What were your first reactions when you were first offered the role of Billy Budd?
Excitement. It’s the perfect young baritone role – you can’t ask for anything more. The music that Britten wrote for Billy really lights up the stage. His aria in Act II ('Look! Through the port comes moonshine astray') is so beautiful no matter how you sing it. Generally, the music for Billy is so ethereal and innocent that I think it makes the audience like him immediately, although his character is so likeable that you really don’t have to work hard at getting the audience on his side.
How did you find your Glyndebourne debut?
It was a wonderful experience. It’s a great place to work because of the long rehearsal period and I found it a really supportive environment to be in. It was a first for so many people involved – it was a first for Sir Mark Elder, who had never conducted Billy Budd before, it was (director) Michael Grandage‘s first opera and it was the first Billy Budd at Glyndebourne, so everyone involved in the project was really excited about it.
Were you nervous?
I’ve never been as nervous before in my life, and I doubt I ever will be again. My whole body was in pins and needles for the first few lines and I literally thought I was going to throw up on stage! But after a few minutes I started to relax and all the hard work that I had put in kicked in and I was able to start enjoying it. Feeling and overcoming those nerves and being able to enjoy such a lovely role is something I will never forget.
How did you approach the character of Billy Budd?
The challenge of making Billy more than just a one-dimensional character really interested me. Billy is not a straight character – he’s flawed and has a temper, so what excited me most about the role was the challenge in portraying the inner battle that torments him. From the outset I was trying to create a sound that was very naïve and strong but also vulnerable. I hoped that people could empathise with this young, fresh-faced person through both my acting and my singing style.
Does characterisation affect singing performance then?
Different singers will tell you different things about how they go about characterising roles. Some may warn you that giving in to the emotions of the character can hamper the singing, but I need to tap into the emotions of the character to portray it well. For example, I may choose to add a fast vibrato in order to make the emotion in his voice more believable. Sometimes it may affect the singing quality but I think it makes it sound more honest – at least I hope it does!
How does the DVD compare to the live experience?
I was very happy with how it came across on screen. I know Michael was very pleased with the way they captured it, so I think that says a lot. The people who made the DVD were so professional and were practically invisible. Naturally there are some things that are missed on film but there are also things that are gained. You may not be able to see everything that is happening on the stage simultaneously like you can live, but on the DVD they have captured even the most delicate expressions that would have been lost to a live audience. It’s a give-and-take situation but on the whole I thought it was fantastic.
Did you do any research into stammering whilst rehearsing for Billy Budd?
Everyone has different views on how accurate the stammer should be. I was always determined to make the rhythms of the stammer accurate to the score as I think Britten has an incredible knack of being able to express tension through music. Michael was keen on making the stammer a real physical act and he had Sir Derek Jacobi come in to help with that during the rehearsal process, which was amazing. He taught me how a stammer can be a really physical and painful effort. It’s not just a small movement in the mouth but something that influences your whole physicality. He taught me that the discomfort of not being able to express yourself can be realistically released in a very violent and in this case, fatal, punch.
What do you think makes the opera so successful?
It’s beautiful music and a beautiful story which I think appeals to everybody. The characters are so clear and as far as opera plots go, it’s very easy to follow: good versus evil. Musically, I think it’s the most beautiful opera that Britten wrote. There are so many amazing orchestral moments where you just melt into your seat and the Billy Budd aria at the end is just the most incredible music
Interview by Annie Reece
Glyndebourne’s 2010 production of Billy Budd is available on Opus Arte on DVD and Blu-ray now.