Opera Director, Translator & Composer
Russell is now based in his native Hull, having lived and worked across the country.
On his return to Hull in City of Culture year 2017, he formed Hull Urban Opera and, in a city with little opera tradition, has developed it into a valued part of the city’s artistic ecosystem.
Under his artistic leadership, HUO has become known for its imaginative approach to programming and passionate belief in honest and direct audience engagement. The company’s ethos is friendly, playful and innovative, exploring the where, when and why of operatic performance. Accessibility is key, be it in disability access, price, subject matter or type of engagement and his ‘Brain Jar Sessions’, new music upstairs in a relaxed and popular wine bar, are typical of this approach.
Russell has directed all of HUO’s productions including his own opera Christmas Meeting and HUO commissions The Bar and Crocodile by young Belgian composer Lente Verelst. He also developed and directed a mindful production of Satie’s Socrates with mindfulness leader Jim Rogers for performance in Hull Minster.
Before HUO, he was assistant director at WNO, ETO & Wexford Opera Festival and has since directed many of the great repertoire pieces for companies across the country.
Russell has translated operas for Opera Up Close, Hull Urban Opera and Riverside Opera and created new libretti for his own operas as well as for Raymond Yiu’s Snappy Opera for children.
As composer, he recently completed his second chamber opera Mr Tilly’s Seance based on the short story by EF Benson. His other works include choral pieces and chamber music.
It Must Have Been a Tuesday
Composer & Director
Inspired by the US hit Moth Radio Hour, Russell conceived the piece as a Lehrstücke for the company collective. The aim was for the performers to “be with” an audience with as few barriers as possible to direct communication. To this end, each performer crafted a 10-minute true story from their lives which they then told live to a small, intimate audience. Since singers have an expanded range of expression, I set about a third of each story to music accompanied by violin resulting in a free-flow between speech and song.
Audiences responded strongly to the performance describing it as “brave and honest” and “very moving”.
This HUO commission from young Belgian opera-makers Lente Verelst & Lena Vercauteren came about as a request from HUO audiences for something “really scary”. Inspired by the form of Samuel Beckett’s Play, Crocodile imagines the characters of Punch & Judy transposed to modern day and unendingly reenacting their misdemeanours.
A natural collaborator for this project was Hull artist Anna Bean who animated to pre-recorded voices under my direction.
The world-building for this project included a website and identity for Crocodile UK, a secret URL and password and police surveillance ending in a raid.
Audience reaction ranged from “one of the best digital operas created in lockdown” to “unbridled nastiness”. Opera Critic Alexandra Coghlan described the work as “very dark and very clever”.
Bumps in the Night
Director & Composer (of Christmas Meeting)
I conceived this site-specific anthology of two new operas and a theatrical adaption as a ghost-tour through one of Hull’s most haunted buildings. Led by a mysterious tour-guide, the audience first encounters my short opera Christmas Meeting based on the clever short story by Rosemary Timperley, then a play based on Mandragora by the same author and lastly The Bar, HUO’s first commission from Verelst & Vercauteren.
Each of the pieces emerged from and receded into darkness and local volunteers were used to supplement the action.
The work really caught the public imagination and tickets were hard to come by with audiences describing it as “brilliantly staged” and “exciting and unpredictable”. A follow-up to the piece is planned for 2022.
Director & Translator
Developed under the alternative title of “Music & Mindfulness”, this production was an attempt to create the right conditions in which to experience Satie’s delicate monodrama. The challenge was to find a way to achieve the unsentimental distancing effect of the soprano singing all four male roles whilst still making the storytelling compelling and theatrical. Soprano Poppy Shotts and I created an outer story in which a recently bereaved woman experiences three stages of grief while points of her emotional journey kiss those of the characters in the story.
The performance began with a 10 minute body scan led by mindfulness expert Jim Rogers to get the audience into a state of relaxation and his further interventions helped to sustain the reflective mood.
Audiences found the performance “captivating and beautifully crafted” and “well-presented & very moving”.
It Must Have Been a Tuesday
Duration: 30 minutes
Three true stories written by the performers
Soprano, Mezzo, Baritone & Violin
1) Embracing your roots
2) Overcoming personal adversity
3) Reconnecting with lost family
I commissioned true stories from Poppy Shotts, Alex Grainger & Joanna Gamble and set about a third of each to music accompanied by violin. The result was a heartfelt expression by three sensitive performers who committed wholly to baring their souls before an intimate audience.
Mister Tilly’s Seance
Duration: 25 minutes
Libretto by the composer based on the short story by EF Benson
MR TILLY, c.30 – Baritone | MADAME CUMBERBATCH, c.50 – Mezzo
MISS SOULSBY/MRS TALTON, c.30 – Soprano
MRS MERRIOTT/MRS INGLIS, c.40 – Mezzo
MR MERRIOTT, c.30 – Tenor | COMMANDER PLAICE, c.45 – Bass
Time and Place
Mr Tilly is on his way to an afternoon seance held by Madame Cumberbatch when he is run over and killed by a steam engine. He decided to attend anyway.
Duration: 12 minutes
Libretto after the short story by Rosemary Timperley
THE WOMAN, c.50 – Soprano
FRANCES RANDEL, c.20 – Tenor
Time and Place
c.1950, an ordinary rented room
An older woman, alone at Christmas, is thinking about Christmases past when a strangely dressed young man bursts in convinced the room is his…
Composer | It Must Have Been a Tuesday
Director | Crocodile, a darkweb opera
Composer & Librettist | Mr Tilly’s Seance
Librettist | Snappy Opera (Mahogany)
Director & Composer | Christmas Meeting
Director | The Bar by Lente Verelst
Director & Translator | Socrates by Erik Satie
Director | Cruel Britannia