Roderick Williams is one of the most popular opera stars of his generation. As he prepares to take on Billy Budd, he talks to Sarah Freeman.
Roderick Williams has spent the last few hours running up and down the decks of a ship, sword strapped by his side. After lunch he will be perfecting a sea shanty. Breaking for a quick bite to eat, he admits that the life of an opera singer is a privileged one. “It’s one big therapeutic playground,” says the baritone, who turned 51 this year. “Throughout my career I have murdered people, I’ve had affairs, I’ve been married numerous times. I’ve loved and lost, but come 10pm I walk out of the theatre and go back to my normal life.
“A couple of days ago I was working with the fight director who was choreographing a number of the set pieces. Now I am not a natural fighter. In fact, I have never hit anyone, not even when I was a child. I don’t know how that’s supposed to feel, but come opening night I will be there in full combative mood. That’s what’s wonderful about opera. It’s allows you to live out your dreams, good and bad and it has precluded the need for a midlife crisis.”
Williams is one of British opera’s standout stars and something of an expert in the works of Benjamin Britten. He made his operatic debut as Tarquinius in The Rape of Lucretia, has starred in Peter Grimes, Albert Herring and Gloriana, and later this month returns to another of Britten’s works, Billy Budd, which is part of Opera North’s new season.
Based on the short novel by Moby Dick author Herman Melville and set on board HMS Bellipotent in the year 1797, it’s an opera that is epic in both its scale and ambition. Aside from the various sea battles requiring cannons and crashing waves, Britten’s tale of the young sailor who is undone by jealousy, false accusations and inflexible martial law rides the depths of emotions.
It’s a work not entirely new to Williams, who earlier in his career played the Novice’s Friend, but it is the first time he has stepped into the main role as Britten’s eponymous hero.
“To be honest, I thought I might have missed my chance. Let’s face it, I am significantly older than Billy Budd is meant to be, but the lighting is kind and I am loving it. It’s the nature of an awful lot of operas that you end up standing in the same spot, it’s what’s known as the ‘park and bark’ method, but Billy Budd is incredibly physical. There’s a large helping of swashbuckling, which is always great fun to do, although I do realise I might feel differently at the end of the run. Ask me then how much I’m enjoying it when I’m crawling out of the theatre on my knees.”
Williams is known in the industry as one of those performers who doesn’t bring an ego with him to rehearsals and he is enjoying being back at Opera North where he is a familiar face to audiences.
“Often when you start a new production there is a week or so for cast bonding. We don’t need that here. Everyone knows each other, has worked with each other countless times over the years, so we have a cup of tea and two minutes in we’re bonded. That’s a lovely feeling, because the on-stage chemistry, which is so important to opera, is already there.”
With his sister-in-law Orpha Phelan directing, it’s even more of a family affair than usual, but one he is clearly relishing.
“I realise I am bound to say this given family loyalties, but Orpha is one of the best directors of opera going. Opera is a huge expensive machine and you need someone who brings the best out of every single scene, someone who is prepared to try new things, but who is also prepared to admit when things aren’t working. Orpha is very willing to listen to every one of the singers, but she is also very definite about what she wants and that makes for a very successful combination.”
Williams came relatively late to opera. Born in London to an English father and a Jamaican mother, he was always musical as a child and secured a choral scholarship to Oxford’s Magdalen College and after graduating trained as a music teacher. For a while he assumed his career lay in the classroom until his wife made him think otherwise.
“She asked me one day what my ambitions were. Before I could think about it, I could hear myself saying: ‘I would like to be a singer’. It had never really crossed my mind that it was something you could make a living out of, but there I was in my late 20s applying to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.”
He admits that he had the dedication and work ethic of many a mature student and while others on his year ended up partying harder than they studied, Williams describes himself as a “model pupil”.
“I think because I was a little older, I approached it very differently than had I gone straight from university. I don’t know what the other students thought of me, but I was determined that I was going to learn as much as I could from every single class.
“To be truthful, I am glad that I started at the age I did because ultimately I think it has benefitted my career. By the time I was about to make my professional debut my voice had a maturity that it simply wouldn’t have had at 22.
“When you are younger, there is a certain fearlessness which means you can get through parts. I’ve seen so many singers just go for it and come through the other side, but it does I think take its toll. However, as you get older, you learn the techniques, you know how to handle your voice and you can attempt things without so much of a struggle.”
Williams has long been an advocate for opening up the world of opera to a greater demographic. He works with schools with the aim of switching youngsters onto the music and it’s one of the reasons why he enjoys performing Britten so much.
“The best operas have a power and intensity which is hard to replicate, but there is something quite special about being able to sing in English because it does lead to a greater connection between the audience and what’s happening on stage. They see and understand what is happening in real time. No matter how good surtitles are, there is always going to be a half-second delay. When the action is being sung in English the audience can focus absolutely on the spectacle itself.”
With two decades of experience, Williams is now an old hand, but he still feels the nerves, not least when he was chosen to sing Rule Britannia for the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms.
“I just didn’t want to be a YouTube disaster. I had visions of me walking out on stage and falling flat on my face or having a senior moment and forgetting the words.
“That’s pressure, but long ago I decided that I wouldn’t go down the road of having good luck rituals. I don’t want to be late and thinking: ‘Oh, God, I haven’t got time to put on my lucky socks’ or whatever it is. I think you’re setting yourself up for a fall. Instead I tend to take myself off somewhere quiet just to get my focus.”
After Leeds, Opera North’s production of Billy Budd goes on tour to Salford, Newcastle, Nottingham and Edinburgh, but Williams already knows that there is one person who definitely won’t be buying a ticket to Britten’s maritime tragedy.
“My mum has already said she won’t be coming. She’s incredibly supportive, but she won’t watch anything where I come to a sticky end. Billy Budd would be one step too far.”
Billy Budd, Leeds Grand Theatre, October 18, 21, 27, 29, then touring. 0844 848 2700, leedsgrandtheatre.com