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Jacques Imbrailo [Photo courtesy of Intermusica]
09 Sep 2010

Jacques Imbrailo, Malatesta at the Royal Opera House

Jacques Imbrailo sings Dr Malatesta in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale at the Royal Opera House, London

Jacques Imbrailo: An Interview

Above: Jacques Imbrailo [Photo courtesy of Intermusica]


“Don Pasquale is elderly, so people assume his friend Dr Malatesta must be old too”, says Imbrailo, “but he claims his sister is young, straight out of the convent. So maybe Malatesta is not such an old man”.

Imbrailo will be singing with big names like Paolo Gavanelli, Barry Banks and Íride Martínez. Since he’s still only in his early 30’s, this is quite an achievement. Nonetheless, his reputation is built on solid foundations.

Imbrailo’s been associated with the Royal Opera House for quite some time. While he was still a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Scheme, he shone as Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave. In June 2010 he created the first ever Billy Budd at the Glyndebourne Festival to great acclaim. He’s appeared many times at Covent Garden, most recently as Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro.

“It’s interesting that people assume Dr Malatesta is a bad man”, says Imbrailo thoughtfully. “He’s a friend to Don Pasquale, Ernesto and Norina and wants the best outcome for them. In the end, he is helping them even though he goes about it in a devious and manipulative way. He’s slimy, and might even go for Norina if he had a chance. He’s an opportunist who likes to give things a nudge, then sit back and see how things unfold. He’ll push events towards an outcome that suits him. The only one who really gets hurt is Don Pasquale, but he’s saved from a much worse fate. Dr Malatesta’s intentions are good, though he thinks the ends justify the means”.

In this Don Pasquale, director Jonathan Milller aims for lyrical realism. “Not too flowery, he tells us”. says Imbrailo, “Naturalness is good even though it’s bel canto”.The focus is on acting as well as on vocal display.

For a man whose star is most certainly in the ascendant, Imbrailo comes over in person as remarkably humble and sincere. This spirit contributed greatly to his portrayal of Billy Budd. Billy’s good-natured but also strong enough not to be pulled into mutiny. He’s hanged, but forgives his Captain.

“I’m quite reserved” says Imbrailo. “I’m not a people-pleaser, but I like getting on with people. I’m always eager to take on board what others think, in a healthy way. Maybe sometimes it’s to my detriment because there are times when you need to stand for what you believe in, whatever others say. Maybe I have the “pleasing” side of Billy’s character”.

Thinking himself into Dr Malatesta is interesting. “I try not to put on anything artificial. I’m not a mimicker. If I had to fake anything, I’d be rubbish. I like to get inside the personality, and think how a person would react in those situations. I want to be natural, but no-one has the same personality traits. I have to tweak things so I can react to emotions expressed by completely different personas.”

Imbrailo’s voice broke fairly late, and is still maturing. He’s wise to chose roles that develop his voice as well as his career.

“I’d love to sing Pelléas” he says, “What a lovely role!”. Imbrailo’s clear, lyrical style would fit it well. “And Papageno. There’s not a huge lot of singing, but there’s so much potential in the part”. “Possibly Posa in Don Carlos, but definitely Wozzeck,one day in the next few years”.

“Wozzeck is a gift to learn”, says Imbrailo. He’s already been offered a Wozzeck, but wants to grow further into it. “Wozzeck is disturbed because he’s been battered so much that it becomes his frame of mind, and he loses control. I asked Simon Keenlyside, because he also sang the part when he was quite young. Straight away he sent me a huge email, full of wonderful and sensible advice.”

“I’ve been blessed”, says Imbrailo, “I’ve had so much help and support” He cites Gerald Finley, for example, and his former voice teacher in South Africa, to whom he can always turn. He has a South African mentor in London, who gives good advice, and a wife who keeps him grounded. “I’m one of those guys people come up to and say, ‘Well done! You’ve hit the jackpot’. They’re both committed Christians which helps them keep their priorities centred, whatever the stresses of the opera business.

Soon, Imbrailo takes Glyndebourne’s Billy Budd to Amsterdam at De Nederlandse Opera. In summer 2011, he’ll be singing a lead in Judith Weir’s premiere, Miss Fortune/Achterbahn at the Bregenz Festival.

Imbrailo also was one of the founders of The Prince Consort, a very well respected vocal ensemble. They appear regularly at the Wigmore Hall and the Oxford Lieder Festival, and have released a CD of the Songs of Ned Rorem. It’s won several awards and praise from the composer himself. It’s very good indeed, highly recommended.

Donizetti’s Don Pasquale will run at the Royal Opera House from 12 September to 21st September. For more details, please visit the Royal Opera House website.

Anne Ozorio

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