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At the Hobart Baroque festival in April, I struck up a conversation with a certain multimillionaire art collector; no stranger to the weird and wacky, exotic and rare. But when we got on to the topic of countertenors, as one inevitably does at a Baroque music festival, he was mystified: “I just want to yank their trousers down to see if their balls have been cut off!” That’s putting it, er, bluntly.
The following evening, we encountered one such specimen: Norway-based Australian David Hansen, returned from the far-flung fjords and a demanding international schedule for his highly anticipated homecoming recital. After the first aria, sources tell me, the same eccentric art mogul was heard to exclaim – even more bluntly – “F**k me dead!” Perhaps he was just saying what everyone was thinking. Perhaps he was imagining Hansen as an exhibit in his museum, where this extraordinary singer could surely shatter the glass casing with a single, stratospheric money-note.
Far from perturbed by the freak-show curiosity about his manhood, the subject of all this intrigue seems pleased when I relay the remarks. “I’m really not offended. I think those reactions are gold. It’s wonderful to stir that sentiment up among listeners; I wish it happened more.” Needless to say, Hansen’s is a natural high – unlike the 18th-century castrati’s, whose vocal powers and celebrity status were born of barbaric mutilation and whose virtuosic music has become the domain of countertenors and women.
Even with the question of anatomy removed (pun intended), today’s countertenors follow in the footsteps of their less fortunate brethren, trading in the sheer shock value and novelty of the high male voice. The collective gasp and double take from the audience; the frisson of revelation when a “grown man who sings like a turbo-charged choirboy” (as The New York Times describes it) first opens his mouth and a stream of notes soars startlingly heavenward. Hansen sees the effect of his otherworldly upper range play out in front of him on a daily basis. “Everyone’s going to have a different way of reacting,” he points out. “But my voice is, I think, completely different from any other countertenor’s I’ve ever heard. That’s something I’m proud of.”
It’s this matter-of-fact confidence, with its daredevil swagger and hint of a challenge issued forth, that goads him into indulging a few rock-star antics. Topless and in jeans for his latest photo shoot with Pinchgut Opera (Hansen sings the heroic lead in Cavalli’s Giasone for that company at the end of the year), he straddles an extravagantly oversized throne of plush red velvet and gold: king of the countertenors. And in Hobart, as if highwire coloratura pyrotechnics weren’t impressive enough, he strode on stage in a sequined tuxedo jacket, popping a bottle of Moët mid-aria (swigged gratefully by the orchestral musicians after the show). It was an encore party trick that sealed the deal on an already richly deserved standing ovation. “I’d love to come out on stage in Peter Alexander pyjamas or something like that,” he confesses. “I think it’s important that, for people who aren’t used to this, you certainly have a trick up your sleeve to get their attention from the get-go, and once you have them in the palm of your hand it’s keeping them there. For concertgoers who are used to hearing countertenors, it’s to offer them something different; something more beautiful, something more daring than the others they’ve heard.”
With that tenet guiding him, it’s been a swift ascent for Hansen: since his 2004 debut at Aix-en- Provence in Dido and Aeneas, he has been sought out by the likes of René Jacobs, Christophe Rousset and director Barrie Kosky. Given his intimidating CV and demonstrated fondness for expensive bubbly, I feel silly for suggesting we meet at a humble milk bar in Redfern during his recent Australian sojourn. Luckily, primo uomo behaviour doesn’t extend to brunch: this 31-year-old singer on the cusp of international stardom is still a down-to-earth Sydney boy who has lost neither his Aussie accent (with well-rounded singers’ enunciation and unremarkable tessitura, in case you were imagining Alvin and the Chipmunks) nor his Aussie pride, swaddling himself in a Swans scarf immediately after the Hobart recital to celebrate his home team’s victory earlier that evening.
Today it’s an upturned bucket he’s sitting on rather than a throne, and a so-called “Chuck Norris” thickshake he’s nursing instead of bubbly. No danger of brain-freeze, though: Hansen is accustomed to the arctic chill, with yet another photo shoot, for his forthcoming debut album, staged in the drifting snow of wintry Oslo, his adopted hometown. “It was –4 degrees and there was a mist following us around, which looked quite cool in some of the shots but it wasn’t so practical,” he concedes. “I’m glad I wasn’t topless for that one!” In fact, he was sumptuously attired in one of his signature loud, floral blazers from Moods of Norway which, as he has pointed out to me on several occasions, bear the motto “Made by pretty blonde girls” stitched into the labels. Down to earth he may be, but the lavish threads are just one sign of the high-flying success Hansen has come to enjoy. He spends almost half an hour regaling me with the minutiae of a recent excursion to Denmark’s Noma, thrice voted the best restaurant in the world. As I chow down on my omelette and fries, he excitedly gesticulates at the screen of his smartphone to show me pictures of the platter of moss he savoured on this twelve-course degustation menu in Copenhagen. I ooh and ahh through mouthfuls of real food.
“Beautiful people grow on trees in Scandinavia,” he sighs. It may have something to do with why he decided to settle in Oslo, marrying a local harpist in 2011. But it was also a calculated career move “prompted,” he says, “by both a need to prove myself to my Australian peers and a lack of performance opportunities in Australia.” He also noticed there were no other countertenors on the rise in that neck of the woods. But why would he need a this-town-isn’t-big-enough-for-us-both mentality when his is the highest voice in the business?
