He Who Is Dared Wins: Jacques Imbrailo [Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Concert, 20 July at The Royal Opera]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

As the South African baritone ends his two-year period as one of Covent Garden’s Jette Parker Young Artists he prepares for its end-of-season concert and talks to Mansel Stimpson about his career…

Jacques Imbrailo. Photograph: Neil Gillespie

It all turned on a dare. Those involved were school friends, three in number. They knew that the conductor of a visiting boys-choir was holding auditions. One of the three was Jacques Imbrailo. Given Jacques grew up in the Orange Free State in an area given over to farming his interests were centred on wrestling and rugby. The dare was to challenge each other to put themselves forward. Jacques describes exactly what happened: “The conductor said ‘Right, who’s here for the audition?’ and the other guys ran out of the door. But, being too nervous to move, I was just stuck there, and that’s how I came to find myself accepted for the boys-choir school. That was what got me into singing.”

It may have been unexpected, but it didn’t in itself settle Jacques’s future. “There was absolutely no music in my family and I had no intention of carrying on with singing. My voice hadn’t yet broken and it didn’t do so until I was sixteen. Consequently, I was this very, very high boy-soprano singing things like the Queen of the Night. Later, after my voice had slowly drifted down to baritone and I was back in a normal school, I did start to take singing lessons – but what I really wanted to do was to study medicine. However, as the singing lessons progressed I became slightly more interested in the voice again and my singing teacher was at a university that didn’t offer the chance to do medicine. Rather than give up singing entirely, I went to that university with the idea that the singing would be a hobby. What I studied there was law and I got an undergraduate degree but discovered that I absolutely hated it. So, after my last law exam, I phoned up my parents who have always been great in encouraging me to do what I really wanted to do. I said ‘I’m going to go and do music’ and they said ‘Go for it’.”

Jacques Imbrailo as Dimetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream for the ROH. ©Johan Persson

If Jacques then went on to enter singing competitions in South Africa that was virtually a matter of course, something that a teacher would naturally suggest. Given Jacques’s eventual success, you might expect that the experience of those competitions was a positive one, but not so. “I did have some success in competitions there, but if anything they discouraged me. In particular I was told by one judge that I had no voice and would never be able to be a singer.” It takes confidence to overcome such comments and Jacques had it, at least to the extent of taking note when a friend from the days of the boys-choir school mentioned the opportunities he had found in London. “I thought that maybe I should go and see for myself where it might lead me.” Where it took him, following an audition and armed with a scholarship, was to the Royal College of Music.

At the college he studied opera under Ryland Davies. “My first love in music was concert pieces and I love Lieder a lot too and I hope that both will always remain a part of my work. But what I discovered at the opera school was the fact that being on stage is a safer environment. That’s because you are less exposed when you have a character to present, so for me at least being on stage, even one as large as that of Covent Garden, is a less vulnerable experience. But then again I should add that I think that the best opera singers are those who manage to make themselves just as vulnerable on stage as in a Lieder recital. In fact there’s a lot you can learn from recitals that can usefully be channelled into opera work.”

It was in September 2006 that Jacques Imbrailo arrived at Covent Garden having been accepted for the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, which spans two years for each artist. Quite apart from the coaching extending to such areas as movement and language, the programme offers a range of performance opportunities to these full-time salaried members of the company. In particular small roles on the main stage and larger ones in the Linbury Studio Theatre can be expected, as well as the covering of roles. Inevitably the potential makes membership of the group something much sought after. Jacques casts his mind back to how he felt about it when auditioning in 2006. “The fact that there are so many rounds of auditions following on quickly makes it easier. For the first round, you go along and just feel that you are casting your line into the water. It was only later when I found myself in the final that I really got nervous. I came on with my scores and I was shaking. That was partly because I hadn’t expected to reach that stage. It wasn’t a given at all because people that I knew from college were in there too and some got in and some didn’t.”

Jacques Imbrailo as Dimetrius and Katie van Kooten as Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream for the ROH. ©Johan Persson

Continuing to look back, Jacques recalls his debut role on the main stage, that of Morales in Francesca Zambello’s production of Carmen. “My first thought was that it was just a tiny role, likely to go unnoticed. But then you realise what a good opportunity it represents because he’s on right at the start of the opera and plays a part in setting the tone. Furthermore, when we got into rehearsal Francesca gave me a lot of time providing me with bits of business when I wasn’t singing. The people around me including the big-name singers were really nice and always positive so, although it was not exactly easy, the whole thing was far less stressful than I had thought it was going to be.”

