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Countertenor of the Times

SYLVIA L’ÉCUYER speaks with Philippe Jaroussky, who has become that rarest of all operatic phenomena — a superstar countertenor.

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In Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, with Jennifer Larmore (Alcina), 2011
© Alvaro Yañez 2014
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Photographed by Ken & Carl Fischer in New York
Grooming by Affan Malik / Shirt by Hermès
© Ken & Carl Fischer 2014
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As Anfione in Agostino Steffani’s Niobe at Boston Early Music Festival, 2011
© André Costantini 2014

Philippe Jaroussky was studying violin and piano at the Conservatory in Versailles when, at the age of eighteen, he first heard the voice of Martinique-born sopranist Fabrice di Falco. It was an experience that altered the course of Jaroussky's life. Nearly a decade later, after studies with di Falco's teacher Nicole Fallien, he made his North American debut as a countertenor in Vancouver, in August 2004. Practically unknown on this side of the Atlantic, he had been declared "Révélation Lyrique de l'Année" just a few months earlier in France, and since then he has gone on to achieve superstar status in his native country. Fine musicianship and spectacular virtuosity alone cannot account for such a stellar trajectory. Jaroussky has developed his natural baritone voice into a superbly flexible and elegant instrument, with a purity of tone and a lush palette of colors that sopranos might well envy.

In recent months, he has been touring Asia. Next month, he teams up with Christina Pluhar and her period-instrument band L'Arpeggiata in a program around Purcell involving jazz and improvisation, in connection with his CD Music for a While. In September, he will perform in South America.

OPERA NEWS: You are a media sensation in France, constantly being invited to appear on French television variety shows. How do you explain this unusual turn of events?

PHILIPPE JAROUSSKY: I am surprised myself. It is quite unusual for a countertenor, and an incredible opportunity. People who have no particular interest in classical music are watching these programs. I do keep in mind, though, that it might not last forever. People's affections are famously volatile. I am generally invited to promote a new CD or a concert, and I generally accept, because if we complain about how little classical music there is on TV while refusing invitations to appear ourselves, the situation is not going to improve. These programs reach up to four million viewers, and if I can influence fifty of those to take the next step and listen to a classical-music program on the radio, or on the internet, or buy a CD, then I think it is worthwhile. But I have to fight for my choice of repertoire. I am often asked, for example, to sing Purcell's "Cold Song," which for the general public has come to epitomize the art of the countertenor since Klaus Nomi's 1981 recording. 

ON: Your repertoire is centered largely on eighteenth-century castrato arias. Last year your Farinelli CD on the resurrected Erato label was a huge success. Why do you think people today are fascinated by the art of the castrato?

PJ: That is a very complex question, and there is no simple answer to it. A morbid fascination, perhaps? Look at the cover of Cecilia Bartoli's Sacrificium CD and the accompanying liner notes that describe the trauma of castration. We are reminded that these children were deprived of their physical integrity for the sake of art, for music — which nowadays seems completely absurd, shocking and obviously unthinkable. On the other hand, we could imagine training "natural" castrati, adolescents experiencing hormonal problems at the age of eighteen or twenty, but this is worlds away from the life of the historical castrati who, from a very young age, trained eight to ten hours a day. By the time they started their professional careers at seventeen or eighteen, these "singing machines" had ten years of training behind them. With their large chests and huge breathing capacity, there was something unearthly, something superhuman about them. Since it is impossible today to really recreate the art of the castrato, it is up to women, and to us countertenors, to bring back their repertoire.

Coming back to the Farinelli CD, I have to confess — this is "faux Farinelli," an attention-grabbing pretext to present the music of the great composer and teacher Nicola Porpora, who wrote all the arias on the CD for his most gifted student. Farinelli was presumably a child when he first met Porpora, and I became interested in their master–pupil relationship. I wanted to do justice to this school of singing, and to demonstrate the incredible technical challenges that the castrati overcame. 

ON: Isn't there also a fascination with breathtaking virtuosity, with performances that push the limits of the human body, as we witness in athletics or extreme sports? 

PJ: Oh yes! When you hear pyrotechnical vocal display in concert, it is the same as hearing a violinist playing the Tchaikovsky concerto or a pianist the Rachmaninoff Third. Of course you are there for the beautiful music, but also to see if the soloist will make it to the end! [Laughs.] You applaud a superhuman physical achievement. That is what virtuosity is all about. When an artist delivers a virtuoso performance, he generates an incredible amount of energy, which gets communicated to the audience. 

For the last ten years, my career has centered on pyrotechnics. In the next few years, though, I want to concentrate on more "spiritual" music, less on the virtuoso castrato repertoire, which I can never really abandon, because it is the bread and butter of a countertenor's career. In order to sing these virtuoso solo recitals, you have to train yourself to deliver ten or eleven big arias a night, something the castrati rarely did. And the voice changes. I am not twenty-five any more, I am thirty-six, and what I long for — is it wisdom, or laziness? — is less spectacle and more musical depth. 

