United Kingdom Robert Beattie Interviews Jacques Imbrailo
Jacques Imbrailo is a brilliant young South African baritone who has successfully taken on a number of leading roles for both Covent Garden and Glyndebourne and is beginning to have a huge impact on the international operatic stage. He has a wide and diverse repertoire, equally comfortable singing Pelléas and Malatesta, and has a rare ability to transform himself into whichever character he is asked to portray. He is also a founder member of the Prince Consort and has won a number of Gramophone Awards with that distinguished group. He has previously played Britten’s Owen Wingrave to great acclaim at Covent Garden and will very soon be reprising the title role of Billy Budd in this year’s Glyndebourne festival and at the Proms. I asked him about his background and musical influences, the challenges associated with taking on key operatic roles including that of Billy Budd, and what future projects he has in the pipeline.
RB You grew up in South Africa and were a chorister there before going on to study at the Royal College of Music. Who were the main figures in your musical education and what were the key influences?
JI My first experience of performing music to a high level and taking real pride in how you do it was at the Drakensberg Boy’s Choir School in South Africa. The conductor, Christian Ashley Botha, gave us a huge amount of responsibility for the musical standards, to the point where the senior boys (aged 14/15) voted on whether a new boy was ready to perform with the choir. This meant that we really took ownership of each performance, something I still aim to do today which helps me not to get lazy or blasé about the job; there is nothing more frustrating than not performing well, in part because the audience should be able to expect a good performance.
When I was 17 I started singing lessons with Prof Werner Nel at the Potchefstroom University Conservatoire and studied with him until I came over to London, aged 23. He was the person who gave me the confidence and final nudge to end my Law studies and have a real stab at making singing a career instead of a hobby. He was and is still a great teacher and mentor who I still ask for advice, as well as the odd lesson when I go back home. At the Royal College I started studying with Ryland Davies who was a very kind man, a good teacher and had a wealth of international performance experience to pass on. I also met Audrey Hyland at College who is a wonderful coach, accompanist and pianist. She had a lot of faith in my natural abilities and encouraged me to trust my own instincts more and more, which was a huge step forward for me. I think I was good at following instruction but sometimes lacked the confidence also to trust my own instincts, which I think is tremendously important to finding your strengths and own voice as a singer.
I then had two wonderful years of development as a Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House. In this time I started studying with my current voice teacher, Gary Coward. Over the past eight years, we have worked very hard together to simplify and strengthen my technique, which is an ongoing process. Gary is incredibly patient with me and helps me to trust in my natural voice instead of trying to manufacture a sound or replicate the sound of other singers. Hopefully this will mean a healthy and long singing career.
RB You studied in advocacy before deciding to become a professional singer. Were there any doubts in your mind about becoming a professional singer and what finally convinced you to embark on your current career?
JI I’m not sure that I was convinced about pursuing a singing career for a long time, even up to the point where I left the Royal College. I certainly didn’t set out to become a singer and, in many ways, it was something I fell into rather than actively pursuing it. My time on the Jette Parker programme was probably when my mind was made up and I realised that there was no turning back. Singing Owen Wingrave at the ROH, I took real satisfaction in the role and felt convinced by my own interpretation of the character. That experience went a long way in convincing me to keep going.
RB You have played a number of key operatic roles including Owen Wingrave, Schaunard in La Bohème, the Count in Figaro and Malatesta in Don Pasquale. What are the key challenges of these roles and what has been the most challenging role you have played to date?
JI Some roles fit more naturally than others, either musically or character-wise. Others, you can grow into or make discoveries about during the learning process and eventually everything seems to fall into place.
The Count in Marriage of Figaro is very often cast with a high baritone even though the majority of the role lies quite low and many climactic phrases move down instead of up. The challenge in this a role is to not let the forceful nature of the character cause you to push in the lower part of the voice and sing yourself out. Creating a sense of power and authority through ease of production of sound instead of barking and hammering the voice is the ideal but it is very hard to achieve and trust. I’m still working at it.
Musically, the most difficult role so far has been Pelléas but it taught me a great deal about my singing, about using my voice with the right balance and trusting that a simple and free production of sound means that your voice will travel far better than if you push it or try to force a tone that isn’t natural to you.