In Jacques’s case the notable roles that came his way in the Linbury were those of Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the title part in another Britten opera, Owen Wingrave, works which received unusually inventive productions from Olivia Fuchs and Tim Hopkins respectively. “I liked both of them just because of the way they worked, and I got on well with them. Some of the things that we tried didn’t work, but to my mind the key thing for any director is to be able to communicate what their ideas are. If you are just told to do this or that but you don’t understand why, it’s always going to become much more difficult. But both of these directors made the effort to explain their reasoning. Indeed, in the productions in the Linbury we’ve been very much treated as equal colleagues and that comes from acting as professionally as they do. If as a young artist you act unprofessionally and diva-ish, then you get put in your place. Otherwise they have time for you and welcome your input. And that applies no less in the main house. In Don Carlo I was one of the Flemish deputies and we had very little to do really. But Nicholas Hytner nevertheless sought our input. The extent to which you can express ideas or comment about being uncomfortable in any way is determined both by how professional you are and by your willingness to experiment. It’s give and take: if they see that you are willing to give, then they in turn will be ready to offer advice.”

What you learn as a young artist at Covent Garden comes from all quarters: teachers, directors and conductors and, of course, from observing other singers. “From Simon Keenlyside, for example, who always gives 100 percent to his work and who is always so positive. You learn too about pacing yourself in rehearsals, and it’s from seeing how professionals work and by then trying to apply it directly to your own work that you develop.”

Jacques Imbrailo as Wigmaker in Ariadne auf Naxos for the ROH, 2008. ©Clive Barda

It occurs to me that it could be frustrating to have a small part in a long piece – a lot of hanging around and waiting – as with Jacques’s recent appearance as the Wigmaker in Ariadne auf Naxos. “Of course, if you’ve got to wait two hours before you go on, then you do sometimes feel frustrated. But, however small the role, it’s a part planned by the composer and if you don’t make the most of it you are letting down the production. In any case doing tiny roles with great directors can be just as valuable as doing a big role and, indeed, other things can come from it. Looking further back, my first break came from doing the tiniest one-line role: the conductor had seen that I was doing my best and had noticed that, instead of complaining about having to sit around all the time, I was willing to stay at hand. Because of that he gave me a larger role elsewhere: if you’re serious about small things, then they’ll trust you with bigger ones.”

Understudying roles can be valuable, too. “With any of those roles, I try to be as ready as possible. But how much time they can give you varies from production to production. When I covered Belcore in L’elisir d’amore I knew the show fully by the first night and could have gone on easily. In the case of Harlequin in Ariadne, I’ve thought about the role just as much, but there’s been considerably less time to go through the actions. Time available comes into it in other ways too: being involved with both Don Carlo and Ariadne has meant that I’ve been jumping around to encompass additionally my cover of the Count in Figaro. But I think it would be a waste of time to take on something and yet not to study it properly. Do it fully when you are covering and you create a basis for any future occasion when the role may come up again.”

This is particularly relevant for Mozart’s Count Almaviva (Figaro) because Jacques has the role to perform for Opéra National de Lille following his departure from the Young Artists. This group will be involved in the end-of-season concert in The Royal Opera’s main house with – an innovation – Orchestra of Opera North under Richard Farnes. The programme includes the last act of Figaro fully staged, Jacques singing the role of the Count and conducted by another Young Artist, Andrew Griffiths.

For a quite different reason, Jacques welcomes too the other items on the programme. He will be heard as Olivier in an extract from Richard Strauss’s Capriccio, which will comprise ‘Fugue, Duet, Octet’, and then he will be one of the singers featured in ‘Gran pezzo concertato’ from Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims. “For me it’s brand-new ground and it’s been chosen as a showcase that will show us off before we go our different ways.”

As for the ways that Jacques will go, much remains to be seen. The immediate future offers variety: more work with The Prince Consort and the hope of a recording, too; there’s a Wigmore Hall recital with Julius Drake; and not just the full Figaro but also Jacques’s first adult appearance in America, Così fan tutte for Opera Colorado. Jacques also cites roles that he would like to play, such as Papageno (“he’s just such a wonderful character”) and Silvio in I pagliacci. “I can’t wait to be doing Billy Budd and I’d love to do Winterreise and a number of English song-cycles, while Dichterliebe is coming up for the first time later this year.”

With all this is mind, we can be certain that the singer who won the ‘Audience Award’ at the BBC Singer of the World competition in 2007 will be pleasing many more audiences in an exciting range of material. What a good thing he took that dare!

  • The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Concert is on Sunday 20 July 2008 at 3 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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