Life with my voice: Roderick Williams5:09, 26th October 2016
This has been a fulfilling year for British baritone Roderick Williams, who is currently appearing with Opera North in his debut as Billy Budd. He explains why he is so drawn to the music of Benjamin Britten, and how his opera career is flourishing in an easy-going sort of way
Who were your biggest influences when you started to sing?
I started singing as a treble when I was six in the shadow of my older brother, a head chorister with perfect pitch. My first experience of opera was my mother singing along to recordings of Maria Callas as she cooked us Sunday lunch. My father was a self-taught guitarist for a hobby and I could hear him practise from my bedroom. So my family and Maria Callas probably set me on my path more than anyone else.
You began your formal training as an opera singer at the Guildhall when you were 28 – which is relatively late. Why did you wait?
I sometimes think that people who have a burning ambition to be a singer (and nothing else) from a young age face the prospect of crushing disappointment if things don’t work out. My career path was more haphazard and so I was content to pursue my own singing as far as it went, ready to fall back on teaching if required. I know this philosophy doesn’t suit everybody, but it’s not in my nature to be hugely ambitious. I aim to enjoy the moment without worrying too much about the future.
This year has been something of a milestone for you in terms of opera, singing Eugene Onegin and Billy Budd. Did you consciously decide that the time was right to take on these substantial roles?
I’ve wanted to singing these two roles for some time now, but it is coincidence that they have both occurred in the same year. I wouldn’t say that they feel much more substantial than previous singing, so it doesn’t feel like a particular leap for me in terms of my vocal development.
Are you a natural ‘stage animal’? What sort of preparation do you have to do to explore the characters that you portray?
I hardly ever acted on stage as a schoolboy as I was required in the pit band. I didn’t know whether I would enjoy acting but eventually I signed up for the opera course at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama anyway; the syllabus sounded like a lot of fun. It turned out that I loved being on stage. Finding a sense of character in a song or an operatic role turns out not to be so different afterall. It’s just more common for an operatic character to continue throughout an evening whereas a song recital can comprise a great many vignettes. To prepare, I think a lot about what my characters say and what is said about them. I wonder about what might have happened to them before the opera begins and how this affects the choices they make on stage. I like to people-watch too; the way people behave, move and talk in real life is as fascinating if not more so than anything that happens on a stage.
Does your mixed race heritage inform your approach to music in anyway, or does it just lead to annoying stereotyping?
In all honesty, I don’t think my mixed-race heritage is a part of my approach to music or my career at all. I was raised within a very safe, middle-class household and my frames of reference have little to do with my mother’s Jamaican past. If anyone ever asks me about my roots, I immediately think of High Barnet, Hertfordshire. I am not privy to casting meetings so I cannot say whether I have been rejected in the past for roles because of my skin colour or whether this has worked in my favour. I can guess, of course, but that is a fairly pointless exercise. I like to imagine that people like the way I sing and employ me accordingly. I have hardly suffered from journalist stereotyping or political programming any more than, say, Thomas Allen with his County Durham heritage. That is both a part of him and also nothing to do with his career.
You’ve sung a lot of Benjamin Britten. As someone who writes songs yourself, why does this composer appeal to you?
Britten’s music was among the first that awoke me to classical music. I heard a section from the Frank Bridge Variations as background music to a short film about glass blowing. It triggered something within me and I was fascinated by classical music from then on. My parents also owned the LP of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I remember hearing the opening as a child and picturing a forest shifting and rustling in the dark. I didn’t know it was made up of string glissandi; I just thought that’s what a forest sounds like when it moves. I love how Britten sets words and he has influenced my own song composing ever since. I find his music very emotive and one challenge in Billy Budd is to stay focused and disinterested during the extraordinary chordal interlude before Billy’s final aria. Both that and the final pages of the score, as Vere achieves resolution, are amongst the highlights of this piece for me.
Billy Budd is a bright-eyed innocent and an untamed idealist, where as you seem to be a poised, urbane performer. Are you taking an approach to Billy Budd that might be surprising or different?
You might need to talk to our director about this. Orpha Phelan married my younger brother, having met him at a concert performance of Albert Herring and recognised a shared love of Britten opera amongst other things. So Orpha has known me for many years and has, I think, wanted to cast me as Billy for some time. I think she very much sees the ‘bright-eyed innocent’ and ‘untamed idealist’ in me and would probably argue that I am an obvious choice for Billy. I think every actor would like to think they could assume any character. That’s why it is so fascinating, for example, when well-known comedians take on serious, even sinister acting roles (Robbie Coltrane in National Treasure?). We enjoy seeing someone exploring different aspects of (their own?) character. Some years ago I sang Scarpia in a concert performance of Tosca at the Endellion Festival. People told me I was ‘far too nice’ to sing Scarpia. But anyone can be brutal. You just have to sing the words in the libretto. It wasn’t difficult. In fact, it was hugely enjoyable, cathartic almost, to explore the inner workings of such a repugnant man. As for this production of Billy, I can’t claim to be doing anything different from ‘normal’. I have considered every word that he says and that is said about him; I have read the Melville source novel and cherry-picked aspects that might be useful; I have imagined what might have happened to Billy before he arrives on the Indomitable and wondered how this might affect his actions on stage; and, finally, when I am on stage, I listen to what is said to me and react as instinctively and simply as possible.
What other big roles lie on the near horizon and what roles would you like to sing in the future?
I will be singing Papageno and Ulisse at the Royal Opera and the Linbury next year. I’m not sure what other roles lie ahead; for so long I have had Onegin and Budd at the very top of my wish list and now I’ve managed them both in one year! It may take me a while to think up a new list.
Opera North’s Billy Budd is on tour to Newcastle (Theatre Royal, 3 Nov), Salford Quays (Lowry Centre, 10 Nov), Nottingham (Theatre Royal, 17 Nov) and Edinburgh (Festival Theatre, 1-3 Dec). www.operanorth.co.uk