Count me in
Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is the centrepiece of Scottish Opera’s autumn season. At the top of the pile – socially speaking – is the Count, played by one of Britain’s foremost baritones, Roderick Williams. Williams has previously appeared with the Company in productions of Monster, La bohème and The Magic Flute.
SO: How did you get into music?
RW: I was born in London, the middle of three boys, to parents who aren’t musicians but are very musical. I got to know their record collection very well and my father had a way of challenging us all to guess the composer when he turned on the radio. With all this music in the house it was no accident that we boys grew up to appreciate music. My elder brother became a chorister and I followed in his footsteps. In a way, I suppose I was treated as a professional musician from the age of seven. My mother cooked Sunday lunch with Puccini operas playing on the stereo so, even though my early knowledge of singing was through the Anglican choral repertoire, I knew the sound of all these dramatic Italian operas. No one had any idea that, many years later, I would be singing in those operas.
SO: You perform music across a wide repertoire, from baroque to contemporary. Are there specific challenges in studying and performing different types of music?
RW: As much as possible, I approach my singing in the same way. I’m not aware of altering my technique to sing early music and I certainly do my best to sing contemporary works as lyrically as is possible. I certainly enjoy the variety; my year began with Il barbiere di Siviglia and went from there straight into Afterlife, a multi-media opera by the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa. Who knows, perhaps one day Michel’s piece will be as much a classic as Rossini’s.
SO: Do you approach recitals and concerts differently to operas? How do you prepare an operatic role?
RW: Again it is the variety that interests me. I think I do sing recitals differently as the task of singing across an orchestra is different to that of singing with piano. Often I enjoy the range of personas involved in a recital; this inspires me next time an opera role comes along as it is equally rewarding to spend time as one character, in full costume, interacting with others. Like any singer, I do my preparation before an opera contract begins – learning the words and the notes – but a great deal of the process takes place in rehearsal, with the director, conductor and other cast members. I’m wary of doing so much preparation that I close my mind to other interpretations before I have even met the creative team on an opera.
SO: What’s your favourite role or composer?
RW: I have never had so much fun since I sang Don Giovanni. I know tenors often get the best music in opera, but what a role that was for a baritone! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Mozart operas I have performed because the characters are so vivid and the music is superb. I’ve enjoyed the Puccini I have sung for the same reasons, but also because it has been fun both to wallow in the gorgeous music and be given a singing lesson by the composer. I also enjoy Britten’s operas, not least because they are in my own language and the drama can be so powerful.
SO: Have you played the Count before? What did you do to prepare?
RW: I have sung this role twice before in revivals of the same Opera North production – it was my debut role, in fact, with a national company over fifteen years ago. I am therefore very fond of it but I am looking forward to singing it in the original language – a first time for me – and to creating a new production. I remember though especially how much insight I gained into the role when I wore the kneehigh riding boots in the second act; for the first time in rehearsals I really felt like a nobleman. The same was true when I was properly fitted for the bespoke jacket. During the performances, I remember spending the interval in my dressing room with two dressers kneeling at my feet, doing up the intricate leg lacings, while I munched on some fruit and grabbed a hot drink. That did wonders for my Count persona too! It also helps that I have just sung a production of Il barbiere and so I thought a lot about the younger Count and how he grows from that ardent lover, infatuated with the young Rosina, into this skirt chaser.
SO: Sir Thomas Allen, who has played the Count on many occasions, is directing. Have you worked with him before? What are you looking forward to in working
with him on this?
RW: I have never even met Sir Thomas before so he has, in my mind, the status of a living legend. I have recordings of his operas and recitals on my shelves and I will no doubt spend many rehearsals just thinking to myself, ‘That’s Sir Thomas Allen!’ I know that sounds glib but there is something wonderful about this relatively small singers’ world that means you quite often end up meeting and working with people you have admired greatly from afar. They will treat you as warmly and simply as any other colleague and it’s important to remember, as you share a biscuit with them in the coffee break, that they have achieved so much on an international stage, no matter how personable they may appear in the flesh. I watched Sir Thomas’ TV programme examining the myths surrounding Don Giovanni and enjoyed the insights he brought to playing the role as well as his gradual, and amusing, blurring of subject and investigator. I have no doubt that he will have as many insights into the sort of person the Count could be and I’m eager to learn.
SO: Have you worked previously with any of the other cast members?
RW: I’ve sung with Kate Valentine before and even competed in a triathlon by coincidence with her husband. We are looking forward to being husband and wife ... albeit for a couple of months only. The last time I worked with Harry Nicoll, he had to sing along to the banjo, which I remember he played with great skill. I don’t know if it will feature in this production.
SO: Why should people see Figaro?
RW: The tremendous thing about preparing a role in Figaro is that I am reminded each day how truly exceptional the music is. The music is the stuff of genius, while at the same time it sounds effortless. I think it is wonderful for audiences to see operatic characters behaving like human beings ... while also happening to sing glorious music.