Listen to this article
Roderick Williams breaks into a grin. The baritone is to take part in a concert staging of Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring this weekend, and he has just admitted to feeling a certain pressure. Not that he is a stranger to Britten’s comic chamber opera: he has played butcher’s assistant Sid both in live performance and on recording. But this Barbican concert, in honour of the centenary of Britten’s birth, will be his debut as vicar Mr Gedge. “When I played Sid under Richard Hickox, Alan Opie played the vicar, and he sang the part so, so well. I wondered what he must think of me – this young whippersnapper.” Williams’ grin widens. “Now it’s my turn. Isn’t that brilliant?”
Williams, 48, is riding a wave of Britten centenary performances. In October he travelled to Rome to appear in Peter Grimes, and two weeks ago he sang in the War Requiem at London’s Royal Albert Hall. But his enthusiasm doesn’t seem to be waning. When we meet at the Maida Vale Studios in London, he says he is looking forward to making his mark on Mr Gedge, one perhaps spiced with a certain eccentricity. “I remember doing a scene from this opera at college, where the part of the vicar was sung by a Chinese baritone,” he says, “a sweet guy; he mangled the English so much. But the idea grew on us that in the midst of this quintessential English village of Loxford the vicar would be Chinese and incomprehensible – that there are oddities about and everybody is a little too English, reserved and polite to say anything about it.”
Evidently, this singer likes to seek fresh challenges, be it a world premiere or a Bach cantata. And those challenges have paid off: Williams has an enviable reputation, thanks to his handsome vocal quality, open-minded approach to repertoire and warm, unaffected stage persona.
Born in north London to an English father and a Jamaican mother, Williams excelled musically in his youth, first as a treble at school, then as a choral scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford, before becoming a music teacher at a boys’ school near London. “It never occurred to me that people could or would make their living from singing,” he says. Then one day, he and his wife Miranda were walking on Wimbledon Common when she asked him what his ambitions were. “It’s not like she was trying to egg me on like Lady Macbeth,” he recalls. “But it was a very wise question. And I said, without having thought about it before, that I’d like to be a singer.”
So, at almost 30, he began studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. “I went as an ex-teacher ready to soak up as much learning as I could from anyone: the staff, the students, the cleaner, the guy at reception,” he says.
That sense of purpose has evidently stayed with him, as his wide-ranging CV suggests. Mainstream repertoire is well represented, with Britten in particular a recurring feature. But there’s obviously a strong urge to explore less familiar territory. A former member of the early music vocal ensemble I Fagiolini, Williams has a taste for lesser-known Baroque repertoire, with credits including Rameau’s Castor and Pollux and Charpentier’s Medea – both at English National Opera. Then there are frequent world premieres, as well as rarely performed works from the past: he has just performed Brahms’s early masterpiece Die schöne Magelone at the Temple in London, while in December he appears at Wigmore Hall in a recital of songs by the early 20th-century Austrian composer Joseph Marx, juxtaposed with Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch songs.
“For my friends Mark Padmore, Ian Bostridge and all those people who programme the well-known Schubert song cycles, there is the pressure of all those other performances behind them,” says Williams. “Singing slightly less well-known repertoire is a way of ducking that pressure a little.” It also, he maintains, encourages spectators to reassess their listening habits. “A lot of Lieder song recital audiences can get comfortable with hearing Die Forelle or Winterreise and it washes over them like a warm bath. I’d love them to go to a Finzi recital and think, ‘What an amazing juxtaposition of music and poetry this is and maybe I should listen to Schubert in the same way.’’’
He has a similar attitude to Albert Herring. What it needs, Williams believes, is interpretations that eschew chocolate-box depictions of a quaint, bygone England. “Different directors have done weird and wonderful things with it,” he says. “Sometimes we tear our hair out and think ‘I’m an English vicar, why do you want me to swing from a trapeze in a leotard and roller skates?’ But it’s essential for this particular opera to survive that people do examine it and find something new in it.”
What spurs Williams on is that “wide-eyed reaction from the audience. I have a bee in my bonnet about people sitting with their heads buried in the text. What I’m wanting is to look people in the eye and share the experience.” That impulse to communicate has also found an outlet elsewhere: through composition. He has written several vocal works, and 2014 will see the premiere of two new commissions for the Britten Sinfonia.
“A musician’s life is full of vulnerabilities and composing is something I feel very vulnerable about,” he says. “If someone were to hear [my works] and say, ‘A bit of pastiche there, Mr Williams, it’s all a bit reminiscent of Copland, Beethoven, Britten,’ then I would find those wounds very difficult to recover from.” He admits that it’s rare for him to attend a premiere of his own work.
In spite of his heavy schedule, Williams ring-fences time to spend with his wife, two daughters and son. How easy is it to separate his professional and personal lives, given the all-absorbing nature of his work? “When I finish a concert and go out of the stage door, I’m straight into the audience and they don’t recognise me,” he says. “For me it’s about people coming to the concert intrigued by this Albert Herring thing, or these Marx songs, rather than, ‘Let’s go and throw my underwear at this man.’ That’s where classical music fits into the scheme of things: we can have our lives.”