All About People: Roderick Williams and Peter Grimes [The Royal Opera’s Peter Grimes – 21 June-3 July 2011]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the baritone who returns to Covent Garden to sing the role of Ned Keene in Britten’s first operatic masterpiece…

Roderick Williams

In those long gone days when cinemas would often screen a short film ahead of the main feature, a child not yet in his teens returned home agog with excitement over seeing one such supporting item. The boy in question was Roderick Williams who, coming from a home in which music was important, had been impressed by a piece heard on the soundtrack. It turned out that the film had made use of Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and this was the first time that young ‘Roddy’ had heard music by a composer named Benjamin Britten. He could never have guessed how important Britten’s music was destined to play in his life.

This initial encounter with Britten’s work is something I hear about when I talk to Roderick Williams in his dressing room at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He is there to play one of the significant supporting characters, the apothecary Ned Keene, in Britten’s Peter Grimes. This is a revival of Willy Decker’s production first seen in London in 2004. The staging could be described as semi-abstract since the design by John Macfarlane is stylised and eschews any attempt to portray the work’s Suffolk setting in naturalistic terms. In that respect this production, now revived by François de Carpentries, is not so far removed from that staged by Phyllida Lloyd for Opera North in which Roderick took the same role. It’s an approach to which Roderick is receptive. “This particular opera really exists in a community and that community is defined by the people in it much more than by the buildings that surround them. References are made to the Moot Hall and to the Boar pub, but you don’t need to get close to Aldeburgh as such. All the clues you need as a singer are in the score and it is unnecessary to see Ned’s shop in order to get into the character. Peter Grimes is all about the interaction of the people in it.”

Roderick Williams as Ned Keene with Jane Henschel as Sedley (Peter Grimes, Royal Opera, June 2011). Photograph: Clive Barda

Since Britten’s opera is about a rough fisherman who is seen as an outsider and about the way in which the townsfolk turn on him, the chorus has a key role to play. The people of this place are represented not only by the contrasted individuals portrayed but no less importantly by these background figures: it is their hateful herd-instinct that expresses the animosity of the Borough. “I was talking about this to François in relation to my own character, Ned Keene. He’s like a politician who gauges the feeling of the crowd and, sensing what that is, elects to go along with them. François is, of course, following the ideas of Willy Decker and a main emphasis in this production is the concept of a shoal of fish reacting as one to a threat. The people see Grimes as the threat but after the final curtain you feel that the next story could be about whoever becomes the next individual to earn the dislike of this community. That person could be Ned himself or Ellen Orford the schoolteacher who has supported Grimes, or it might be the turn of Swallow the lawyer.” In making this point, Roderick is taking into account the extent to which librettist Montagu Slater’s changed the emphasis from that in the poem by George Crabbe which inspired the opera. There Grimes is a villain, but in the opera he is viewed compassionately. The success of such contrasted interpreters of the title role as Peter Pears, Jon Vickers and Ben Heppner (the latter being Grimes in this staging) underlines the multidimensional facets of the character in the opera. But it is clear that we are invited to deplore the way in which the verdict delivered by the inquest on the drowning of Grimes’s apprentice, that he died in accidental circumstances, is first food for gossip and then is seized upon as an excuse to express all the resentment that has built up against Grimes.

In Peter Grimes people emerge in a sinister light, but when it comes to Roderick’s own life the contrast could not be greater and he is unfailingly grateful to both his family and to those who have helped him in his career. “My parents were keen listeners to music. My mother came over from Jamaica in the 1960s and met my father: both of them encouraged my brothers and myself by endlessly transporting us to and from concerts and paying for music lessons. But they were never pushy about it and we all benefited; my brothers also continue to make music for pleasure. I, however, put all my eggs in one basket, albeit that for a long time everyone, myself included, thought that I’d become a music teacher.” It emerges that Roderick, who had been a boy treble, became a choral scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford and then after a year of teacher-training went straight to Tiffin Boys’ School as Director of Choral Studies.

Naively or not, he never thought of singing as a profession until he became aware that some of his colleagues at Magdalen had taken that route. But the decisive moment came through a conversation with his wife. “We were both in our early twenties and I had been teaching at Tiffin for two or three years. It was then that slightly out of the blue she asked me what my ambitions were. I was already moonlighting at weekend concerts so I said that I would love to do what those friends had done but felt uncertain due to the difficulty of making a living from it. Her response was: ‘Well, you should do that now or else you will get used to regular salaried employment and it will be hard to leave’. What she didn’t say, but what I knew that she meant, was that having children would make that sort of decision more difficult. She had put her finger on it because I recognised that if I did nothing I would forever after be thinking ‘if only I had done that’. So, despite having enjoyed my time there, I resigned from Tiffin’s at the end of the year.”

Thus it was that rather late in the day Roderick came to study at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. He was impressed by a teacher there, David Pollard, whom he still sees. “My age was not without its advantages because to a certain extent I saw it as my last chance whereas some of my younger colleagues there, having had their fill of education, would look for ways to get out of some of the lessons. But I went to everything: to all the coaches, to the movement classes, the sword-fighting and the make-up: the lot. And when I left it was with the responsibility of being the wage-earner because our first child had just been born and my wife made the decision to support me by giving up work. So I was incredibly lucky.”

