The South African baritone talks about taking on one of Britten’s best-loved roles
In the January issue of BBC Music Magazine, we're marking the centenary of the birth of composer Benjamin Britten, and baritone Jacques Imbrailo returns to Glyndebourne this summer to sing the title role in his Billy Budd, a part he first played in 2010. He spoke to us about the challenge of conveying Billy’s innocence and losing himself in the story.
This is the second time you’ll have sung the role of Billy at Glyndebourne. What do you enjoy about playing the character?
It’s a gift of a role because all the music you sing is beautiful. Every time I come on the music either lightens or deepens in a way that changes the whole atmosphere on stage. Britten has given you so much help through the music, and the aria ‘Look! Through the port’ is dreamlike music – even if you sing it badly it comes across well. The character as well is very very special, the audience falls in love with him immediately. It’s the kind of character who, brightens up your day if you rehearse him because his personality is so positive – he wants to see the best in things.
What are the challenges of playing Billy?
When I first played the part at Glyndebourne I was 31 and my voice was developing quite slowly – so it was big thing, musically, to sing. Along with the innocence of the character you’ve got to sing the role in a way that doesn’t sound too educated. The challenge is to sing it properly but not make it sound like I’m an opera singer singing a role. But Sir Mark Elder [who conducted the production in 2010; Sir Andrew Davis will conduct it this season] was fantastic at helping with that. He didn’t want any fancy pronunciation, he wanted us to sing exactly as you’d speak it. That helps a lot to overcome that challenge of the role.
Billy’s story is a bit of a rollercoaster – isn’t that tiring to play over and over?
The fact that it’s such a special piece helps tremendously. It has been the one role where I’ve really looked forward to every performance, I was never thinking ‘here comes another one’. You should be like that for everything you do, but it doesn’t work out that way: sometimes you do get tired through a run and you’re keen to move on to the next project, but with Billy it’s such a special piece and it’s so easy to lose yourself emotionally in the character. The production that director Michael Grandage created for us meant that every night you went on and it didn’t feel like performing any more, you were on this ship and you were being this character.
Do you have a favourite moment in the opera?
For Billy the ‘Look! Through the port’ aria is always going to be special. It sums up so many parts of Billy – how scared he is, how he can still see the positive in things like the little bit of biscuit he’s looking forward to – even though he’s about to die. My other favourite moments were with Jeremy White as Dansker. Jeremy is a wonderful man both on and off stage, so it was very easy to feel that deep friendship which was formed over a very short period both on the ship and in the opera production. So every time that came up in the opera it just felt like a very sincere, real moment.
You’re playing the role again at Glyndebourne this season. Will you do anything differently?
I hope so. I’m three years older now and I’m looking forward to seeing how I’ve grown as a singer, what I’ve learned in the last few years. And then, like any good opera, there are bound to be loads of new things to discover about the music and the character.
Jacques Imbrailo sings Billy Budd at Glyndebourne from 10 August 2013; a CD recording of the 2010 production is out now on Glyndebourne's own label. To win a copy of the CD head to our competitions page