Talent issue - the opera singer: Jacques Imbrailo

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There's an other-worldliness about 29-year-old Jacques Imbrailo that made him ideal casting for the pacifist title role in Covent Garden's production of Britten's Owen Wingrave this year. "The soul of integrity in voice and manner," said one critic, while another praised "his lithe and vibrant baritone at the service of an intense conviction". Until that moment, virtually nobody had heard of this South African singer: on the strength of this performance alone, he's now joined opera's exclusive vocal elite.

Yet singing was not originally on his agenda. He was, as he puts it, a simple farm boy in the Orange Free State when a choir came to perform. "It was a big event for us, and afterwards the conductor asked if any of us wanted to audition for his choir school. We dared each other as a joke, but finally there was just me standing there. I sang a few la-la-las, and I was in." The school was as much about rugby and riding as singing, and discipline was ferocious: "We were caned a lot, and if we didn't sing well enough we were sent on runs. Harshness was the norm, and it got results."

He took a law degree, then a music one, and began to win competitions, culminating in the prestigious Audience Prize in the Cardiff Singer of the World contest. In London he's taken master classes with the best of his baritone breed, and is now putting what he's learnt into practice. But slowly: after further Covent Garden successes this autumn, he's intentionally keeping his 2008 diary flexible, with his Glyndebourne debut due in 2009. Meanwhile he's training ferociously in the gym, leading a Bible study group in Bishopsgate, and letting his voice mature. He's also remaining resolutely Afrikaans: "I'm very patriotic, and want to help my country any way I can."

Portrait by Eva Vermandel