Behind the Curtain

Get to know our soloists for our all-Bach program, Magnificat!

Roderick Williams, Baritone

Soloist portrait

Q: Do you have a pre-concert ritual?

A: No, I don’t have a concert ritual; my ritual is not to have a ritual. This is so that I am not unsettled on an occasion when I haven’t time to ‘do my thing’ or haven’t the right items to hand—Manuka honey, green M&Ms, the correct steamer or whatever.

Q: Who is your favorite contemporary musician or composer?

A: I am a fan of Thomas Adés; I remember hearing a piece of his for the first time on the BBC radio and being stunned by the music and the idea behind it. Years later he conducted a contemporary opera that I performed in and I saw his utter genius at first hand. He is also a charming, humble, funny man.

Q: What book is on your nightstand?

A: I’m within a few chapters of finishing Merivel, A Man of his Time by Rose Tremain—a wonderful historical novel about England at the Restoration of King Charles II. I lose myself in the period… I’m not sure what I’m going to do when I finish it!

Q: What piece of music or role (that you have not sung) would you most like to perform?

A: That’s easy—Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten. I am due to perform it in 2015, all things being well (though a lot can happen in that time) and I’m really looking forward to it.

Q: What is something about you that might surprise others?

A: How old I really am.

Q: Do you ever get nervous performing in front of an audience?

A: I get most nervous when I am performing something from memory, especially when I am under pressure and haven’t had the chance to work at it fully. That’s the stuff of nightmares. People say that when you feel no nerves at all on stage you’ve been doing it too much and I think I agree with that.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

A: Probably retired from singing and teaching somewhere. My wife sometimes thinks we should move to the sea—we currently live in the middle of England, as far from a beach as you can get.

Q: Do you speak any other languages? Which ones?

A: One of my deepest wishes is that I could be fluent in another language. I’ve never been able to spend enough time in any one country to lose my English inhibitions about speaking another tongue. I can make myself understood in several languages—the ones I sing in—but my vocabulary is usually archaic, poetic and concerned with love and death; not very useful when trying to order in a restaurant.

Q: What is the most challenging piece of music or role you’ve performed? Why?

A: One of the hardest, fastest, most brutal contemporary operas I’ve sung was The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit by Gerald Barry; we worked so hard to get the music right. And then we put it on stage; I recall a moment in performance when I was standing on top of a coffin, mounted on a hospital trolley, dressed in knee high PVC boots with five inch heels, a PVC miniskirt and bra, a Jackie Brown wig, staring at the drop into the orchestral pit and I thought—‘Yes, this is a tricky role’. I still have pictures…

“I was standing on top of a coffin, mounted on a hospital trolley, dressed in knee high PVC boots with five inch heels…and I thought—‘Yes, this is a tricky role’.”

Q: Diva—is it a compliment or an insult?

A: When someone says ‘She’s a bit of a diva’ I tend to hear it as an insult. People under stress tend to make demands and, in doing so, perhaps see themselves as being more important than those around them. I don’t like to think that way. I’m aware that, as a soloist, I tend to be at the front of the stage, getting all the applause, but the army of people who make that possible go unsung and don’t often care for the limelight. There’s no way my demands are more important than theirs.

Q: What goes with you on every trip?

A: I take my music with me—on my computer and on my iPhone. While I don’t have a pre-concert ritual, it has become a bit of a ritual for me to unpack in my hotel room as soon as I arrive, always to the accompaniment of Norah Jones. If you’re ever in a hotel room and you here that music in the next room with the banging of closet doors and drawers, it’s probably me.

Q: What other types of music do you like to sing?

A: I love to sing anything—contemporary, baroque, renaissance, classical, jazz… I don’t think my voice is going to develop into a conventional Verdi or Wagner baritone anytime soon but other than that, I’ll try anything.

Q: Where is home?

