Ralph Thomas Williams, countertenor

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

After discovering my countertenor voice the year before starting undergraduate studies at Royal Holloway University of London, I was immensely fortunate to be given many tickets to see productions and concerts. Seeing operas at Welsh National Opera and the Royal Opera House as well as watching oratorios and recitals at venues such as King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and  Wigmore Hall enabled me to explore the possibilities of the countertenor voice. The most powerful performance which moved me to tears and affirmed that being a singer is being a communicator of powerful stories was the performance given by Olena Tokar at the 2013 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. From that moment I knew I had to take singing seriously to become a professional singer, to share emotional journeys, to tell stories and to express what is in my soul.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Seeing the trajectory or knowing what to audition or apply for and how to execute. I used to be hung up on “I have to do this incredibly specific thing to get to this very specific place to sing for so and so”, naively believing there was some sort of strict formula to building a career. During the Coronavirus pandemic, I realise that one must carve one’s own path, be authentic and show the world what you can do: everyone is marmite, some people love us and some will not. That’s ok!! There is room for us all on the stage.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

A recent performance I am proud of was our performance of Flight by Jonathan Dove at The Royal Northern College of Music. Despite being a concert-like performance of the most of the work due to COVID restrictions, each of us made a conscious effort to bring the individual stories of the passengers and refugee to life. The refugee is a particularly special role for me. Dove’s writing is so text-driven and vocally idiomatic; it allows one to be so expressive and it is difficult to not be overwhelmed by his tragic story. His explanation is saved for the refugee’s demanding aria towards the end of the opera. I learnt so much from this role, not only vocally but also about humanity in general. I would love the opportunity to bring this story to life on the stage once again.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Many would agree I have a great affinity for the contemporary operatic repertoire and whilst that is my bread and butter so to speak, I would like to think I am also an aspiring Handelian. The more I discover and research both the Baroque repertoire and contemporary works, I use insight from both to help perform the other, a symbiotic relationship.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Offstage I enjoy poetry, nature and meeting new people. Reading and seeing material which inspired so many writers whose words have been set to music, makes me feel closer to both the writers and composers. I like to know what makes people tick, what their passions are if they have them and what their raison d’être is. This is important when it comes to performing on stage as one must be emotionally intelligent and capable of empathy to be able to see a story on a score and see it play out in your head and live the emotions, actions and consequences of your character. One cannot get that locked away in a practice room all day. You have to meet people and have life experiences; something to draw upon that connects you to someone’s story, even if you haven’t walked in the shoes.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

From season to season I look inward: what is it I want to say? A recital is perfect for this. One is not constrained by a role as in opera and can be more oneself: the Artist. The art of programming speaks volumes about who someone is. Predominantly, as a countertenor, my repertoire is saturated with lute song, Baroque arias, maybe a handful of Lieder and contemporary art song and arias. When I plan ahead I like to try to think outside of the box: how can I make a performance of something traditional, unique? Now, as things slowly open up, I will look forward to planning recital performances once again.

In opera and as a young artist, repertoire choice is not always such a luxury. I hope to continue performing new works, tell new stories and not only explore the lives of others with this music but also discover more of who I am as an artist and human being.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

As a recent graduate, I am yet to perform in many of the concert venues at which I dream of performing. However, a sentimental venue for me would be Royal Holloway’s glorious Picture Gallery. I very much hope to perform there again one day and perhaps record new music there. A particularly fond memory I have from my time at the university was performing George Crumb’s Three Early Songs and Thomas Adès’ The Lover in Winter in the gallery. The beautiful setting and generous acoustic gave the cycles such a suspended, timeless and ethereal quality.

I dream of performing at The Wigmore Hall where I have seen many great singers perform. Watch out world!

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

Funding for music in schools. All pupils should be enabled, whatever their background, to access the excitement and magic of classical music early on to remove any sense that it is for an elitist and niche audience. Many opera house are to be applauded for recent efforts to increase accessibility, for reducing ticket prices for young audiences and holding workshops.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Sitting in a sleeping bag in the cold, snow-covered King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, listening to St Matthew Passion for my eighteenth birthday. Andreas Scholl’s performance was a particular highlight and exceptionally moving. It was colder inside that out!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is a very individual and personal notion. For me, success in performance, is ostensibly measured by how well one is able to communicate and move one’s audience. For example, a moment of success for me was my winning performance of Roger Steptoe’s Chinese Lyrics Set II in the Bessie Cronshaw and Frost Brownson Song Cycle Competition at The Royal Northern College of Music. The panel commented how the winning performance of the evening was one where they had realised they had not written a sing note of critique as they had been so captivated with the emotional journey and communication of the piece.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I urge aspiring students to listen to music outside of their fach or comfort zone. One needs to approach music with an open mind. Do something outside of music too to stay grounded and humble and to not be voluntarily confined to an echo chamber such as conservatoire.

You’re performing at this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival. Tell us about what you’ll be doing.

At the festival I will be one of singers performing the world premiere of Luke Style’s new chamber opera ‘Awakening Shadow’ with Nova Music Opera led by George Vass. Luke Styles’ writing is expressive and direct using texts by Byron, Brodsky and Shelly which have a great affinity with the themes set in Britten’s well admired five Canticles all of which are a part of the opera in aria/duet/trio context. Of the five canticles I will be performing canticle II and IV, Abraham and Isaac and The Journey of the Magi. Both are immensely dramatic stories, exploring devotion, reverence, sacrifice, the relationship between birth and death. This opera is not one to be missed!

What is your most treasured possession?

My Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream vocal score which was given to me by my late grandfather as a graduation present after my final recital at Royal Holloway. Since then I have been collecting, somewhat sentimentally, signatures from my countertenor heroes who have performed the role Oberon.

More information on this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival can be found here: https://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/music/

Ralph Thomas Williams is a British countertenor active in opera, concert and choral singing around the United Kingdom. He is currently completing a Postgraduate Diploma after having finished his masters with first class honours at The Royal Northern College of Music under the esteemed tutelage of Andrew Watts and Roger Hamilton after having completed his undergraduate degree from Royal Holloway, University of London. Ralph has worked with eminent singers such as Iestyn Davies MBE, Tim Mead, Michael Chance CBE, James Bowman CBE, Emma Bell, Christopher Purves, Rodrick Williams OBE, Della Jones and Mary King MBE in both public and private masterclasses. His studies are generously supported by The James and Mary Glass Scholarship Award, The Jane Anthony Memorial Fund and The Maurice and Jean Buckley Award. 

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