Jacques Imbrailo is singing in Jules Massenet’s Werther (see our review here) at the Royal Opera House and then he is off around the world on various singing engagements through 2020. In April this year, this rising star among baritones earned great reviews in Billy Budd and his Albert in Werther is another step forward in his accelerating career.
Karine Hetherington met the 40-year-old South African at the Royal Opera House.
Any opera singers in your family?
No – no classical music whatsoever. I grew up on a farm. My parents are not musical at all.
I went to a boys’ choir school at a young age and that’s where the classical music started.
Did you have a mentor somewhere along the line?
At different stages, different people. Probably the biggest influence that persuaded me to take singing seriously and follow it as a career, was my first singing teacher in South Africa, Professor Werner Nel. He was a wonderful singer, a wonderful teacher. He gave me lessons when I was about sixteen and I carried with him when I was at university.
Did you study music?
At first I studied law. I was a very lazy law student. It went in one ear, onto the paper and out the other ear. I didn’t care much about it.
Was the law useful?
No use whatsoever!
What was your first real break?
I was taken on the Jette Parker Young Artists programme at Royal Opera House. So that helped. I sang in the title role of Owen Wingrave in the Linbury Theatre which got well received. On the strength of that I got an audition for Billy Budd at Glynebourne.
At what point did you know you were a tenor or a baritone?
My voice broke very late. I could still sing the Queen of the Night at sixteen! But shortly after my sixteenth birthday, my voice started to slide down. At seventeen I was still a school boy tenor. By the time I was taking lessons at university my voice slid down to a baritone.
High baritones often get nudged by people saying ‘aren’t you a tenor’? but it’s not just a matter of singing higher notes. It’s the whole range.
What are your favourite operas to listen to – or do you tend to only concentrate on the operas you are working on?
Only to operas I’m working on. When I’m not working, I listen to my children’s music. So it’s the The Lion King and Aladdin at the moment. That’s what’s on in the car most of the time.
Otherwise, rather than listen to operas, I tend to listen to singers that I like. From the baritones I love Battistini, the “King of Baritones” from the nineteenth century. I also love Robert Merrill and at the moment I’m listening to the Swedish tenor Nikolai Gedda.
You have taken on very different roles. How important is the acting process for you?
I love that part very much. Sometimes to my detriment. It can get in the way of singing if you get too emotionally involved, like in Billy Budd. It makes it hard to sing as well as you would like to.
Do you find with getting older, your voice changes?
My voice changes a lot but it’s not to do with age. It depends on my emotional state. Whether I’m tired, my kids have kept me up a lot. You try however to consistently produce the same voice all the time.
So what do you do to relax?
The kids take up all my spare time. Singing abroad I haven’t had a lot of time in the past few years as the roles have been large. But I like to catch up on all the sports. I like to watch rugby.
Have you sung in any contemporary opera?
Yes. I did the Brett Dean Hamlet last year. Another opera called Brothers. I like the end product but I find it very frustrating to learn, rhythmically and harmonically. It takes a long time.
When I first start working on a modern piece I hate it. I’m a grumpy bear for the first few weeks. As I get on top of it, I start to enjoy more or admire more and usually by the time it’s on stage it’s fine.
But for the most part I prefer to sing traditional works. They are safer for the voice.
Favourite city to visit?
I really enjoyed Madrid because I worked with a great bunch of people there. Chicago. And my wife and I enjoy Amsterdam.
Favourite language to sing in?
I quite like French. It tends to keep the voice in a nice high position. It might not be the one I’m best in, but it suits my voice. I don’t mind Italian or German. Russian is quite nice.
Any mad projects?
You know they do Peter Grimes on the beach in Suffolk. I would love to do Billy Budd on a ship. Cutty Sark. It would be great fun!
What are you next singing?
I’m off to Moscow, end October, to sing Aeneas in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. I go to Washington for a few days to sing the part of Hamlet in Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet. After that I’ve got La Favorite and then my first Marcello in la Bohème in Berlin. And Merry Widow in Mumbai of all places which should be interesting. Cose von Tutte in Seville.
A very packed schedule
Yes. I’m having to learn four to five new operas a year at the moment.
I do admire opera singers for their hard work from a young age. Like premiership footballers. Is it really like that?
In some ways yes. It never stops. You have to learn new music, new skills and new repertoire.
Did you have a childhood though?
Yes. I had a glorious childhood on the farm in South Africa. We could run around everywhere without our parents knowing where we were. We’d fish in the river in our spare time at school and in the holidays slept outside under the stars. Rode horses. It saddens me that my kids won’t have what I had.
If you want to catch Jacques Imbrailo in Werther, performances are : Sept 24th and 27th. 1st and 5th October 2019