When Neil Armfield's production of Britten's Billy Budd opens at the Coliseum tomorrow evening, one of the members of the cast will have the edge over the others in a crucial respect: Gwynne Howell, who is singing that benign old seadog Dansker, has worked with the composer.
"He actually played the piano for my first audition with Decca - after modestly asking if I'd mind - but he was the best accompanist in the world," he says. "After that, I worked with him at Aldeburgh. Doing this work on stage now, I can almost smell the salt, the wind, the mist - his orchestral writing is so delicately evocative."
Howell is a Welsh bass through and through - when he shares the stage with Bryn Terfel, they speak together in Welsh - and he fought his way to the top without cutting corners. After chucking in his job as a town-planning officer, he joined the Sadler's Wells opera company in 1968, at a time when it was divided into two troupes, one touring while the other was in London. He often did major roles in six shows a week, for the princely fee of £25.
One of his great strengths is his crystal-clear diction, which he attributes to the Italian voice coach he got when he joined Covent Garden. "He sat me down and we did the first line of the part I was due to sing in Aida, and we did that for 10 days," he says. "Just that line. I used to come out of Covent Garden thinking I'd never make a bloody singer. But that for me was the beginning of clear consonants and vowels, and an uninterrupted voice.
"I've actually heard singing teachers say: never mind about the words; just make sure the voice is beautiful. But if you just swan along listening to the sound of your voice, you're not inside your part."
Howell's appearances at present are all too rare, so this is a good time to catch him.
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