Counter-tenor Benjamin Williamson performs with Billingshurst Choral Society

Benjamin Williamson. Picture by Rocco Redondo
Benjamin Williamson. Picture by Rocco Redondo

Counter-tenor Benjamin Williamson is relishing the challenge of joining Billingshurst Choral Society for their performance of Handel’s Saul at Billingshurst Leisure Centre on Saturday, March 19 (7.30pm).

“The music is just fantastic, and the interesting thing is that the arias vary quite heavily in terms of pitch.”

They have been sung by different voices over the years: “But dramatically, it is a real rollercoaster of a piece. My character David is a devoted, honest person. He is devoted to God and devoted to Michal (the younger daughter of Saul). The story can be fairly brutal with all the tribal stuff that is happening, and putting that across to modern audiences can be interesting! The characters are supposed to be righteous, but sometimes these actions don’t seem very moral to audiences today.

“But it is great to be singing with Billingshurst Choral Society.”

Winner of the 2013 Nei Stëmmen International Singing Competition in Luxembourg, Benjamin was a choral scholar at King’s College Cambridge, where he read philosophy, before studying at the Royal College of Music vocal faculty and international opera school, where he won first prize in the English Song Competition. He won third prize and the audience prize at the CantateBach Competition in Greifswald, Germany, was a semi-finalist in the 2014 Kathleen Ferrier Awards, and a Finalist in the 2014 Royal Overseas League Competition.

“I graduated fairly recently, four years ago. Since then, I have been understudying various roles and also doing roles with various small-ish companies. I have also been entering competitions. I am just trying to push myself.”

He is doing so within the wider context of counter-tenors enjoying something of a resurgence: “There are not many, but you do come across more counter-tenors these days. It is more in vogue than it was. I think it is probably to do with the resurgence of baroque opera.

“Since the counter-tenor became a modern phenomenon in the 1940s, you have seen brilliant opportunities. My generation has grown up having the great modern counter-tenors doing these things, and that’s quite interesting. There is a fascination that people have with the castrato voice and also the counter-tenor voice. We are both singing in a high register, which allows quite a high level of virtuosity and also the chance for a lot of exciting ornamentation.

“It also challenges people’s ideas about masculinity. It was very much my choice. People think you have to have an amazing voice because it is such a specialist thing, but that is a misconception. Everyone has got a falsetto voice. It is just that some are slightly easier to access than others, and it is just that it can be quite a hard voice to navigate.

“I was not at all sure about it, wondering whether I would get teased or if I would ever get a girlfriend! I was encouraged to do it, but I certainly chose to do it myself because I was good at it, and I love doing it.”


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