A: I live in a small village about ten miles from Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire, right in the centre of the UK. My house is a sixteenth century cottage with a thatched roof and a walled garden. I’m about two hours’ drive from most concert halls and opera houses in the UK so I can just about drive home after a show from anywhere.

Q: What is your favorite word?

A: I love words; I like the sound they make—like ‘sponge’ or ‘moist’—and I like the ideas they represent—like ‘serendipity’ or ‘zeugma’. There are so many words in the English language and I realize each day that I only know a fraction of them.

Q: What is your favorite deadly sin?

A: I don’t think in terms of sin, favourite or otherwise.

Q: What have you been listening to lately on your ipod?

A: I listen a lot to Podcasts from the BBC—drama episodes, comedy programmes and sometimes the Archers (the long-running BBC soap opera set in a fictional English village). It often helps me relax more quickly than listening to music and I find it easier to drive to the spoken word rather than music. I also listen to the radio a lot so that other people make the choice of music—that way I find I learn more about music I might have missed otherwise.

Q: What is your idea of happiness, or the perfect day?

A: I like to walk, cycle and swim, especially if the swim is out in a river, lake or in the sea. There is such a sense of freedom when I’m out on my own especially—I spend a lot of time in my own company and I’m very comfortable with that.

Q: Who is your favorite composer?

A: That’s impossible to answer—the composer whose music I’m working on at every moment. Thank goodness my computer can hold so much music! I’m going to be in Chicago to sing Bach and there are definitely moments when I feel that Bach’s music is the pinnacle of human achievement. But I couldn’t do without all the rest of it!

Q: What is your favorite fairy tale, myth or legend?

A: I love science fiction films and TV—that’s a kind of modern fairy tale. To see such imagination on screen I still find astounding.

Q: What is your favorite sound?

A: One of my favourite sounds is that of waves lapping on a beach; it reminds me of holidays in Cornwall in the South-West of England. It’s good that it is not musical because then my mind doesn’t process or analyse it.

Q: What is your favorite beverage?

A: Real ale—specifically Landlord brewed by Timothy Taylor’s in West Yorkshire. That’s a fine pint.

Q: What do you consider comfort food?

A: Indian cuisine—specifically the food you can find in any Indian restaurant town in the UK—I’ve never been to India so I wouldn’t know what the real thing tastes like! But after a concert, the thing I crave is a good curry!

Q: What is your present state of mind?

A: Sound, I hope. I enjoy my job, I have a lovely home life, things are good. If it were all to come crashing down tomorrow then so be it; I’ve enjoyed it all so far.

Q: What is your motto/favorite quotation, or words to live by?

A: My father gave me, when I was approaching adulthood, three pieces of advice; Never say something about someone you couldn’t say to their face, Never give advice that isn’t asked for and, lastly, when you come home late, very drunk, make sure you go to bed with one foot on the floor and the bedroom light on—it stops the room from spinning.

Q: What piece of music could be the soundtrack to your life?

A: A: Mahler symphony; it has a little bit of everything.

Q: What three recordings would you take with you on a desert island?

A: Today, I would say Mahler’s Second Symphony (Solti conducting the LSO), Bach’s Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould) and possibly Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op 110 (Alfred Brendel). Ask me tomorrow and they could all be different—thank goodness I’ve got my iPhone!

Q: What are your thoughts about your performance in October with Music of the Baroque?

A: I have solo movements in Cantata 159 and 197 as well as the Magnificat. I have not sung either of the Cantatas before and I enjoy learning new ones to add to my growing collection. It strikes me that Cantata 159 is like a mini St John Passion with textual echoes from that work. There are also echoes of the great bass solo cantata Ich habe genug as the final aria in BWV 159 shares the theme of a life accomplished and the singer bidding the world goodbye. The bass aria in BWV 197 looks initially a little more challenging to sing but I relish the task of turning a challenge into music. Bach often forgets to give singers anywhere to breathe but, other than that, his music is infinitely rewarding to perform. I am very much looking forward to putting this together with the orchestra.

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