Interview : Countertenor Philippe Jaroussky
Informal translation of article in “Volkskrant”, 17 February 2012 by Biëlla Lutmer. For personal use only
"It is no surprise that this music is so popular right now. There are a lot of similarities with the music of this period. The pieces were written very quickly and also consumed quickly. As a composer you had no idea that your opera's would survive for centuries. Vivaldi and Händel wanted to please their public. All their notes point in that direction". By Philippe JarousskyA high note
He is a maverick in the world of countertenors; Philippe Jaroussky sings works that you do not expect with such a voice. From Latin-American Folk Music to French Melodies.
Countertenor Philippe Jaroussky is a maverick in the classical music business.
While most of his colleagues safely stick to the repertoire that is meant for castrate voices, he goes a long way beyond that. In the stately Paris Salle Gaveau he sings together with the Baroque Ensemble L’Arpeggiata, supplemented by folk singers and a fiery dancer, a crossing between Baroque and Latin-American Folk music.
The audience yells and stomps. Sunday afternoon in the Concertgebouw he will go back to the Baroque repertoire for countertenors that we are used to.
“Never thought that I would sing Besame Mucho in a concert hall” says Philippe Jaroussky the morning after his performance. In the glass office room of record company Virgin Classics his voice sounds melodious, but the high sound of a countertenor is completely absent.
“Seduce non classical listeners? No, it is not about that. Latin-American music feels like fresh air. I love to sing these songs in my own way, simple, close to the text. In opera or during a concert I sing without a microphone. Here, thanks to the microphone, I can concentrate on the taste of each word.”
He often does things you do not expect from this kind of voice. Singing 19th century French melodies for instance, songs that have been written for a male voice that sounds like a man’s voice. Or new music from Marc-André Dalbavie. Or the “Pie Jesu” from Fauré’s Requiem, which is usually sung by a female voice or a boy soprano.
Purists don’t like it at all, a countertenor who considers the whole of musical history his domain, even when it is not ‘historically correct’. Jaroussky shrugs his shoulders at this criticism. “I think that I can try different repertoire now and then, simply because I like it.”.
Critical sounds or not, Jaroussky’s name guarantees a full house and sold out counters in CD stores. If you type his name in YouTube you can see that he scores more hits with a Vivaldi aria than Madonna with “Material Girl”. No doubt his looks help – a combination of strong masculinity and a vulnerable look in his eyes – and of course the intriguing contradiction of his appearance and his unreally high voice.
In order to keep is voice healthy he consults his teacher who prepared him for his singing career every week. Even if he is far from home, he sings tor her, if necessary by phone. If there is a problem, she immediately hears where and gives him some advice to get back on track. His secret: “I want to sing without straining my voice in any way. To show fragility, nakedness. If you listen to somebody sing with a good voice, very cultivated and carefully developed, it can give you an incredible esthetic experience. But if you want to go deeper and touch deeper emotional layers, you must show your vulnerability as a singer. That is real art for me. Especially in opera, I find that very difficult.
“Conductors and especially directors in the world of opera want to see passion. During a concert, when only the music counts, it is not a problem. In an opera, acting is added. It remains difficult for me to make a distinction between what I do with my voice and what I do with my body. In an opera these could be very different things. If I stab my rival to death in rage, this tension should not show in my voice.”
In spite of all his reserves, Philippe Jaroussky will perform the role of Sesto in “Giulio Cesare”, Händel’s opera, together with Cecilia Bartoli, Anne Sofie van Otter and Andreas Scholl. Bartoli personally invited him for her first performance as artistic leader of the Osterfestspiele in Salzburg. “Opera is a world in itself. You have to trust the director completely. Even if he asks you to feign that you have sex or are beaten, you should not thing too much about it, but you should just physically do what he wants from you. For me this is a time-consuming process. It takes me weeks to feel at ease in a role, including that of Sesto. I find it doggedly difficult. But opera is becoming increasingly important for me, because it gives me a completely new palette of experiences.”
It was an opera aria that put Jaroussky on the trail of singing. At home in Maisons-Lafitte, a small city north-west of Paris, his parents and 10 year older brother did not have a particular interest in music, but now and then his mother would put on a Maria Callas recording. Casta diva, from Bellini’s opera Norma would sound through the rooms. Little Philippe would sing along and easily hit the high soprano notes. Later, when he took violin lessons, he found that he could repeat the violin melodies effortlessly with his voice. He took singing lessons and two years after he obtained his violin diploma, he set of on his singing career. At age 20, he had is debut abroad. He has seen the whole world since.
The good thing is that you feel at home in a lot of places. You get friends in Amsterdam, Berlin, London, but now, after ten years of travelling from one place to the other, it gets to you. I am confronted more and more with the unpleasant side of this way of life. Especially during a recital tour I live in a cocoon, without any contact with the real world. It is really quite insane. I have to totally concentrate on my voice. I am in my hotel room, get a meal from room service, I sleep, get up, go to a rehearsal, give a concert, get into a plane the next day and then it begins all over again. Crazy.
It is partly due to the formula of concert recitals: a modern form of concert in which you sing twelve or thirteen highlights from opera’s, or as many songs. They did not do this in the Baroque period. The castrates of the day almost only sang in operas with five or six aria’s in one evening. “With the Freiburger Barock orchestra I recently did eight concerts in two weeks. You are totally preoccupied by your voice: drinking, sleeping, travelling, eating, taking care not to strain your voice. You cannot do this any longer than two weeks. I should really not do more than five or six concerts in a row and then stop for at least a week. The physical aspect, the exhaustion, is part of the job. You must be able to deal with it. That is what people come to the concert hall for, not just for art or in order to be moved.
They want to see a singer with some guts, who goes to the extremes of what he can. This exciting side of performing is something that I like.
But yet increasingly his thoughts wander off. What would daily life look like? How does it feel to travel as an anonymous tourist? To meet people who don’t know that you are a famous singer? Jaroussky has decided to change course rigorously next year. He wants to take a step aside from performing and he will take eight months off; thinking, resting and above all; meet people. I now feel that some people want to be my friend for the wrong reasons. I find this troublesome. In those eight months I want to lead a normal, basic life. I am not my voice. There are other things to occupy oneself with. It is confusing; after you have sung, you get a lot of positive energy from the public. At that moment you think that it is enough to keep you going, but you need more, also in order to be able to give something back to the audience further down your career. Maybe, hopefully, I will discover new things that really matter.
Translated by my husband who attends all PJ concert with me.[You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]