. During the summer of 1986 he sang Stephano in the world premiere of Lee Hoiby's opera The Tempest at Des Moines Metro Opera, where he also took the part of Pistol in Verdi's Falstaff. Engagements followed in Tulsa, Fort Worth, Lake George and Kansas: his repertory now included Lawyer Frazier in Porgy and Bess, the Speaker and Sarastro in The Magic Flute, Monterone and Sparafucile in Rigoletto, Timur in Turandot and Leporello in Don Giovanni.

Russell first came to prominence in 1989, when he sang the role of Prince Mstivoy in a concert performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's Mlada, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas on National Public Radio, which was repeated in Pittsburgh. In May, Tilson Thomas gave a semi-staged performance of Mlada - its London premiere - with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall, in which Russell also sang, gaining excellent reviews for the fine quality of his voice.

Mlada was broadcast live on Radio 3 and a BBC television documentary was made on the subject. During the 1989/90 season Russell made his New York Metropolitan debut as the Undertaker in Porgy and Bess, a tiny role but nevertheless a big step forward in his career.

Returning to Europe, he sang several roles for VARA Radio in the Netherlands: they included Cecil in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, Prince de Bouillon in Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur and a French general in Prokoviev's War and Peace. He also sang Samuel in Un Ballo in Maschera at Nice and Alidoro in La Cenerentola at Antwerp.

Russell started his association with Cleveland Opera as Don Fernando in Fidelio in 1991, returning as Sparafucile, which he also sang in Milwaukee. In 1996 he scored his greatest success so far as Hagen in the so-called Grand Canyon Ring cycle staged by Arizona Opera at Flagstaff. His "huge, richly coloured tone" was duly commented upon, as well as his imposing stage presence. A magnificent future as a Wagner bass seemed to open before him.

After a very different assignment, Pluto in Monteverdi's Orfeo at Saint Louis in 1997, Russell returned to Wagner, singing the comic role of Daland in Der Fliegende Hollander in Cleveland and Fafner, one of the giants in Das Rheingold, at Dallas. He repeated Hagen in Flagstaff, then took on another comic role, Don Basilio in Un barbiere di Siviglia, at Austin.

The engagement to sing Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor was as a late replacement for another bass. He had only sung excerpts of the part in concert before, and apparently did not have time to master it completely before rehearsals began. Whether this fact had any relevance or not to the final disaster it is impossible to say.

Elizabeth Forbes

Edward Russell White (Edward Russell), bass opera and concert singer: born Newark, New Jersey 1 September 1952; died Cleveland, Ohio 29 November 1998.

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