The Willard White Interview: A Secret Rapper?
Bass baritone Sir Willard White, undoubtedly one of the international superstars of the Opera world, is performing twice in the North of England over the next few months: At the Great Yorkshire Proms at Harewood House on Saturday September 4th in an evening of Opera and Classical favourites and starting in January 2022 at Opera North's rendition of Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto.
In our exclusive interview, Sir Willard talks about his love of a huge range of music styles and the techniques he uses to create his famously detailed acting style.
You obviously have an eclectic taste in music. When you are home, what do you listen to?
Well when I am at home I very often listen to instrumental music. A bit of Baroque and sometimes Jazz; traditional Jazz.
You were a Nat King Cole aficionado in your early years, were you not?
Well Nat King Cole was a feature in my teenage time. I don't listen so much these days. Occasionally, for nostalgic reasons, I might listen to some of his renditions but, as you said, my musical taste is quite wide, I even listen to some Rap sometimes.
Of all of your roles and recordings, what would you like to 'have another go' at?
Perfection might be quite boring, I don't know - I've never reached it yet.
In a strange way, I'd like to have another go at virtually everything because when one finishes a work of art there's a feeling that I could have done that a bit better here or there. It's not so much a negative dissatisfaction but there's a dream of - for the want of a strange word - perfect. Perfection might be quite boring, I don't know - I've never reached it yet. I don't know if it's possible with singing [although] maybe it is, I've heard some renditions of songs that I would consider perfect.
Very often I don't listen to things I have done in the past - just occasionally and [I think] yes, I could do it again!
How do you find the differences between the UK and the USA audiences?
Well I hate generalising about audiences. Very often the audience appreciation is determined by the season, the programme, and both audiences can be strong and vociferous in their responses, it depends on the programme.
Here's a question that I honestly don't expect you to answer: Do you have a favourite venue?
It's a tough question, but I do have a very great fondness for the Netherlands Opera because at the early stages of my career I did a lot there and I was very warmly received by the Dutch public. As to favourite venue: It's great singing in the Royal Albert Hall, it's great singing at Covent Garden, and I've very much enjoyed singing in the Metropolitan Opera, but favourites ... I usually try to avoid because if I was not singing in my favourite place I could be frustrated, so I enjoy where I am.
Do you have a view on the costumes chosen for you?
Choice of costumes is not my department [but] when I meet the costume designer I can say "Oh, I don't like that" or "I'd never wear such a colour" but I'm in the business of exploring and I interact with people's ideas and if it really hurts me deeply I have to find out for myself "Why does it bother me?". And then I state my reasons. If something is ridiculous [from] my point of view, like one time I had to wear a blond wig [and] for a very short time I could tolerate that, but for a long period, no.
Apart from rehearsals how do you prepare for a new role?
First of all I read the text to see my dramatic perception of what's there and [then] I put that with the music. You naturally call on your background experience, your cultural experience, your whole psychological experience. In a beautiful way, each one has a different psychological response to any given situation. And if one can tune in to that, and respond honestly to that feeling, then that's what gives an authentic performance - authentic in that it's as true to itself as you dare.
So the preparation is to see how I feel about that particular element of the piece and portray that as sincerely as I can.
If a conflict arises with a director or a conductor then how would you resolve that conflict?
Well if I have a conflict with a director it has to be something that I object to from whatever aspect of my background or belief and so I would express my discontent and then maybe from the discussion actually learn something more about myself. I remember once a director asked me to do something which I found quite appalling. I said I don't think I want to or [I don't think I] can do this. "Give me a little time to figure out why I can't do it". I thought about it and I realised that it's not about me, nor is it about my race, or my country, it's actually a human question. This is one of the things that's important about all dramatic interpretations, the writer is a human being, though he may be influenced by his culture, all human beings are going though similar experiences emotionally.
Do you feel, post-pandemic, there are new ways of 'doing the arts'?
This pandemic has impressed upon us a different way of thinking about ourselves, and the impact that we have on our world.
It will influence certain interpretations I think. I've just been working in Vienna, where all performances are streamed. They plan to continue that because they reached a wider audience, so that will be an additional presentation of pieces by many companies [at least, those] who can afford to have the streaming system.
Is this a way of attracting younger audiences?
Yes, and from day 1 of my life there's always been the idea of attracting younger audiences. Whether you are a business person or a politician, there's always a desire to attract younger audiences. And sometimes in Opera or Classical music there is a hesitation of attracting younger audiences because it's such an antiquated work, but fascinatingly enough, human psychology has not advanced so much as the technological side, so we're still dealing with the same set of emotional responses in our lives. Since the 16th century the questions of love, or betrayal, or jealously and so on are still relevant.
Saturday 4th September 2021
About 30 years ago my wife and I saw you in the Damnation of Faust in the Opera House in Amsterdam. As you know the hall is very large and yet when you entered the stage you completely dominated the audience. On behalf of shrinking violets the world over: how on earth do you do that?
Enjoy an evening of opera and classical favourites, including plenty of opportunity for audience participation!
Hosted by Aled Jones with special guests including world-famous baritone Sir Willard White, Sopranos Sophie Evans and Peyee Chen and everyone's favourite three tenors; Tenors UnLimited. Featuring the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ben Crick.
This show features a spectacular firework finale, which has been specially designed to be silent, so as not to disturb the local wildlife.
When you are looking at a stage, and you see someone trying to do something to impress the audience, it's a bit off-putting. [For me] all the literature, whether it's the Damnation of Faust, the concept of Mephisto, the concept of God, is constructed by Man. And so it gives me this freedom, seeing that I am a man, I can make an interpretation, and it comes from my belief, my fear, my longings, or whatever. So when I step out there I am dealing with the psychological [construction] that makes me what I am. That way it's much easier for me to be as true to myself as I dare - in whatever role it is - and people react with "it seems to real, how do you do that". So [acting] is not taking on something, it's actually revealing me.
Thanks to Mike Tilling
in the preparation for this interview.