Last November, I launched a new recording of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, and in future I plan to tackle the Handel oratorios and music by Purcell, Dowland and Bach. I have no intention, though, of dramatically reducing my duo recitals, like the ones I have done with Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Nathalie Stutzmann, Nuria Rial or Andreas Scholl. Those performances allow more variety, more dramatic dialogue — for the public as well as for the performers.

As for the ritual of touring, I now limit myself to a series of seven or eight concerts, followed by a week off. When you have a demanding program, and you are moving from one city to the next every other day, all you do is sleep, avoid talking, order room service, save energy and then give all you can for two hours. Well, after ten or twelve days of that, I start to feel less alive. Maybe I am coming to an age where youthful recklessness must give way to periods of healing. In order to give, I have to be able to replenish.

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In Madrid, as Nerone in Monteverdi's Incoronazione di Poppea, in 2010
© Javier del Real 2014

ON: Is that why you took a sabbatical from January to September 2013? On your return, you declared that you would dedicate more time to opera and less to recitals.

PJ: Yes, but even with opera I am still prudent. I will never take on more than two productions a year. I also have to accept that my voice is neither the highest soprano nor a very deep contralto and therefore not easy to cast. I prefer to remain in the medium range and select roles that fit the color of my voice. I am currently planning two major Handel operas. It took me a while to tackle his music, because I had a very light and very flexible voice at the beginning of my career, better suited to Vivaldi. Handel's orchestral writing is heavier, and only now do I feel I am ready for it.  

ON: Do you initiate these projects, such as the Handel operas, or are they proposed to you?

PJ: Both. I have reached a point where I can initiate an opera project in order to sing a particular role. However, I have to accept that I will likely never perform the role of my dreams, Handel's Ariodante. Singing "Dopo notte" after "Scherza infida" is more than I can manage onstage. I did include these in a Farinelli recital program in February for a U.S. tour, but Ariodante will remain a major disappointment in my life. 

I have also just realized that I like to work with the same people over and over again, and I believe I have reached a certain balance in my artistic life because of this. It is always reassuring to know the person you are working with.

ON: What about the French art song? Your Opium CD from 2009 with pianist Jérôme Ducros generated as many enthusiastic reactions as negative ones. Will you come back to this repertoire?

PJ: Absolutely. I was blamed for singing music that was not written for a countertenor, to which I reply, "The castrato repertoire was not written for a countertenor, either." Why would my voice not be fit to express the sensibility of these poems? My voice teacher trained me to sing not only Baroque music but also Fauré and Debussy, and it is extremely important to me to sing in French. I strongly believe that an artist has to trust his instincts, and mine lead me to French poetry. My voice is not fiery but rather pastel in color. Opera is exhausting, because you are expressing extreme passions — jealousy, murder and intense despair. French art song is different. It lets you access a dreamlike state, find more delicate inflections, a softer color palette in your voice. So I am doing another CD, to be launched in spring 2015, not only with piano this time but a small ensemble as well.

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As Sesto in the Leiser and Caurier staging of Giulio Cesare in Egitto at Salzburg, 2012, with Ruben Drole (Achilla)
© Hans Jörg Michel 2014

ON: Opera houses are having difficulties in many countries. What is the situation in France?

PJ: Maybe I am not the best person to ask, because in France I mostly sing to full houses. What is clear, however, is that the repertoire has greatly expanded, particularly the Baroque repertoire. A few years ago, all that was staged was the three Monteverdi operas, four Handel and a couple of Rameau. We still need to explore Vivaldi's catalogue. But the big picture is encouraging. The Paris theaters — Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the Palais Garnier, the Bastille Opera, the Opéra Comique — are staging ever more diverse productions, including musicals, which are very successful at the Châtelet.

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Photographed by Ken & Carl Fischer in New York
Grooming by Affan Malik / lambskin shirt and alligator
bracelet by Hermès
© Ken & Carl Fischer 2014

ON: What about the recording industry?

PJ: I can't deny there is a real crisis, but YouTube is not all evil. It gave a big boost to my career, especially internationally. Wherever you are, if you search the Web for Vivaldi, you are bound to find one of my videos. People might buy fewer CDs, but I think they continue to go to concerts to experience live performances of their favorite artists. There is no need to be totally pessimistic about live performances. Without the internet, I never would have received as many invitations to sing all over the world. Even my first visit to Vancouver I owe to the Web.

ON: Isn't there a down side to this, though? 

PJ: Yes. When I post concert dates, I immediately receive messages — "What about Lille?" "When are you coming to Mexico?" The internet is a big place, and it is easy to get lost in the crowd. When I started twelve or fifteen years ago, there were not many high countertenor voices. If I were twenty-two or twenty-three years old today, it would be challenging for me to compete with the smart young singers who start out now with good musical knowledge and stage presence and are able to write their own ornaments. People say there used to be better singers in the old days. There are now more young countertenors than ever, singers who have an inquiring mind, have mastered many languages and can also sing Johann Strauss and contemporary music. See? I am trying to be an optimist!

SYLVIA L'ÉCUYER is a musicologist and broadcaster, host and producer of Radio-Canada's Espace.mu/placealopera. 

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Current Issue: November 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 5