Comic timing and not trying to make something funny can be difficult: it is easy to want to create comedy rather than to trust the comedy of a given situation in an opera. Dramatically, I found Malatesta in Don Pasquale quite a challenge as it was the first big comic role I’d taken on and I felt fairly inexperienced. Since then, I’ve performed Figaro in The Barber of Seville with WNO and the extended run of shows was a great opportunity to find my feet in comedy. Whilst there are some roles, such as Pelléas and Billy Budd, which seem more of a natural fit for me, Malatesta and the Barber forced me to leave my comfort zone. I now feel far more confident in taking on comic roles and making them my own. I think the key is to develop your own version of the character rather than what you think it is ‘supposed’ to be; this approach has really helped me to enjoy playing very different types of character.
RB You will be playing Billy Budd in this year’s production at Glyndebourne. What do you see as the key dramatic and musical challenges of the role?
JI Musically, Billy is an incredibly taxing sing over huge orchestration, especially in Act 1. This can often be underestimated and the role takes a great deal of stamina and pacing for a young singer. I sang the role at Glyndebourne in 2010 and I’m hoping that revisiting it with a few more years of experience means that this part will be easier. However, I want to make sure that Billy still sounds young, unschooled, fresh and innocent and to do this by maintaining my own natural tone and not by manipulating my voice. Billy is an enormously challenging character as so much is made of his virtue, which is highlighted by the contrast between him and others on the ship. His reactions seem so pure, honest and direct that it is very easy to admire him, but difficult to portray convincingly. In particular, trying to convey sincerity seems like a contradiction and I think it can easily appear fake to an audience. Focusing on the simplicity and direct honesty of all of his expressions, whether they’re joy, anger, confusion or fear hopefully makes it believable. It’s a huge challenge though.
RB You will be working with a number of distinguished singers and musicians on Billy Budd – Mark Padmore is playing Vere, Brindley Sherratt is Claggart and Sir Andrew Davis will be conducting. Have you worked with this team in the past and how will you be preparing for this production?
JI I’ve sung with both Mark and Brindley in concert but am excited to work on an opera with them. As well as being wonderful singers, both are great actors and as I think Billy is a real ‘actors’ opera’, I’m very much looking forward to sharing the experience with them. It’s also going to be my first time working with Sir Andrew Davis, which is a real privilege.
Having done this production on its first outing in 2010, I think much of the groundwork was done then. But I’m looking forward to discovering new things about the character and the production this time around. I’m also curious to see how my voice has matured and will respond to the music a few years on from 2010.
RB You are one of the founders of The Prince Consort and you have had some considerable success winning a Gramophone award for one of your discs. What repertoire will the group be focusing on next and what recordings do you have in the pipeline?
JI We have done a lot of contemporary collaborations recently and so we are working on some more traditional programmes full of Schubert, Brahms, Wolf etc. as well as looking at new recording options.
RB I noticed that you have premiered songs by Ned Rorem (review). Do you have plans to give any solo Lieder recitals and which composers/works would you like to focus on?
JI I will be giving a recital at the Wigmore Hall in November this year with Alisdair Hogarth, another Prince Consort member. We’re going to be performing Vaughan Williams ‘Songs of travel’, Stephan Hough ‘Herbstlieder’, Liszt Petrach Sonnets and Butterworth ‘Shropshire lad’. Alisdair and I are also starting to work on a specific programme for some future recitals and, hopefully, a recording but I can’t give anything away yet…
RB I imagine you will be spending a lot of time and energy preparing for the role of Billy Budd. What future operatic roles would you like to tackle and what plans do you have in the pipeline?
JI Don Giovanni is my next big new role and I’m excited to be doing it with Scottish Opera in September in a new production that Sir Thomas Allen will be directing. Valentin is another role I’m looking forward to singing and I’ll tackle it for the first time at the Baden Baden festival in 2014. I’ve been dying to sing Papageno and thankfully have the opportunity to sing it in 2015. I am hoping to sing Eugene Onegin soon as it seems a natural fit for my voice and a natural progression in my development. Also, like all baritones I would love to sing Rodriquez from Don Carlo at some stage and the other Verdi roles, but time will tell whether that is were my voice will end up. For the moment, I’m hoping to get more opportunities to sing the roles I have done so far so that I can really master them all and, hopefully, give more mature and complete performances in them. In particular, I really want to do more performances of Billy Budd and Pelléas; I love both roles and want to do as many of them while I’m still young enough for it to be convincing!