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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