It's 1977, the year punk broke into the mainstream and Maria Callas died of a heart attack in her home in Paris, and Roderick Williams is taking the stage in North London for perhaps the first time. It’s the junior school play, the text is forgotten, but Williams has taken the unusual role of an "exotic fortune teller" garbed in black wig and skirts. "I had to perform a belly dance – with my parents in the front row of the audience." Little did he know at that time how this performance would prepare him for his latest role, as one of two eponymous brothers, in the ENO's new production of the mid-18th century tragédie en musique by Jean-Philippe Rameau, Castor and Pollux.
As a student on the opera course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the 1990s, Williams had never had a taste for Rameau. "It was generally accepted that French Baroque music was a dull, dead-end subject and I was quite happy to subscribe to that view, especially without having heard any." He's happy to say now that that's one prejudice that has been thoroughly put paid to thanks to the combination of emotional intensity drawn out by Barrie Kosky's staging, and the refined expertise brought to the conducting by Chritian Curnyn, for this production. A man of catholic tastes, Williams cheerfully admits, "that my ignorance had prevented me from discovering wonderful music."
If he is new to Rameau, however, he has certainly been no stranger to the baroque. A boy treble at school, Williams came to the choral repertoire early, and it was as a choral scholar that he studied at university before joining the early music ensemble, I Fagiolini, specialists in the performance of madrigals by Monterverdi, Byrd, and so forth. One of Williams's own compositions, a vocal work called "Is 5 (Sonnet No.2)" which joined some of the dots between the group's core repertoire and more recent vocal works by Meredith Monk and other avant-gardists, featured on the group's third CD release for Metronome Recordings. Later, as an oratorio singer, Williams sung a great deal of Bach, Handel, Purcell and Monteverdi; but he notes certain "very specific techniques to be acquired" for the convincing delivery of the French music of the ancien régime, which he has found it "fascinating to discover" with the help of Curnyn's "very thorough" coaching.
These days, Williams takes his inspiration from singers "who combine musicianship with a tremendous voice and who can act convincingly as well – baritones like Simon Keenleyside and Gerald Finley for example." So it must undoubtedly have been a thrill to take the role of Jaufré Rudel in the ENO's 2009 production of Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin, a role that Finley had sung at the work's American premiere in 2002 and at the Finnish National Opera, filmed and released on DVD, in 2004. But it was his mother's Maria Callas records, played at volume while she prepared the family's Sunday lunch, that first introduced the young Roderick to the world of opera. "The rest of the family would be barred from the kitchen," he recalls, "so she could sing along without embarrassment."
For a long time the pull of the stage lay dormant, between that first exposure to Puccini drifting with the smell of roast beef from the kitchen, that early dramatic role as a pre-teen fortune teller, and the diverse career he enjoys today. It was only at Guildhall, in his thirties, that he even really considered the specific challenges of acting and singing simultaneously. "However, I discovered I enjoyed it a great deal," he says now. At Guildhall he made his debut as Tarquinius, Benjamin Britten's ambitious Etruscan, in The Rape of Lucretia. The title role of this opera of Britten's was written for the great English contralto Kathleen Ferrier; and so it is appropriate that, in 1994, Williams would come a close second in the award named in her honour, one of the London's most prestigious prizes for younger operatic singers.
Britten roles followed, appearing on recordings of Billy Budd and Peter Grimes (as, respectively, the Novice's Friend and Ned Keen), along with a whistle stop tour through Mozart's baritones, including Don Giovanni and the Count in The Marriage of Figaro, for Opera North. An international debut came in 1998 when he sang Albert in Massenet's Werther, and, the following year, took the stage at the Spoleto Festival, singing Prince Bolkonsky in Prokofiev's Russien epic, War and Peace.
In a sense, then, the eighteenth century music of Castor and Pollux brings Williams back to the world of the earliest part of his career. He describes his character, "Pollux is hugely magnanimous at the opening of the opera in awarding his bride to his brother on the day of the wedding. Barrie Kosky’s production allows the audience to see that this gesture costs him emotionally." Williams also says that he's keen to explore some of the "issues" between Pollux and his father - the god Jupiter!
Now that his parents are retired, Mr and Mrs Williams have discovered a love for Richard Wagner, his awesome career-defining tetralogy, The Ring, in particular (something to do with having plenty to time to spare, perhaps?). But son Roderick fears, "it may be a while before they see me on stage in this repertoire." He hopes nonetheless, "to work hard on my voice in the next few years to make sure that I continue to develop." In particular, he looks forward to discovering more of the magical world of Rameau and the other composers who built up the repertoire at the Académie Royale de Musique in the century before the French Revolution. Having been described, just a couple of years ago, as "Britain's best baritone" by Andrew Porter in Opera magazine, Roderick Williams looks set to secure a place in the operatic firmament, just as Pollux finds his in the gallery of stars. "I am not entirely sure what lies ahead in the future," he says, "but I have enjoyed the variety in my career thus far and would like to nurture that as far as possible."
- Robert Barry
Roderick Williams sings Pollux in ENO’s staging of Castor and Pollux until 1 December. www.eno.org.