Now Hear This: Russell Watson

WHO: Russell Watson

WHO'S THAT?: British opera singer with working-man roots, who, like Charlotte Church before him, has popularized classical vocal music for the masses.

COMPARISONS: Luciano Pavarotti, Pacido Domingo, Meat Loaf, Michael Bolton

DID YA KNOW?: Prior to launching his singing career, Watson — the 28-year-old father of two young daughters — left school at age 16 and was a machine worker, "putting nuts and bolts into a machine."

FIRST IMPRESSION: The Voice (Decca-Universal)

They say you are the fanfare for the common man.

Watson: Essentially, that's what I am; I'm just a normal, working-class chap who, I suppose, got lucky. What I think I'm doing is getting the music across to an audience that maybe normally would feel slightly intimidated by classical music and may be slightly intimidated by the facade and the tag of what I call elitism that's attached to some areas of classical music. I suppose because of my working-class background — my father was an engineer and my mother works in Woolworth's — people make that connection with me.

So how did you wind up singing classical instead of pub songs?

Watson: I grew up listening to a lot of classical music, to a combination of both classical and pop music. My mother was a big classical fan; my father liked his pop music as well. The household was a wide mixture of musical taste. I suppose as an 8-year-old growing up in a household where classical music is being played, you grow up without prejudice; I wasn't necessarily aware of the baggage that comes along with classical music. So I judged the music on its merit, for what it was.

What were you singing when you first started performing?

Watson: It was right across the board. If they asked me to sing Elvis, I'd sing Elvis. I used to do "Bat Out of Hell" by Meat Loaf, which would rock the house, baby; I used to be billed as Russell Watson: Meat Loaf to Pavarotti." When we used to perform [the aria] "Nessun Dorma" in the clubs, that's the only thing I ever got a standing ovation for. I found that most of the audiences that I performed for were totally unfamiliar with classical music, so when they heard it, it was, "Hey, we've never heard anything like it before." It was amazing; it was awe-inspiring to them.

Do you get slagged off by purists who think you're a pop singer in classical clothing?

Watson:There have only been one or two derogatory comments, to be honest with you, and I don't take much notice of them. In my opinion, the greatest stamp of approval is the approval of the public; in the U.K. we're heading for a million records [sold], and the response to the concerts and so on has been incredible. I was recently invited to perform in Hyde Park, which I'm doing with Pavarotti in July. If he didn't think I was up to the task, he wouldn't invite me to perform with him in front of 72,000 people. I went to see Samson and Delilah recently, and Domingo introduced me to the crowd as "the young man from England with the beautiful voice." When you're gaining plaudits from people like that, I'm not really too over-concerned about a couple of purists who might say, "Russell's not come through conventional means, so he can't be any good."