Nature certainly had fun creating Willard White’s voice box. A combination of treacle and granite, its sweet and hard sonorities cannot be muffled even by Zoom. It’s such a famous instrument that, earlier on today, before our conversation, the person doing his PCR test knew instantly who he was. “I knocked on the door,” says White, “said, ‘Good morning’ and they said, ‘You’re Willard White, aren’t you?’”
The test preceded rehearsals in Leeds for Opera North’s new production of Rigoletto. White is to sing the role of Monterone, the wronged father who utters a vengeful malediction on the Duke of Mantua and his court jester. Now 75, and knighted for services to music in 2004, it can’t be often that he comes upon a new role in the core repertoire.
In fact, White’s first Monterone was meant to be 40 years ago, when he was due to join the second cast of the late Jonathan Miller’s 1982 ENO production, set among Mafiosi in New York. But Miller argued against the idea of a black man in the Italian-American underworld in the 1950s.
“It became difficult for the director to accept my presence to be fake white,” says White. “So he said no. Then my agent got on to it, it got into the newspapers, and I just kept cool. And it never happened. If someone opposes my colour, then they do.”
He chuckles, which feels typical of White’s soft-touch approach to life. Later, for example, he kept his counsel when Wagnerians objected to his casting as Wotan in Scottish Opera’s Das Rheingold in 1989. “How I’m accepted and all that – it’s a waste of time trying to bother with it,” he says. “Without arrogance, I remember when I started on my career and there was a question of colour there, I thought, ‘What I’m going to do is sing as well as I can. If they don’t accept me for anything else then they’re either stupid or I need to work a bit harder.’”