Roderick Williams on the Last Night of the Proms: ‘Maybe I should dress as Britannia and wave a Jamaican flag’

Baritone Roderick Williams will perform to a global audience of millions on Saturday. He’s going to have a ball, he tells Imogen Tilden

On Saturday night, Roderick Williams will step out in front of a live audience of 6,000, a radio and internet audience of hundreds of thousands, and an international TV audience of millions, to sing Rule Britannia. It is the high point of the Last Night of the Proms celebrations, a moment when performers and audience alike let their hair down in a Royal Albert Hall ablaze with streamers, whistles and flags of every colour, shape and size. Sarah Connolly sang it dressed as Nelson. Bryn Terfel donned Welsh rugby kit and sang one verse in Welsh. Renée Fleming performed as Britannia-meets-Vivienne Westwood, others have decked themselves in so much bling that a security guard was needed backstage. What will Williams be wearing? He smiles. “Part of me thought, you know what, after the Eurovision success of Austria’s bearded lady Conchita Wurst maybe I should also come out dressed as Britannia! The idea did cross my mind, but I think I might leave that for another time, and for a braver person than me.

Sarah Connolly, dressed as Nelson, performs at 2009’s Last Night.

“Some people have suggested I come out with a Jamaican flag, Well, yeah, I could – my mother’s Jamaican, sure, but I’m English. I’ll leave that to Usain Bolt. I’d be scrabbling around for a point to make. The thing about me, quiet middle-class Englishman that I am, is that I’m not here to make any points other than, ‘Isn’t this music great!’ If you look at me as I perform and you’re thinking anything else, I’m not really doing my job properly.”

Performing only days before a Scottish independence vote that could spell the end of the union hymned so famously in Rule Britannia, what does he make of the evening’s flag-waving? “In terms of the Proms I see it more as a European and global audience do: they look at this as a sort of pageant of fun which is devoid of statement,” he says. “Anybody’s welcome to project whatever they want on to it. But the people in that auditorium will wave whatever flag you put into their hands and shout and scream and sing along with their great music that stirs them in whatever way. The second half of the Last Night is about celebrating great music. I’m hoping that among all the Union Jacks - many of which will not be waved by British people - there will also be other flags and banners and general riotousness.”

The irony cannot be lost on audiences that the piece that closes the concert’s first half is a huge Strauss cantata, Taillefer, the story (in German), of the Battle of Hastings. “I sing William the Conqueror,” says Williams. “And I sing ‘En-ger-land’ – in three syllables, which always makes me smile – ‘I have you in my hand!’ and it ends with the English soldiers dead on a field, William seizing the English crown and popping it on his head. It’s brilliant Last Night fare, it’s going to go down a storm!”

In the celebratory second half, Williams will also sing Ol’ Man River, from Jerome Kern’s Show Boat, and the traditional spiritual Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho. “Of course you could read all sort of things into that,” he says. “Thing is, I was asked to perform something that would be appropriate to the second half. The music I do in recitals tend to be the western art song, and of course this isn’t the moment to sing [Schubert’s] An Die Musik, say.”

Roderick Williams as Figaro singing the famous ‘Largo al factotum’ aria from the Barber of Seville.

These are songs from Williams’s past, songs that he loves, songs that will be fun, “but I met them through singing close harmony at school, in north London in the 70s. I’m afraid it’s not at all that my mother used to sing us to sleep with these old spirituals.” He has put his own modern-day stamp on them, too, by orchestrating them both himself. “I’ve never written for that size of symphony orchestra before. That was great fun,” he says, with obvious relish. “This is where the BBC is at its best – I said to them, ‘I could sing these two songs, and I could orchestrate them too,’ and they said ‘Yeah, ok!’ To hear what you’ve written that was just in your head, or at best computer-generated on a laptop, played by real people and become a magical live piece of music is just incredible. I would almost rather just shut up and listen to the orchestra play. But don’t worry, I will sing,” he smiles.

Is he nervous? “Every time I think about it I get a little twist in my stomach, so yes, but I know the music, and unless I have what my sister-in-law calls a brain fart, I’m prepared, I know what I’m doing. I’m going to relax and have a ball.”

An enormous enjoyment in everything he does radiates from Williams. He came relatively late in life to professional singing. After a choral scholarship at Oxford, he did teacher training and worked at a London school as a music teacher in his mid-20s. “I would probably be doing that still if my wife hadn’t said to me one day, out of the blue, ‘What are your ambitions?’ She’d not noticed me being unhappy or unfulfilled, but almost out of nowhere my response was, ‘Well I’d quite like to be a singer,’ although the idea that you could earn a living from it was kind of new to me.”

Aged 28, Williams gave up his nine-to-five and went to Guildhall, to learn to be an opera singer, where what he terms his “pretty decent” lyric baritone voice soon saw him winning acclaim. Professional roles from Purcell to Puccini, from Mozart to Maxwell Davies have brought Williams ever-greater international success and now, at 48, he is one of the UK’s most celebrated and versatile singers. “People warned me the opera world is full of divas, that there’s lots of backstabbing, that it’s hard work – all that stuff,” he says. “I went into it with my eyes open, saying, ‘If I don’t enjoy it I’ll stop.’ But I’m still having such a terrific time. And I’m still waiting for the moment someone says, ‘Roddy, stop it now, get a proper job.’”

Performing Britten’s arrangement of Tom Bowling for Radio 3.

Key to Williams’s enjoyment is the variety of his work. He has sung Rameau and Bach and created new roles in contemporary works by the likes of Michel van der Aa and Sally Beamish. He excels in baroque opera, Mozart and 20th-century English song - especially Britten, and in the next two years adds two further major roles – Onegin, and Billy Budd – to his repertoire. “Both have been on my wish list for some time,” he says. “But I thought I’d missed them because I’m getting a bit too old.”

“If you get known as a being a certain vocal type and relishing certain operas that you can take round the world, then you can make a comfortable career doing six roles, but I’d find that so boring! All the things I’ve done, the song recitals, the recordings, the oratios, the educational work, it’s the mix of all of them that keeps me alive and alert and makes me want to spring out of bed in the morning and say What’s next? What do I do today?”

As we head our separate ways, he is going to Aquascutum to buy some braces, to hold up his Last Night trousers. So what will he be wearing? “I hope people won’t be too disappointed that I’ve opted for white tie and tails, which was, after all, the standard western concert dress for so many years.” His eyes twinkle. “Who knows, there may be a small opportunity for me to tart that up a little bit in the spirit of the occasion.” Keep an eye out for those braces.

• Roderick Williams performs in the Last Night of the Proms on 13 September at the Royal Albert Hall, broadcast live on Radio 3 and online and on BBC2 (first half) and BBC1 (second half)


Imogen Tilden

The GuardianTramp

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