The Big Interview – A Voice in Demand  

Roderick – Roddy – Williams is an internationally renowned baritone, composer and teacher. He sings opera, oratorio and songs from various eras in concerts. Susan Elkin chatted to him.

Roddy Williams is a very busy man. One of the best-known baritones of his generation, he’s on Radio 3 almost daily either because his many recordings are played or sometimes his own compositions are aired. He’s also often there talking to interviewers – always warm and affable. He’s pretty ubiquitous on live concert programmes too. When I catch up with him, he’s been working in Amsterdam the previous week and Singapore the week before.

“Yes”, he chuckles, “there’s a huge amount going on. When everything was cancelled in 2020, like everyone else in the performing arts, I was worried I’d never work again. Then at the beginning of this year offers started to flood in. My agents and I said ‘yes’ to everything because we assumed that a lot of it wouldn’t happen – but it did! So I’m now in the happy position of having masses of work. Maybe too much but I’m certainly not complaining.” 

Clearly Roddy has always been a musician. Born to a Welsh father and a Jamaican mother he was a boy chorister at Christ Church Cathedral School. He then went to Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ school where he played cello in the orchestra for shows – amongst other musical activities. He studied music and composition at Magdalen College, Oxford and was a choral scholar there. 

“I grew up assuming I was going to be a teacher” Roddy tells me. “I really didn’t have the wit to think I could perform professionally.” So after graduation he went to Tiffin School, Kingston as Director of Choral Studies. “Of course, Tiffin is well known for its music so there was lots to do and my job was anything at all to do with choirs and voice, as well as working with any student aiming for a choral scholarship at Oxford and Cambridge.”

Meanwhile, Roddy was doing a bit a freelancing – guest soloist for choral societies singing Messiah or Elijah and working with some of the professional church choirs in London. Then, when he was 28 came a pivotal conversation with his wife, Miranda. “She and I remember it slightly differently, but in essence she asked me what I really wanted to do with my life. And I said, to my own surprise I’d like to try singing professionally.” 

So he started taking lessons with David Pollard, who suggested that Roddy apply for a City of London bursary and enrol on the Opera Course at Guildhall School of Music and Drama which he, Pollard, ran. “He said it would help me see where I fit into the general pecking order and he was right. Yes, I was a good, trained sight reader, but opera is a completely different world and at GSMD I heard voices which can move you to tears” says Roddy, adding that it felt very bold to give up the lure of a regular paid salary. “I realised very quickly that I had a lot to learn.” Had he done any acting? He laughs and says “No, but teaching is a form of acting, isn’t it?” 

The work seems to have been flooding in ever since. He first appeared at the Proms in 1996 and has sung opera extensively ranging form Escamillo in Carmen to the title role in Don Giovanni and Onegin in Eugene Onegin. He also sings songs in recital by, for example, Schubert or Vaughan Williams and takes solo roles in oratorios. In response to my asking him about what is left to do he replies “Well, I don’t really know. It is possible that as I approach my 60s, my voice might deepen and darken so that I could consider Wagner or Verdi, but maybe not. I don’t want critics saying I’m out of my depth. We’ll see. At the moment, anyway, there’s so much going on that it’s just a matter of managing the present.”

I tease Roddy by asking if he eats curry because a choral singing workshop leader once told me you shouldn’t if you’re a singer. He laughs. “Of course I do! I’m a musician”. More seriously he tells me there’s a long prohibitive list bandied about by some singing coaches. “It includes spicy food, dairy, alcohol and swimming (because of the chlorine). But I’m a human being and I’m not going to live like that. The one thing I am careful about is noisy parties in echoey spaces where everyone has to shout. I earn my living with my voice and can’t afford hoarseness. My wife and I have an agreement about this. She knows exactly when we need to leave a gathering.”

Given his manic schedule, how does Roddy manage to fit in composing as well?  He chuckles. “Well, I’m so flattered if anyone asks me that of course. I always say yes, but I don’t seem to get going until there’s a deadline approaching – I’m so busy with singers and trying to stay alive. At home I’m a real procrastinator too – if I hear the dishwasher and ours has a particularly irritating bleep, I just have to go and empty it. Long flights, trains and hotel rooms are my best times because I’m locked away from all distractions. I’m certainly not a romantic, Beethoven-like figure wandering about in the woods with a notebook getting inspired!”

Roddy works with a laptop, or pencil and paper and then later finds a piano to check that what he’s written is playable. He explains that computer programmes such as Sibelius can produce music which is unplayable – pianists have only ten fingers for example so cannot depress twelve or more keys at once. “Then I always think what I’ve produced is rubbish” he says ruefully. “But when I hear it a year later it doesn’t seem so bad.” 

Because he was once a teacher, Roddy is still keen to do what he can to engage young people with the world of classical music. His Schubert in Schools project has operated successfully in schools in Sheffield and Milton Keynes – using a translation by Jeremy Sams of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey). He was disappointed, though, that some schools pulled out without giving a reason. “Singing seems to be on the decline in state schools”, Roddy observes. “As far as I can tell – and this is only anecdotal – hymns aren’t sung much in assemblies any more perhaps because of diverse faiths. It’s not easy to find material everyone can sing and, of course, there is always a struggle to find teachers who can make it happen.”

He then tells me about his daughter – in her early twenties and one of his three children – who has strong political views about what she perceives as the elitism of what her father does. “She objects to the dinner jacket image which still clings a bit and says that classical music will all be dead in a few years, and nobody will mourn it. Of course, I hope she’s wrong and, actually she does come to hear me perform sometimes.”

As for the plight of music education in schools, Roddy stresses that anything he says is based on perception and observation rather than evidence. “Music seems to exist and flourish in state schools where there happens to be a good, charismatic music teacher who inspires the students and carries them along with him or her – and has the support of the head teacher. Some teachers can make student eyes light up and where you’ve got that, music thrives. Yes, music seems to be being dismantled, but there are pockets. It’s person-by-person based.”

He adds “And as anyone who has ever worked in school knows, when heads, governors or trustees want a show for an event, it’s always the music department they turn to. You can’t use the football team or the quiz team at the annual prize giving or open day in quite the same way.”

Roderick Williams sings:

10 August 2022, Prom 33 Royal Albert Hall, London (Pearl by Matthew Kaner) 

17 November 2022 Royal Festival Hall, London (all Ralph Vaughan Williams Programme)

27 November 2022 Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, Essex (A Child of Our Time by Michael Tippett)