Jacques Imbrailo interview: 'I like things that are beautiful'
The baritone star of Billy Budd on the hazards of being on stage, other roles he aspires to – and growing up with zebras
'Technically, things can go wrong,' Jacques tells Culture Whisper during rehearsals at Covent Garden. 'Ropes and rigging.... This set is slightly dangerous, which a ship is.'
Billy Budd, based on the last novel by American writer Hermann Melville, tells the story of an eager new seaman, who is diligent and popular until he falls foul of a bitter Master at Arms, Claggart, and is disciplined by the ship's commander, Captain Vere.
In this production Vere is played by the British tenor Toby Spence, and the relationship between senior officer and naval rating is brought into sharp focus in this production, a recording of which from Madrid has just won an important DVD of the year prize.
Life below decks on HMS Indomitable, in Billy Budd, with Jacques Imbrailo as Billy. Photo: Yasuko Kageyama
Winning started early for Jacques. His accidental entry into the music world began at the age of 10, when a bunch of lads in his native South Africa went along to a concert given by a visiting boys' choir school. 'I wasn't interested in music at that stage.' When the friends egged each other on to enter the auditions after the show, only Jacques sang a note: 'The others ran away.'
They may have lived to regret that. Jacques, who grew up speaking Afrikaans and learned English later, won a place as a termly boarder at the private school. Here he received an exceptional musical, sporting and all-round education, with zebras strolling outside the windows.
Raised on a farm, with 16,000 hens, sheep and cattle, this natural environment meant a lot to him. Now that home with his wife of 10 years is here in the UK, in Leicestershire, his only regret is that their little boy and girl not have the big open spaces and wildlife on the scale that he enjoyed as a child.
Singing as a treble until the age of 16, his voice 'slid down' until it reached the warm and controlled baritone for which he is now sought after by casting directors worldwide. The postgraduate and opera courses at our own Royal College of Music followed his first adult musical training in South Africa, and a coveted place on the Jette Parker young artists' scheme at Covent Garden. Now top of the bill at the Royal Opera, the house is a home from home.
Early indications that he would be a big star came during those first years at the ROH, when he won the audience prize at Cardiff Singer of the World in 2007, the ultimate endorsement of his box office appeal. A mere three years later he took the international opera world by storm making his debut in the title role of this very same opera, Billy Budd.
Jacques Imbrailo: 'I'm a simple man and I like things that are beautiful'. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke
Nearly 10 years on, now aged 40, how does he approach playing the ingenue? 'You grow up with characters. I was younger when I sang him for the first time, and I was encouraged to see him as a very young, naive, person. After four productions I have fleshed him out a bit. He needs to be angry and despondent and to have flaws.'
Billy is innocent, but not unformed. 'He is not an unintelligent man and he is very perceptive. But he totally misreads Claggart.' Sung by Brindley Sherratt, the scowling, jealous, sexually conflicted Claggart destroys the thing he loves.
The story of Billy Budd unfolds after the aged Vere looks back at this key event in his seagoing career, which haunts him still. Despite misreading Claggart, Billy has an instant rapport with Vere, who is torn between humanity and duty when Billy's misdemeanour comes before him.
'With Vere, Billy very quickly sees Vere's struggle after the trial, and then he realises that Vere is a flawed man like him. In this production there's a quiet understanding between Billy and Vere that's sometimes hard to get.'
Billy, for all his much-remarked on good looks and good nature, is impeded by a stammer. When Jacques first undertook this role at Glyndebourne, the actor Derek Jacobi, who made his name as a similarly speech-impaired Roman emperor in the BBC's I Claudius in the 1970s, advised the cast on this condition.
Violence flares on HMS Indomitable in Billy Budd, at the Royal Opera House. Photo: Yasuko Kageyama
A stammer does not have the repeated syllables of a stutter, but is a complete blockage that thwarts attempts at self-expression. To convey this incapacity is demanding for a singer, whose whole raison d'être is to give voice. But it is not the involuntary silence at critical moments that causes Billy's downfall, Jacques believes.
'I don't think there is anything magical about Billy. His flaw is his temper, not really his stammer. But there is no vanity. I don't think he thinks about what other people think of him.'
The same goes for Jacques, you feel. He chooses his roles with care, and looks forward to those that can come later in a career, notably more Mozart, and Rodrigue in Verdi's Don Carlo. His recital repertoire and first solo CD, of Sibelius and Rachmaninov songs, lean unashamedly to lovely lyricism. 'I'm a simple man, and I like things that are beautiful.'
But above all, and for now, he is the world's go-to Billy. And since that character's temper is not confined to youth, Jacques is not letting go of him lightly. 'I'll probably sing him better in 10 years' time.' We'll all be there to hear that, for sure.
Billy Budd is a co-production with Teatro Real Madrid and Opera di Roma. It is sung in English with English surtitles. Public performances at the Royal Opera House are on 23 April to 10 May