Forget sopranos; rivalry seems to be built into the countertenor psyche (a hangover from the age of castrati, whose divo caprices and high fees had Handel and Porpora tearing hair from their own wigs in frustration). Though countertenors are still a relatively rare breed on the concert and opera circuit, it is becoming more accepted and increasingly common for men to specialise in falsetto. As the pool of voices expands, so to do the demands placed on those voices. Hansen came to understand these pressures in London as early as 2004, as a protégé of one of the most respected pioneers of the countertenor revival.
“James Bowman was very humble from the beginning about what he could and couldn’t teach me,” the younger singer recalls. “Technique was something he never touched upon. He said that the evolution of the countertenor voice has surpassed anything he could have hoped to achieve vocally in his wildest dreams, though he remained a consistently good singer throughout his career: true to the voice he started with and singing up until last year when he finally retired in his seventies. What we worked on was style and delivery and interpretation, which you only get from experience.”
The evolution is indeed a steep one, and Hansen is at the top of the food chain with an instrument that even the world’s most popular countertenor, Philippe Jaroussky, graciously acknowledges outstrips his own range. Hansen’s high Bs and Cs, pure yet powerful, place him smack bang between Beach Boy and Queen of the Night. This upper extension makes him the envy of male and female singers alike, and makes him almost unclassifiable. “I think it would confuse people if I started calling myself a soprano or a sopranista. It might separate me from other countertenors tessitura-wise, but it means in the opera circle my competition would not be countertenors but mezzo-sopranos and sopranos.” To dispel any such confusion, he states exactly what he is in plain English on his website: guywhosingshigh.com. But that hasn’t stopped him reclaiming roles from the ladies, including the villainous Ottone in Vivaldi’s Griselda – making Hansen one of the first men to attempt the part in almost 300 years – and Le Nozze di Figaro’s randy pre-teen Cherubino.
“What I’m coming up against is a history of casting women in these very high male roles because there haven’t been men who could actually sing them as well or as beautifully as a woman,” he explains. “It’s given me a new scope on repertoire that I never had as a student because I thought I was a low countertenor... I want to push the limits of what I can do, but also what we as music listeners have associated with the countertenor voice for many years.”
What’s his secret? “It’s awesome to feel your whole body engage with your craft and support it in such a way that it enables you to do things that other people can’t. It’s almost superhuman. Like any athlete who strives to be the best – to push themselves to the absolute limits – I’m discovering things about myself and my singing. I never thought it would be possible, when I started singing as a countertenor, that I would end up sounding the way I do now.”
But maintaining an edge as a countertenor isn’t just about vertigo-inducing virtuosity; it’s also about who does his homework. Hansen’s debut on Sony label Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, fittingly titled Rivals, explores the notoriously cutthroat world of the duelling Italian castrati – Farinelli, Bernacchi, Caffarelli and Carestini among them – big voices, big egos. And thanks to years of research in libraries around the world, he has ensured that each of the disc’s nine arias by Leonardo Vinci, Leonardo Leo, Riccardo Broschi (Farinelli’s composer brother) and Antonio Maria Bononcini is a world-premiere recording.
But only by the skin of his teeth. “There’s another countertenor recording one of the arias soon, but his CD won’t be out until October, so that makes mine a world premiere by two months,” he laughs. Timing is everything in this Baroque space race.
Hansen clearly relishes the extreme vocal feats of the 18th-century Neapolitan arias he has unearthed, some of which stretch to three octaves and test the singer’s endurance and breath control for as long as 12 minutes. “Baroque vocal music will always be my bread and butter. There’s a degree of freedom through the convention of the da capo aria, allowing a singer to show off their voice and musicality. It is nice to specialise in a style of music where being different is not a bad thing!” (When quizzed about broader repertoire possibilities he says firmly, “I wouldn’t go down the pop road.” This year’s Eurovision must have been deterrent enough.)
Ironically for a disc about rival singers, an A&R mishap means that Hansen’s label is pitting him head to head against another young countertenor, Romanian-born Valer Barna-Sabadus, also due to release an album. Since two new countertenor signings is probably overkill, units sold and critical reception will determine which of these rivals will land an exclusive Sony recording contract. It could almost be a reality TV show.
Tales of bitchy castrati as bitter enemies can be juicy – one such documented incident has Antonio Bernacchi refusing to extend his contract at the court of Naples unless the king banished his younger rival Carestini. But Hansen is also keen to draw attention to the healthy rivalries, the kinship and humility that occasionally bonded the great singers together. He relates the touching anecdote of a 1730 performance of Hasse’s Artaserse. Senesino took the part of a tyrant while Farinelli played the hero in chains. As the captive sang his first aria, the captor, moved to tears, forgot all about keeping in character and ran to embrace his co-star. They have clearly captured Hansen’s imagination. “Two singers who start out as rivals have so much respect for one another that that cloak of rivalry is shed. ‘Rivals’ doesn’t have to be taken in a negative context; there are positive rivalries as well, and those rivalries ended up getting the best out of those singers.”
That’s heart-warming and all, but there’s still one aspect of his art in which Hansen strives to reign supreme over his countertenor colleagues. “I’ve been fortunate to learn from mistakes early on in my career what not to sing or how not to sing something. But I’m thankful that, even after those mistakes, I haven’t taken the safe approach and become stock-standard – not a dull singer but a safe singer. It’s not how I’d ever want to be known.
“So if what I’m doing is exciting myself, I’d be terribly surprised if my audience wasn’t excited. I try to push that idea, to see where it can take me. I don’t always know – that’s part of the thrill! Of course I want to sing things beautifully and tastefully, but there’s nothing stopping you being tasteful and still daring and exciting.”
David Hansen stars in Pinchgut Opera's Giasone in December and Rivals will be reviewed in the October Limelight.