The young French countertenor on why he’s taking eight months off singing to smoke and drink.
This is your third tour with the Brandenburg Orchestra – what keeps you coming back?
I found out about them when I saw some YouTube videos of the orchestra with Andreas Scholl. When I came for the first tour it was to discover Australia, but I also discovered that the Brandenburgs are very open-minded, and of course Paul Dyer has become a good friend.
In this program you’re pitting the rival opera composers Handel and Porpora against each other.
It’s about the rivalry between Handel and Porpora and their competing opera theatres in London, but it is also a rivalry between their two star castrati singers. Porpora is a composer from Naples who taught the great singer Farinelli – his best card to play. But at the same time, Handel engaged one of the most incredible singers of the 18th century: Carestini, who was a tricky guy, very self-confident; the opposite of Farinelli. In a program like this you can imagine the fights between them, and hear the differences between the two voices in the way the composers wrote for them.
Porpora was incredibly popular during his lifetime but his music is very rarely performed today. Why doesn’t he enjoy the same status as Handel now?
We can say that Porpora doesn’t have the genius of Handel, of course, the most incredible genius in the history of music, but he has the virtuosic style to show everything the voice is capable of. It’s very charming music, and I think in London he had even more success than Handel.
This rivalry was depicted in Gérard Corbiau’s 1994 film Farinelli. Do you like the movie?
When I saw Farinelli for the first time, I was not yet singing, and I found it depressing. But it did a lot for us, for countertenors, for Baroque music. It shows different sides of this story; not only the musical side, but the way that castrati were treated by society – they were like pop stars and the ladies loved them, but they were also freaks. For that, I think it’s very well done.
Some of those stereotypes have been applied to countertenors: someone hearing the male falsetto voice for the first time might laugh, feel uncomfortable, or joke that the singer has no balls. Does that bother you?
I perfectly understand people who don’t like this voice, and the thing I like about my voice is that you love it or you hate it. There are a lot of people who can’t bear this sound – they think it’s fake, it’s not an operatic voice and so on – but things are changing. There is a new generation of countertenors, more and more of us in the world. You can imagine that 30 years ago, deciding to sing as a countertenor was not so easy.
You recently recorded Vinci’s opera Artaserse with a cast of five countertenors! There must have been a bit of Baroque rivalry there?
This opera was composed only for castrato voices, so the idea was to recreate this atmosphere. So of course there was competition, but in a very positive way – I was really inspired by the others. It was very interesting because we have five different personalities, different techniques, so people could finally understand this voice deeply; that there are different ways to sing as a countertenor.
What role would you love to sing next?
My favourite opera by Handel is Ariodante for sure. But this part is freaking difficult: too many arias, high notes, low notes, lots of crazy things to sing. It will be my Everest. It’s like a dream, but I probably wouldn’t sing that.
What is your highest note, and what’s your so-called “natural” vocal range?
Now I sing up to a high B-flat, but there is this young Australian countertenor, David Hansen, who is singing higher than me. I’m a baritone in my chest voice. But I didn’t choose the countertenor voice because it’s funny to sing so high. I feel deeply that this is the voice where I can be most flexible; it is the voice fitting best with my personality. We are like big children. To be a countertenor, it’s not to imitate a woman – it’s more to stay a child in a way; to try to keep something from the past before becoming an adult. It’s a little bit a way to refuse to grow up.
But you trained as a violinist and came to singing relatively late. When did you realise you wanted to be a countertenor, and that you had the right kind of voice?
I was about 18, and I went to along to see the soprano countertenor Fabrice Di Falco in a church in Paris. I was totally fascinated by his voice, his presence. Suddenly I could feel that I would be able to do the same in a few years. I had a small voice inside me that said, “This is for you”. I met his teacher, who is still my teacher after 15 years. A few months ago we were reminiscing about my first lesson with her; apparently after one hour she said, “I’m not sure that you can become a countertenor,” and I said, “Trust me, I know that I can.”
Which other singers do you look up to now?
Last year I sang on Cecilia Bartoli’s new album, which was a dream for me. She gave me some great advice when I was in front of the microphone: “You know, Philippe, when people are just listening to a CD at home, they have to see you, not only hear you.” She’s singing in three dimensions. It was a beautiful gift. I was also very touched when James Bowman invited me to sing with a lot of different countertenors at his farewell concert in Paris – he is a legend. I chose Alto giove, Porpora’s most special aria for Farinelli, which I will also sing in Australia.
What other performances do you have coming up?
In fact, the concerts in Australia will be the only performances I give for eight months. I decided to explore Australia during my sabbatical year, and it would have been a pity to come back and not do a few concerts.
That’s a long break! Won’t it be difficult to return to singing?
Of course, singing is my passion; it’s not only my job. But there is a lot of sacrifice and a lot of stress. That’s why I need this break, and I’m sure I will be very happy to sing again. But it’s true that when you are not allowed to do something, you want to do it. You want to have fun with friends, have parties, to smoke, to drink – why not? That’s what I’m doing now! [laughs]
Philippe Jaroussky sings with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra in Sydney and Melbourne, March 13–25.