Arts: In Robeson's footsteps

Willard White has sung some of the great roles on the world's grandest stages - and this year will appear at the Last Night of the Proms. So what is he doing at a school benefit concert in south London?

Willard White, the bass-baritone, is going to be all over our TV screens later this month, but that probably isn't why he grants this interview in a sunny south London conservatory. Never mind that he might want to build on the dubious privilege of being booked to lead the national singalong which is the Last Night of the Proms in mid-September. You get the feeling that the thing has been achieved because the journalist Nikki Spencer, who has arranged that the great man sing this Friday at a benefit for her daughters' school, has twisted his arm about publicity. He's friendly enough, in a guarded way, as we talk overlooking her garden, but we're both relieved when it's briefly Spencer's turn.

The concert for the John Ball School in London will almost certainly allow the audience to feel more intimate with White than they would in a normal performance. In Blackheath Halls, he will be inhabiting the shade of a hero of his, Paul Robeson, in a scaled-down version of a concert he gave in Salisbury Cathedral last month. Granted that Robeson, the son of a man born into slavery, was a campaigner for human rights, it's appropriate that his spirit will hover over an event for a school named after a hero of the 1381 Peasant's Revolt. Ball's most famous lines (if the Victorian version of history is to be believed) were delivered as second on the bill to Wat Tyler at Blackheath: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"

Prominent in the material will be his celebrated Porgy. White rightly sees it as a rich part: "Some people think you can just stand there and croon it. You can't," he says. For Tom Rosenthal, a veteran commentator on opera, White is "the defining Porgy". He adds that no one can compete with White as a "singing actor". As well as spirituals, there will also be some of the folk songs which Robeson believed to be important socially as well as musically and of which White, too, has made recordings. His repertoire is much larger than this: Rosenthal notes, for instance, that "the three most memorable performances of his that I've seen, apart from Porgy, were all Russian: two in Mussorgsky, and a Shostakovich". He has also been a noteworthy Wotan in Wagner's Ring cycle.

White is the second most famous singer Jamaica has produced in recent years: that's after Bob Marley. Anyone from the Caribbean, and now adult, appears to have had an education of an almost Edwardian kind. It gave people the sure grasp of the Bible and the rhythms of English which helped make Marley a modern psalmodist. It's tempting to think it is the tradition which lies behind White's precise but songful navigation of the words of the Book of Daniel in William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, a CD of which graces the cover of the current BBC Music Magazine. A glimpse into the piece's creation 70 years ago will be had when White's recording of it is featured in BBC2's Masterworks: Six Pieces of Britain on 24 July, in a series which accompanies this season's Proms.

"I believe Christ walked the earth", says Willard White, with something of the authority any bass must have to master roles which are usually either damning or damned, or at least purgatorial or condemned. Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust will be White's next foreign outing, at the Salzburg Festival. "But I don't believe in the God who is locked up in churches," he says. His father, long dead, was a docks manager, and no preacher (as Robeson's had been). The talented youngster studied at home and then left for the Juillard School of Music in New York. The range of his successes since, in Mozart as much as in Gershwin and Copland, and in Britten as much as in Jerome Kern or spirituals, makes it natural that he appears irritated with any questions which drift toward assuming that we know where he's coming from, or has come from, in his singing or anything else. "Mozart used the folk tradition; Copland's material has been declared classical", he intones, implying that barriers and boundaries are for lesser types altogether.

He's 52 and says that he doesn't feel old but does sometimes feel tired. He is becoming a little grizzled around the edges, but that rather adds distinction to what has always been a noble, Roman sort of a head. It is a head, you feel, which has a big part to play in creating those extraordinary resonances that make a bass. He is greyer now, and the voice is said to have little less lustre than was the case 10 years ago when he proved that some opera singers can go against nature and act. He was moving when it counted as - again following Robeson - he played Othello, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Ian McKellen as a fussy, vicious Iago. If possible, he has accumulated gravitas in the meantime.

Even here, within reach of a suburban kitchen, and with rather few words coming from him, they achieve a sort of biblical seriousness. No, he says, there is no particular reason why an ageing voice should make new roles possible or impossible. "I don't pay much attention to the idea that there is a `prime'. Who knows what the future holds?" He admits, though, that, say, Wotan, "requires a certain maturity in the voice. But that's not just the passage of time... it's, well, maturity". Part of it is that there can be a useful hardening in the glottis and epiglottis: that helps stamina. Yes, one needs to be careful with teachers, but there is no substitute for remembrance of the fact that it is oneself who must take the career risks.

I wonder whether the pro-Soviet Paul Robeson is quite the right role model for young Britons. After all, he was, however brave, also naive to celebrate for its equality and respect for minorities a system which, in his lifetime, killed up to 30 million people, often for their ethnic inconvenience. And what of the culture of resentment which might find fuel in Robeson's rights-orientated language? Is that useful in the rather different circumstances of modern Britain? "We need mutual forgiveness," White says, and stresses that Robeson taught respect for all peoples, not one. Touche.

If he is half as sharp and poignant in Blackheath as he was singing Gershwin (Porgy and Bess, again) with the Crouch End Festival Chorus last Sunday in the Royal Festival Hall, a great treat is to be had. As for the Proms, no one, except perhaps White, yet knows what he's going to sing in his solo spots early in the evening. It could come from any of the traditions which White has made his own: only his musicianship can confidently be predicted.

Willard White performs in a celebration of the work of Paul Robeson at the Blackheath Halls, 23 Lee Road, London SE3, tomorrow at 7.30pm. pounds 15, pounds 10 (concs) and pounds 5 (under 14's). Box office: 0181-463 0100

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?