Who is Roderick Williams?
Roderick Williams is an English baritone and composer – one of the UK’s most respected singers – known for the sophistication of his voice, the intelligence of his interpretations, the breadth of repertoire he tackles and his contagious enthusiasm for life and for everything he does. He is also known to be a very nice guy, with a beaming smile.
Where did he grow up?
Born in North London in 1965 to a Welsh father and a Jamaican mother, Williams grew up in High Barnet and attended Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford and Haberdashers ‘Aske’s Boys’ School in Hertfordshire.
How did he come to classical music?
He started singing as a treble at the age of six and also played the cello. His mother introduced him to the world of opera by singing on recordings of Maria Callas while cooking Sunday lunch, and his father played guitar as a hobby. However, he was listening to a section of benjamin brittenit is Frank Bridge Variations as the background music for a short film about glassblowing that really ignited Williams’ love of classical music.
Did he go straight into singing after college?
No – although he sang as a chorister as a child, then won a choir scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford. After graduating from college, he first trained as a teacher and worked for several years as Director of Choral Studies at Tiffin Boys’ School in Kington-upon-Thames, moonlighting as a singer during weekend concerts.
So how did he change course?
Gradually, he realizes that some of his colleagues at Magdalen College have become professional singers. But the decisive moment was a conversation with his wife, when she asked him what his ambitions were. Realizing he would like to do what his colleagues had done and turn professional with his singing, he applied and was accepted, aged 28, into the opera course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – and went there. is launched with all his heart. He made his debut at BBC Proms in 1996, in a concert of Don Carlos by Verdi. Since then, he has been in high demand.
What kind of repertoire does he sing?
Omni-passionate, he sang baroque opera, mozart20th century English music – particularly from Britten – as well as new roles in contemporary works by composers such as Michel van der Aa and Sally Beamish. The characters he plays are very varied, ranging from the idealistic Billy Budd to the villainous Scarpia of Tosca – a role, he says, that he found very cathartic, although audiences assumed he was far too nice to play such a repulsive character. He excels in 19th century art song; he loves Bach and Rameau and has recently worked on sound voice a project exploring the lived experience of voice loss.
One thing he doesn’t particularly enjoy is musical theater, and even he immersed himself in singing Jerome Kern’s “Ol Man River” from the 1936 musical. Showboat to 2014 BBC Proms (in his own orchestral arrangement), a performance he rehearsed for charity in an online concert during the pandemic.
And his compositions?
Yes, there were several too – premiering at the Wigmore and Barbican Halls, the Purcell Room and live on UK National Radio. Among his choral works are Endless World – a coin to celebrate the centenary of the Royal Air Force; and Now the winter nights composed for VOCES8. Last year he signed with Edition Peters, who published eight first choral works by him in January 2021.
Does he have children?
Yes, two daughters and a son.
Where does it occur?
Although he performs overseas, Williams prefers to stay close to his family. As a result, he has centered most of his work in the UK, performing most often with companies such as Opera North, Scottish Opera and English National Opera.
Is there anything he wishes he could do better?
Hula hoop. And swim the front crawl by just kicking his legs; by his own admission, he backs off.
Roderick Williams on…his finest moment
Martin In peaceful land
Roderick Williams (baritone) et al; London Philharmonic Orchestra/Matthias Bamert
Chandos CHAN9465 (1996)
There was a confusion with the dates of the original baritone that had been booked for this recording, and so I intervened at the last minute. It was literally a day or two before the session that I got the call. I didn’t know much about Frank Martin but, having been a choral scholar, I had a background in sight reading, so I figured that was something I could do. I just found the music really exciting; it’s a truly austere sonic world.
No one had time to do French coaching with me, so I went with my best O level French! There may have been a coach in the recording session to help me out, but everything else was done on the mind and nerves. If I could reverse engineer my career, I would persuade myself to take my languages to A level and beyond, but I had no idea at the time that I was going to have a singing career.
It was pretty tense, but actually in those times, unless you’re doing a bad job, everyone is so grateful you’re there to save the ship that they leave you a lot of slack. I was singing with Della Jones and Martyn Hill, who are my oldest and best, so I ran with the ball and had a great time.
Roderick Williams on… his favorite memory
Vaughan Williams travel songs
Roderick Williams (baritone); Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates
Dutton Epoch CDLX7359 (2019)
It’s a piece that I know very well, so I was looking forward to the sessions. I flew to Edinburgh and planned to hire a car and drive to Dundee. But it was the day after one of those storms named after someone – Storm Kevin, or something – and trees had been uprooted in Dundee, so it had been pretty bad.
It was pandemonium at the airport; the queue was long and I saw the time go by. I realized I wasn’t going to get my rental car, so I took a cab instead and arrived late in absolute shambles. Everyone calmed me down, though, and we did my sessions. The orchestra was wonderful and the acoustics of Caird Hall made me sound great.
The piano version of the penultimate song, “Bright is the Ring of Words,” is in C, so when the orchestra landed that huge D major chord, it was a bit of a surprise. You can’t ask 80 musicians to transpose a pitch down, so I girded my loins and sang it in D.
Roderick Williams on… what he would like to try again
Roderick Williams (baritone),
Iain Burnside (piano)
Chandos CHAN20163 (2020)
I think anyone recording feels privileged and flattered to be asked to do so. But there is also the feeling that you are writing down your thoughts for the end times. So anyone who puts on my recording of Schubert might be fooled into thinking this is how I believe Schubertit is Winterreise should go. I sort of took that as an idea; I now believe it’s more like “this is how I sang Schubert with Iain Burnside during that recording session in June of last year”. Maybe the next day Iain and I could play and even record Winterreise quite differently. And the next day, I could perform it with another pianist and record it again in a completely different way.
There’s this age-old argument about recording jazz; you think that by preserving it, you are already limiting your choices. What I like about the interpretation of Schubert’s three song cycles – but Winterreise more than any of them – are the differences I notice along the way. I like that in the play and that’s why I would like to come back to it, maybe ten years apart.
Roderick Williams’ new release ‘Das Mädchen spricht’ from SOMM Recordings is out now