'I told my girls that I loved them, then went into the bathroom and sobbed'
Ahead of his show next month at Belfast's Waterfront Hall, popular tenor Russell Watson tells Andrea Smith how his daughters helped him through serious illness and why he can't resist a rescue dog
Russell Watson thought he was going to die. It was 2007 and he had been rushed to hospital by paramedics after he didn't wake up one morning. He had undergone an operation to remove a pituitary tumour a year earlier, but the tumour had grown back and haemorrhaged in three places.
As they prepared him for an MRI scan, Russell could hear loud noises from the machinery, and medical staff discussing his case, but he couldn't see well or move his body.
"All the noise and furore seemed to die down to nothing and I could see this door in my mind with a strip of light shining through the side," recalls the popular English tenor.
"My interpretation was that if I went to the door and opened it, I'd be leaving, but I wasn't ready to go. The thought of my children and how they'd manage without their dad came into my head, and suddenly the clatter in the room started to return and I was back there again."
Russell's problems began a year earlier when he experienced headaches and problems with his peripheral vision, but a specialist concluded it was stress. A few weeks later, he was flying to LA to record his That's Life album and felt ill on the flight. "My head felt like it was going to explode," he says. "I went to Cedars-Sinai hospital for tests, and the specialist said, 'Mr Watson, you have a brain tumour, and from the results I'm seeing it's a big one'."
Reeling from the shock, Russell's anxiety was compounded by having to wait a week to learn if the tumour was malignant or benign. Thankfully it was the latter, but it was a fast-growing fibrous tumour with the potential to cause damage. "I genuinely thought I was going to die," he says. "I didn't tell anyone because I was in denial, and went off to make the album thinking it would be my legacy."
Telling his children, Rebecca (then 11) and Hannah (5) the night before his first operation was the hardest part. "I said, 'Dad's strong and I'm pretty sure I'm going to be okay, but I want you to remember that I love you and don't ever forget that'," he says. "And then I went into the bathroom and buried my head in a towel and sobbed for 20 minutes."
A year after the first operation, Russell was on Michael Parkinson's last chat show telling him how well he was feeling. This was three weeks before that fateful morning when he didn't wake up. After the second operation, he had 25 sessions of radiotherapy, which, he says, "knocked the s*** out of me".
"My hair fell out, steroids made me balloon up and my skin was red and puffy," he recalls. "My voice had gone as well. The specialist said not to expect to be singing classical opera again, as I'd feel tired and lethargic and wouldn't have the energy to travel the world.
"The suicide rate for the type of illness I had is high - because people can't deal with constantly taking the drugs."
Happily, Russell made a great recovery and keeps well by injecting himself with his medication in the stomach. He is 50 but looks younger, which he puts down to looking after his skin and going to the gym. His relationship with his daughters became extra-special; after being their powerful protector, they began minding him when he was fragile and falling apart. He's still close to them today, and Hannah is now 16 and Rebecca is 23, and she works with him doing administration and design.
The girls are from his first marriage, and Russell, who was single during his illness, is now happily married to Louise. Together eight years, they live in Cheshire and every room has a dog, cat, duck or chicken in it. Aside from Shih Tzu Muffin, they have a greyhound, Blaze, who was badly mistreated in her former life. Russell is a huge fan of the breed as pets and says that people have the wrong impression of them altogether.
"They think they're a lot of work, but they're so laid-back," he says. "We have a saluki called Poppy too. I saw her on ITV News. She had been thrown out of a van at 70mph and had four broken legs. She had the same look on her face as Blaze had when he came, so I just looked at Louise and said, 'We have another dog'. Two days later, she was in our house."
Russell is from Salford in Greater Manchester, and his dad Tim was a welder and his mum Nola worked in Woolworths. He has a younger sister, Hayley, who is now his business manager, and they've always been as thick as thieves. He's funny in person and great at doing accents and impressions, which kept his colleagues occupied at the nuts and bolts factory where he worked for eight years. He hated the 12-hour night shifts doing "mind-numbingly boring, repetitive work", but having left school at 16 with no qualifications, his choices were limited. Having had piano lessons and learned guitar as a child, he was musically gifted, but had never done anything about it.
One night, one of his mates entered his name in a talent competition that happened to be on in the pub they were in. Three rounds later, he had won the competition from more than 400 entrants, much to his amazement. The following day, an agent called him saying he could get him work in the pubs and clubs, and he handed in his notice in the factory. He reckons they were delighted, as his output level was the lowest in the place.
After five years developing his stagecraft and learning how to engage with an audience, a regular at a working men's club said he reckoned Russell would made a good job of "that Nessing Doormat". He went off and learned it, and when he performed the aria the following week, he had his first standing ovation.
This encouraged him to take singing lessons and the rest is history. His debut album, The Voice, held simultaneous no 1 slots in the US and UK and he has sold more than 7m albums, scooped four classical Brit Awards and is the UK's biggest-selling classical artist in history. The New York Times said of a recent performance that "he sings like Pavarotti, and entertains the audience like Sinatra".
Russell has sung for former US presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama, the Emperor of Japan and the King of Malaysia. His most special moment was getting the call to sing in a private audience for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. He took to the stage and saw 3,500 people in the audience, 40 cardinals in the front row, and was accompanied by an 140-piece orchestra and a choral section of 500. Oh, and 500m people watched at home.
"I'm stood on the stage thinking it doesn't look like a private audience," he laughs. "It was a bit of an improvement from Wigan Road Working Men's Club."
Russell Watson will sing Songs from the Heart at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, on December 6. For tickets visit www.waterfront.co.uk or tel 028 9033 4455