How the countertenor, who started out as an actor, found his voice singing baroque opera’s shadier characters.

The Catalan countertenor Xavier Sabata is coming to Australia for the first time this year to perform an exclusive recital at Hobart Baroque. The concert will feature music from his acclaimed ‘Bad Guys’ CD in a program that takes a look at what it means to be a baroque rotter. In a whirlwind tour of operatic devilry, Sabata explores the complex psychology and often deceptively beautiful music of some of Handel’s most dastardly villains.

The project came about when he received an invitation to sing at the Handel Festival at the Halle. Tired of the good guys always getting the spotlight, Sabata wanted to explore the darker side of Handel’s operas: “Sometimes in the operas, everything is focused on the hero, but the hero couldn't exist if there was no bad guy or antagonist”, he says with undeniable logic. “So I started to make a list of all the bad guys in Handel and I thought ‘Oh my god, I could sing all these roles’”.

In full 'Bad Guy' mode

The recital turned into a CD project with Parnassus Arts: “Everybody from the label was interested so it just happened”, he says. “It was reality. And it really made me happy that it worked so well and was so well reviewed and received. It's nice. For me it was also a declaration of intention – of the way that I like to work. It’s the way that I like to see classical music as well. Sometimes we need a view that is a little more fresh or new.”

Choosing which villains to sing meant looking closely at the characters and at the music: “I made a list of all the arias, and then I chose the ones I liked the most, from the theatrical point of view and also the musical point of view. Then I tried to pick a combination that was somehow balanced between coloratura, dramatic and lento arias – to try to find a spectrum of bad guys.”

There are six villains on the CD, though Sabata singles out two favourites: “Tamerlano, I really think is an amazing character”, he says. “And then Polinesso [in Ariodante]. I think that he’s very clumsy and somehow that makes him very human. I like that very much.”

The Catalan countertenor came to singing relatively late. He started out as an actor, in fact, training at Barcelona’s Theatrical Institute, and had studied saxophone at the Barcelona Conservatory. He was 25 when he realised he wanted to try something new: “I discovered all these Baroque operas and also countertenors”, he says.

He eventually discovered his voice could manage a countertenor’s register: “I used to sing as a baritone, but not professionally. But always, my voice had, let’s say, a lyric quality. I couldn’t really reach the high notes – the muscles didn’t want to go in that direction – so I just decided to follow nature and see what that would bring. My teacher helped me discover my range really, because I’m quite low for a counter-tenor. The whole process was very organic – if I can get this voice, there’s nothing forced.”

In Handel's Faramondo

He admits that performing has always been something he wanted to do: “I quit acting and went back to the high school of music,” he says. “Then I went to Germany to study but everything has been linked to these performer activities. I was always trying to find which was the right discipline for me as an artist, and opera and singing feels really, really right.”

Early on he had a fantastic opportunity and experience working with William Christie, director of the famous baroque ensemble Les Arts Florissants: “I applied for the Young Academie of Les Arts Florissants in France. For me, everything started there. It was 2004 or 2005 and Bill took me and said ‘I want to work with you and help you’.”

“It’s extremely demanding, knowing the rhetoric of the times and getting the knowledge of that music in a really deep sense. But Bill also wants you to find who you are as an artist”, he says. “He wants your energy, your unique energy. He pushes you to really go far.”

Sabata’s first role under Christie was the elderly Nutrice (nurse), in Monteverdi’s masterpiece, L’incoronazione di Poppea. Since then he has performed several other female or comic roles, but he is interested in playing a range of characters: “I have to say that I enjoy doing the comic and grotesque roles,” he says, “but as well I enjoy playing heroes. To really try to find that depth in a hero role or a really masculine role – or bad guys for example. I really try to develop all of the complexity in every role that I have to become on stage. Me as a performer, I enjoy all of them and I love all of them.”

That background as an actor comes in handy here: “Maybe because I come from the theatre, I find myself focussing my attention on darker places – no not dark places, let’s say unfocused places”, he says. No wonder he is interested in the villains of the Baroque.

In Handel's Rinaldo

Sabata’s voice has a particularly strong and beautiful lower register, which is not always the case for countertenors: “I have colleagues who have problems developing the lower register because it doesn’t come easy for them, it doesn’t come smoothly”, he says. “In my case it came smoothly but then I had to work for the high register.”

This kind of voice lends itself to some meaty roles: “There’s all those Monteverdi roles like Ottone in Poppea, or roles like Endimione in Cavalli’s La Calisto. Some singers find it difficult because for them it’s very low. And then of course there are all the hero roles that Handel wrote for the castrato Senesino ­– this is my range.” That lower voice seems particularly suited to Handel’s villains: “I’m sure that a low register helped him to express what he wanted”, he says.

Sabata’s most recent recording project, ‘I Dilettanti’, seeks to unearth some hidden gems from early music history: “It is a tribute to all these amateur composers from the Venice of the 18th century”, he says. “It has a focus on misplaced people. People that are not supposed to be musicians, but they really wanted to be musicians. They often came from very rich families, so they could afford to have musical studies. The quality of all their music was amazing.”

The project has turned up some interesting musical finds: “It is a collection of unknown and rare composers”, he says. “We have a monk, a guy from the aristocracy, a lawyer. I think that it is going to be a very special CD.”

In conversation Sabata reveals a passion allied to a genuine warmth and a great sense of fun. Beneath the tough guy exterior, this sense of whimsy can be found on his ‘Bad Guys’ disc, with a secret hidden aria – Gofredo’s romantic aria from Rinaldo is tucked away half way though the silence at the end of the final track. “It’s the idea that even though I play bad guys, there’s a heart hidden within the recital”, he says. “I remember the pop CDs when I was young, where if you wait until after the last track – two or three minutes – there is another song. I wanted to make the same effect on a classical music album. For me it’s a good night kiss, or something like this. It’s a way to express part of me and what I am.”

Hobart Baroque is from March 28 – April 5. You can hear Xavier Sabata perform on Saturday March 29 at Federation Concert Hall.

Andrew Aronowicz is the 2013 AYO Music Presentation Fellow.