Sir Willard White

The singer talks to us about singing Bach’s St Matthew Passion in a disused concrete factory in London

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Sir Willard White’s fantastically rich bass-baritone can usually be heard in the world’s top opera houses and concert halls, but this month he’s singing in a disused factory under London’s Marylebone Road. We spoke to him to find out why.

You’re singing the role of Christ in Bach’s St Matthew Passion as part of a project run by Vocal Futures, a charity set up to get young people listening to classical music. How did you become involved with the project?
I was invited by Suzi Digby [founder of Vocal Futures] on one of her trips into schools where she was trying to involve young kids in their own lives by using music to inspire them. I believe in that, so then we talked over the years. And then a couple of years ago she mentioned this particular project.

Why do you think Vocal Futures chose Bach’s work for this project?
I think it’s about community, working together and a sort of unifying force which music embraces. Music unifies people because personalities get together and you’re presenting yourself as one whole, but separate entities.

This project was launched at a debate in Cambridge on the subject of whether classical music is still relevant to young people. What do you think?
The place that they’ve chosen for this performance is devoid of all elitist atmosphere, but I think classical music performed in a hall can be approachable for young people, too. The most important factor of music is that we actually take it into ourselves and live through it. Sometimes the grand concert hall can be intimidating and block the experience, so for these young people experiencing the wonderfulness of this music in a space that is not so salubrious touches the soul in a different way.

This performance is taking place underground in a disused concrete factory – what’s the strangest place you’ve ever performed in?
I performed in a theme park a couple of years ago and I was in a small room with a replica of a boat inside, like those boats that transported tea to Boston. There was hardly a stage. Some people would have said ‘I can’t perform in here’, but for me there’s always that sort of challenge with acoustic and so on. Once you go into the space you cannot change the acoustic, you just have to make the best adjustment you can.

What do you want people to take away from the performance?
I don’t know what I’d like people to take away, but what I’d like us to give is a clarity of commitment. People can get all sorts of interpretations that are influenced by the history of their lives. It’s not for us to dictate what they should take away but to very clear with what we want to do – then they will get something. For me it would be great if they went away and discovered more about themselves and started to wonder about music, art and conversation.

Sir Willard White will be singing the role of Christus in Bach's St Matthew Passion at Ambika P3 in London 28, 29 & 30 November at 6.30pm

Interview by Elizabeth Davis