The Jette Parker Young Artists scheme at the Royal Opera House has uncovered a wealth of talent since its inception a few years ago. Artists such as Matthew Rose and Grant Doyle are now familiar faces on stages the world over; Katie van Kooten and Robert Murray both star in productions at English National Opera next year; Marina Poplavskaya will take the lead soprano roles in Eugene Onegin and Don Carlo next season at the ROH itself; and Ailish Tynan and Andrew Kennedy both enjoyed great success when they entered the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, winning the Rosenblatt Song Prize in 2005 and 2003 respectively.
This year, the Young Artists scheme contributes another singer to Cardiff, with baritone Jacques Imbrailo representing South Africa. It's a challenge he's clearly looking forward to.
But the main reason for our conversation is his current project, playing the title role in Britten's Owen Wingrave in the Linbury Studio Theatre from 23 April. Britten was a staunch pacifist and the opera is redolent of his anger towards the Vietnam war. Imbrailo considers that the piece has a modern-day relevance, too. 'If anything, with all the things that are going on in Iraq it's even more relevant today than it was in Britten's time,' he says.
Owen Wingrave has somehow never won the hearts of audiences in quite the way that the bigger, more overt masterpieces such as Billy Budd and Peter Grimes have - but Imbrailo thinks it's time it was re-evaluated. 'Definitely. The difficulty is that it was originally written for television, which makes it challenging to bring off on stage. But I think our director, Tim Hopkins, has struck the balance right: if you use aspects of technology and television in the stage production, you can bring the piece off really well. That might help to change the public's minds.
'I think because of the subject matter, it is never going to be like experiencing Peter Grimes or Billy Budd. It's not going to have the same kind of music, though I do have an aria that's absolutely gorgeous. It is supposed to make the audience feel awkward; the subject is supposed to keep you nervous. That's the psychology behind the way the music is written. It's very well written, no doubt about it. It's just a question of whether the audience is willing to go on that journey of feeling awkward all the way through.'
The opera is being staged in the Linbury Studio Theatre, a flexible performing space in the basement of the Royal Opera House that has come in for some criticism since it was created. Yet Imbrailo thinks it's the perfect venue for Owen Wingrave. 'For some thing, the acoustic is better in this production. On our first day on stage, we all agreed it's not that bad at all. As a space, I think it's very good for this because it gives you almost the tight coldness of a television box; that's perfect for this story'.
Composer David Matthews has been commissioned to revise Britten's original orchestration and condense it for the smaller forces available in the Linbury. According to Imbrailo, this has been to the overall benefit of the communication of the material. 'You might occasionally think something is missing, I suppose, but on the whole I think people will feel 'Oh gosh, I can hear the singer for a change!'. Gerald Finley coached me in the old version and told me that it was impossible to be heard in various places, but with this version, it's not the case. You can be heard: it's actually a bit more like a theatre piece than an opera, especially the way Tim's done it.'
Another ex-Young Artist, Rory Macdonald, is the conductor for the production, and Imbrailo describes working with him as 'lovely'. 'He's very down to earth and open to suggestions from the wise men around him like David Syrus. He's willing to learn, and that's great because we can learn with him and can experiment together.'
Owen Wingrave was written for a raft of Britten's favourite singers, including Heather Harper, Janet Baker, John Shirley-Quirk, Benjamin Luxon (in the title role) and of course, Peter Pears. But Imbrailo feels the stars of this new production have entirely fresh takes on their parts. 'The way we're approaching it is quite different. My part is a lot more about modern, controlled speaking than very schooled, pure singing of long lines. Sometimes you have to prioritise expression over purity of voice. The way I sing it is quite different from the way Gerry [Finley] did it or the way Ben Luxon did it. Half of the reason is that I can't do it like them, and the other half is connected with the special approach of this whole production.'
Imbrailo is unequivocally positive about the quality of training that the Young Artists programme provides. 'It's massively valuable', he says. 'There's no better place to be. The exposure you get even from just playing small parts like Morales in Carmen is amazing - I've had lots of job offers from that. It's such a lovely place to be - everyone is so encouraging and wants you to do well, and it's a great mixture of a protective debut in a big, demanding house. What more could you ask for?
'The opera house is the complete opposite of how I expected it to be. I imagined that since it's one of the five biggest houses in the world, everyone would be very serious and difficult to work with. They are demanding, but it's done with the friendliest professionalism you can imagine. Tony Pappano, the guy at the top, is the loveliest guy possible - I had such a great time working with him on Carmen. He was so encouraging whilst being very quick to point out things. Everyone is on the same team trying to make everything as good as it can be - the opposite of what you might expect from the opera world.'
Next year, Imbrailo will appear in a number of small roles at the Royal Opera House, as well as understudying the role of the Count in Le nozze di Figaro, which is what he's looking forward to the most. 'It will be great to get the role under my belt before I sing it in Lille a few months later, even if I don't get to go onstage with it here. It's a bit scary - a big sing, and it lies quite low. It will be a challenge!'
But in the short term, his focus is on Wingrave and on Cardiff, where he'll be singing a varied repertoire. 'It will be lovely to sing Lieder again. For the Lieder I'm doing a bit of Strauss, a South African folk song, two Rachmaninov songs, Spanish folk song and some Schubert and Schumann. For the opera, I'm doing an aria from Handel's Rinaldo, one from Korngold's Die todte Stadt, Rodrigo's 'Carlo, ascolta' from Verdi's Don Carlo, Mercutio's 'Queen Mab' aria from Romeo and Juliet, Yeletsky's aria from The Queen of Spades and Silvio's aria from Pagliacci. I'm looking forward to having time to learn them all, too!'. There will be a chance to hear a preview of his performance at the Linbury Studio Theatre on 4 June, when he'll be singing a selection from his Cardiff programme in the free Monday lunchtime recital at 1pm.
A committed Christian, Imbrailo attends St Helen's Bishopsgate in the City of London and it's clear that his religion is at the centre of his life, both personally and professionally. 'Singing doesn't rule my life; if I have a bad day at the office it doesn't destroy the rest of my life. The way I would go about it, if I have a career in singing, would definitely be informed by my life as a Christian. I'd hope that my Christianity would show in the way I would do things. If singing music didn't help me to serve God, I would have to give it up.I'd definitely like to be remembered for my faith and helping to bring it to other people.'