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For countertenor Franco Fagioli, high isn't everything

Features - Classical Music | Opera

For countertenor Franco Fagioli, high isn't everything

by Clive Paget on March 21, 2017 (March 21, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Opera | Comment Now
Growing up in Argentina, he joked about imitating women’s voices and studied bel canto because no-one taught countertenor.

How did you first discover you had a countertenor voice?

When I was a child I sang in choirs as a boy soprano. When I was about 15 or 16, I stopped singing in my choir but I never stopped making jokes about singing high and imitating women. Where I was, in the north of Argentina, nobody was telling me, “Oh, you could be a countertenor”. Of course, I was always laughing. I thought I was just imitating sopranos or mezzo sopranos until one day I was playing the piano for a choir rehearsing the Stabat Mater by Pergolesi. I wanted to know the piece well, so I went to a CD shop to buy a recording. When I arrived home I was listening to these two voices. I could recognise the highest voice was a soprano, but the second voice for me was a little bit different. It was not the sound of a woman, not also exactly the sound of a man. When I looked at the CD I realised the alto part was sung by a man – it was James Bowman. When I discovered this, I said, “OK, this man is doing more or less the same as I do when I think that I’m joking. So, I want to do this, I want to be a countertenor!”

Countertenor Franco Fagioli. Photo © Stephane Boehme/DG

So how did you find someone to help you develop your countertenor voice?

At that time in my city we had teachers, but more related to traditional opera. Nowadays I can say that there is no one special technique for a countertenor. With countertenors, we must learn technique like any other singer. My teacher was a leading soprano from North America who was married to an Argentinian guitarist. So I went to her, to Annelise Skovmand, and she told me, “I’ve never had a countertenor pupil, but I will teach you what I know”. She showed me not the way of singing for a countertenor particularly, but the bel canto technique of Italian opera. 

Ah, you started with bel canto repertoire?

Yes, and now I can be very grateful. At that time in Argentina there was no tradition of baroque opera. My beginnings were, let’s say, in between. We did some baroque music, because my teacher provided Handel arias and all that, but also we were doing bel canto repertoire, like the songs of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini, or some opera arias by Rossini.

A few years ago you recorded arias written for the great castrato Caffarelli. Would you say his is the closest sound to your voice?

The truth is, we cannot know exactly. Sometimes we forget that composers in those times always wrote the piece adapted to one singer, but nowadays we sing opera that was not composed for us. It’s a great pleasure, but it’s not the same. With Caffarelli, I would say it’s because of my voice that I’m able to sing his music. But if you take a look, there are no other CDs of arias for Caffarelli. The fact is, the music that was written for him is a very extreme music – very demanding, very difficult, not only in the tessitura that goes very, very high, but it also goes very low. Caffarelli was an extreme singer in both technique and expression. When I started to do research into this music, I started to discover how interesting and how particular was the writing for him. And also I started to understand why maybe nobody had done a homage to Caffarelli before, because it’s quite demanding music. The experience was great, but it was a lot of learning.

You have a particularly wide range for a countertenor. Did you always have the top notes, or did you have to work especially hard to discover them?

The notes maybe were there, but in a very bad way [laughs]. To tell the truth, I had to work hard to be able to sing them in the proper way and without hurting myself. When I started, I noted that I maybe had high notes, but I could not use them because they were not being produced with quality. So when I started my career I was singing the typical countertenor repertoire – the Senesino roles like Giulio Cesare, all these low parts – because I wanted to really work properly on the high notes before I started to sing them. 

So what is the top of your voice now?

[Laughs] Well, onstage, the highest note I did it’s a high D.

In Vinci’s Artaserse you sing one remarkable note in particular. What would that be?

Yes, that’s a high D. In the baroque pitch, that would be a D Flat, if we want to be precise [laughs]. I’m very happy to be able to do high notes, and of course they require a lot of work. High is always exciting, but much more exciting is all the other stuff that maybe goes before that high note. I’m not a soprano, that’s the thing! [Laughs] The fact that you have some high notes doesn’t always mean that you are a soprano or whatever. In the past, in the 19th century, “mezzo soprano” was not a definition that existed. You had alto or soprano. You could call me a soprano too, but in terms of bel canto, I would be a mezzo soprano.

For your new Rossini album, how did you come up with an original concept and choose the repertoire?

When you prepare, you think, “OK, we’ll have to do Di tanti palpiti.” That’s the typical Rossini aria. But I wanted to discover the other beautiful opera seria that Rossini wrote. All the roles I chose are male parts that he wrote to be sung by women. In the 19th century there was a huge tradition from the Baroque that the hero would be sung by a high voice. In the past they were the castrati. But by Rossini’s time the castrati were no more, because the practice of castration was forbidden, so they give those parts to women. And that’s the concept for this recording.

You’ve worked with conductors like Harnoncourt, Jacobs and Curtis. What did you learn from those great maestros?

The first one I remember was Nikolaus Harnoncourt. I had a great, great opportunity to work with him on Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, an opera that maybe he was one of the ones to rediscover. I have great, great memories about him. He was a musician first of all and he loved singers. I was very comfortable with him. We have to realise that in baroque music, the figure of the conductor was something else. Actually, there was no conductor for baroque music. The conductor was the composer, moderating the orchestra. Nowadays, sometimes we forget thatwhen we are doing a baroque opera, all of us are musicians. We are there to get the best out of the opera. And that was my feeling with Nikolaus Harnoncourt. He was a great leader.

Do you have any terrible moments that you’d rather forget?

Oh my God, well [laughs], there are some uncomfortable moments, but you have to make it for the best. A few performances ago I broke some glasses onstage – real glasses. I’m doing Handel’s Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, and singing the part of Piacere. In the second act there is a little bit of a violent situation with another character (Il Tempo). I go up to Tempo in a quick way and he has to push me back. Well, he pushed me, and there was a table with glasses and plates, and I went too hard and broke some glasses. I was very, very worried about my colleagues getting hurt, so during the acting I was trying to clean up. By the end there was nothing to worry about, but I try to understand that’s life. You learn how to get through these things.


Franco Fagioli’s Rossini album is out now on Deutsche Grammophon.