Some singers may be drawn into opera attracted by the possibility of fame and an international career. It’s true that Roderick has never refused to sing abroad, but he has worked most regularly with such companies as Opera North, Scottish Opera and English National Opera and in defining his aspirations he never loses sight of the importance of family. Furthermore his comments on his links with these companies define an attitude entirely consistent with what he has previously said: when he declared that the idea of being a celebrity, somebody recognised in the street, had no appeal for him. “In a sense I do see myself as a servant to music because everything I do, be it contemporary or early music or anything in between, I enjoy tremendously. We have great times and it’s such a bonus that people pay me to do it because otherwise I would have to do something else and then fit in the music. Had I been asked at any time if I wanted to be famous I could only say that I never considered it. But ask me instead ‘Would you like to perform music to the highest level you possibly can with people around you of the highest standard we can find?’ then the answer would be a resounding ‘yes’.”

On the question of commitment: “As for loyalty it’s partly to companies but even more to the people in them. Over the years you get to know not just other soloists but the casting people, those in the chorus and members of the orchestra. You build up a relationship with them and that matters because people are important to me.” Roderick is especially keen to develop those working relationships and include conductor Mark Elder. He also recalls the late Richard Hickox. “Richard used to surround himself with singers and artists that he trusted knowing that he would enjoy working with them. I mean: why wouldn’t you? In this profession there are singers who do a spectacular job and are incredible artists, yet when a conductor recognises that he needs one of them for a particular work there’s a chill that goes to the heart. My hope is that when it comes to a conductor booking me it is in the knowledge that we will have a good time, that I will turn up prepared (I hope) and that I am somebody who is unfussy and who enjoys the work.”

More than once Roderick speaks with enthusiasm about other singers with whom he has worked. One example. Being in London (his home is in the Midlands) Roderick had just been to see the Covent Garden production of Verdi’s Macbeth with Simon Keenlyside in the title role. “I have to say that I am in awe of him, even though he’d surely find that irritating. You don’t often see an English baritone singing a major Italian role at Covent Garden and it takes guts to do that. I got to know him when doing a recording of Britten’s Billy Budd in which I had one of the small roles, and I became fascinated by him as a person, by how he could do so much strenuous high-risk stuff and remain so calm and in control of himself. His Macbeth was inspiring – it wasn’t just his singing but the way he became the part – and afterwards I had the privilege of a quick chat with him. Knowing how helpful it would be to me, he voluntarily gave me all sorts of off-the-cuff tips about how he had prepared for that performance and how he had paced himself through it. It was only a brief time that we had together, but what he said was so very valuable that it will stay with me.”

Before returning to Peter Grimes, a brief word about Roderick the composer. “I don’t have drawers of string quartets, although I might have if somebody asked me for them. Most of my music is choral and it includes arrangements. A number of pieces have been written for special occasions, one such being when I was asked to do something with Purcell’s Come Ye Sons of Art so that it could be performed before the Queen when the Southbank Centre re-opened after refurbishment. The requirement was that it should involve The Sixteen, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and a gospel choir. An engagement prevented me from hearing it and it’s unlikely that those forces will come together again! However, I am represented on a new CD by The Sixteen, a commission from the Genesis Foundation.”

Roderick mentions that those involved in rehearsing Peter Grimes were commenting afresh on what an incredibly masterful opera this is. When it comes to the characters and their attitudes, the retired sea-captain Balstrode like Ellen Orford is supportive of Grimes but the others, and especially the Methodist fisherman Bob Boles and the widow Mrs Sedley, are anxious to denounce him. Ned Keene veers between a certain amount of support for Grimes to putting in his lot with the crowd who jump to the conclusion that a second death, again of an apprentice, brands Grimes as a murderer. How Ned is seen and developed is therefore open to interpretation, and his phrase ‘Grimes is at his exercise’, possibly meant as no more than a passing comment on the fierce look on Grimes’s face, becomes the rallying cry of the crowd as its turns into a mob marching to Grimes’s hut to confront him. “Whatever his intention may be, that phrase of Ned’s is, indeed, picked up and as a performer you can choose which side of the fence you want to be on, or you can sit on that fence. Earlier Ned may have tried to quieten things down but when the hut proves to be empty, thus providing a massive anti-climax, he comes out with that bright sprite of a line about Grimes and the boy: ‘maybe they’ve gone fishing’. The shape of that line coming from a man who has earlier made fun of Mrs Sedley together with the fact that it is in a different key from the rector’s serious response seems to me to tell you something about Ned’s character. So does the Prologue, the inquest scene when I’m present but have nothing to sing. The self-important Mrs Sedley does interpose in that scene but Ned, who could have spoken up for Grimes, chooses to say nothing. When Peter mentions him and the coroner acknowledges his presence, it is up the director what little gestures Ned might make. However, the fact that he elects to say nothing, to keep schtum and not to help, is very relevant when it comes to interpreting the role.”

The briefest of last words takes us beyond Peter Grimes and other early Britten works favoured by Roderick to two of his scores which he put off looking at, namely Death in Venice and Songs and Proverbs of William Blake (Roderick has recorded the latter for Naxos, a version that will be appearing soon). “I knew that they were difficult to learn and difficult to get to grips with, a bit tricky, a bit thorny. But eventually I took them down and spent time on them and now I’m a complete convert. Both are magnificent.”

  • Peter Grimes – Five performances at 7.30 p.m. from Tuesday 21 June to Sunday 3 July 2011 [3 p.m. on 3 July]
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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