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Life with my voice: Roderick Williams
Opera Now

Life with my voice: Roderick Williams

Posted 26 October 2016   |   804 views   |   Music   |   Comments (0) 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 classi

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