Jakub Józef Orliński is the new countertenor name to add to an ever-growing roster of artists who are selling discs and selling out concert halls in this once rarefied area of the vocal arts.
Polish singer Orliński is 27 and Anima Sacra, his debut album, will be released by Erato on 26 October 2018. It contains eleven Neapolitan arias of which eight are world premiere recordings of works by Nicola Fago, Francesco Durante, Francesco Feo, Domenico Sarro and Domingo Terradellas.
A debut recording artist having such free rein in choosing unfamiliar material is unusual.
Eight world premieres to record out of 11 pieces. That is a lot. I am grateful that Warner Classics & Erato trusted me on this project and let me record so many unknown pieces of music.
My friend Yannis Francois, over the course of a year and few months, had found all of those pieces and edited them to our modern notation. He actually found more than 40 new pieces but from that we chose our favourites which would fit to the theme of Anima Sacra, so we ended up using eight world premiere pieces on that album.
It is all sacred music, but written already in a very operatic, virtuosic style. I have to say that there is nothing comparable to a feeling when you bring to life a piece of music with a full orchestra which was not performed for hundreds of years. It is absolutely incredible. I am glad that I had a chance to do that at such an early stage of my career.
Il Pomo d'Oro Orchestra plays on the album, conducted by Maxim Emelyanychev.
I felt so honoured when Il Pomo d'Oro agreed to record with me. It was more than a dream to work with those people. I was so happy that I got a chance to make music with such a great ensemble and to work with Maxim.
They have also played on discs by other well-known countertenors.
Not only have they played with most known countertenors but also other extraordinarily talented and accomplished singers. We had a lot of fun recording that album and during the concerts that we already have performed together in Europe. We get along very well and I think you can hear that during our performances. They are truly giving me such comfort with their brilliant playing that I really can do my best performing.
Do you listen to other countertenors?
I really like to listen to my colleagues because I am still fascinated by the development of my own countertenor voice and technique. Nowadays there are more and more of us but still almost everyone is so different and has something unique.
Baroque music video clips don't go viral. Cecilia Bartoli has several YouTube videos with over two million views, but they are clips uploaded several years ago. France Musique's video of Orliński performing Vedro con mio diletto from Vivaldi's opera Giustino notched up more than two million views in just a few months. He was at the Festival d'Aix in July 2017 to sing in Cavalli's Erismena, and the recording was made during the day in an open-air courtyard. Orliński in shorts and trainers, looks as though he's off on a hike, and his pianist, wearing flip-flops, looks ready for the beach.
The video in Aix-en-Provence was introduced to me as a radio programme, so when I asked about the dress code they told me that it's radio, so nobody will see me. That is why with my pianist we look very summery. I think, because of that it also brought a lot of attention. It was a very warm summer day, we were performing that Vivaldi piece of music with passion and tried to perform our best, but we looked casual as was the surrounding, so I think it worked perfectly for that situation.
I would not dress like that for a Wigmore Hall recital! Although I am already thinking of some ideas about how to break down some of the dress codes a little bit. I just think that if we want to bring some more interest into classical music it will be good to try to do it in many different ways, for example with more casual concerts or short videos like the one from Aix, or bringing some colour, fashion to recitals, concerts. It might bring a new public which I think we need.
Orliński came into contact with Early music at an early age, joining a choir called Gregorianum soon after starting elementary school.
Music was a big part of my life since childhood. My parents loved listening to different types of music at home and also while we were traveling. I think I got my love for music from that at first place.
I sang with the Gregorianum choir for over 11 years. We mainly sang renaissance pieces. I started as a boy alto but later on, after my voice changed, I had a short period of singing as a bass-baritone.
As we formed a new Men Vocal Ensemble Gregorianum I again started singing as an alto, back then I didn't even know that you can call that voice a countertenor. My passion for music and especially Early music was born because of that choir, all of the travels we did together and all the repertoire I have explored with them. I am sure that it had a great impact on me as a young boy but also has huge impact on my career.
But choosing to sing as a countertenor is a curious decision for a young singer.
I didn't have to be a countertenor. I had a choice, but I realised that with a countertenor voice I can really express what I want to say through music, that I can really communicate my feelings to other people with that part of my voice.
Singing as a countertenor was much more satisfying and I just really liked exploring more and more about the techniques of singing in that style. During my high school years I was learning how to draw and how to paint, but I was so terrible at it that I decided that I was just going to study by myself and then go to study music at university to be better in my vocal ensemble, and then maybe one day become one of The King's Singers — back then that was my absolutely favourite ensemble.
I got into the university and I fell in love with Baroque music and singing solo, so my plans got changed from that moment on.
Orliński studied at the Fryderyk Chopin Music University for five years completing Bachelor's and Master's degrees. His vocal teacher was Polish mezzo-soprano Anna Radziejewska.
She was not only a great teacher but also an incredibly good and supportive human being. Starting as a countertenor is not an easy thing to listen to. I was, as we say, ‘from the street' and I didn't have any musical training before university. I was just singing in an amateur choir. I had no idea about hundreds of techniques and musical aspects of singing that my friends had already known about for years, so I was starting from a very low point. Anna Radziejewska gave me support and the belief that I could everything if I just worked hard enough.
While finishing his degree he took part in the young artist program at the Opera Academy in Teatr Wielki-Opera Narodowa where he studied with Eytan Pessen who sent him to Philadelphia to audition for the Curtis Institute of Music.
I got to the final round but unfortunately, I didn't get in. Then he suggested Juilliard, so I went there.
Orliński first met Canadian soprano Edith Wiens in Germany at her young artists' program, International Maistersinger Akademi, and she is a professor of voice at the Juilliard School.
At IMA I worked a little bit with Edith and right away there was a very good connection between us and I knew that it will be a great idea to study with her. Fortunately, she agreed to teach me and we had lovely two years in Juilliard.
As Anna Radziejewska, Edith Wiens is not only a great teacher but she really cares for her students, she really wants the best for you, and will help you to achieve your goals. Edith gave me so much support during those difficult two years in USA, and I am so grateful for her involvement in my development.
Difficult? Orliński was born in Warsaw, Poland's capital and its largest city, but nothing prepared him for New York.
Yes, I have to say that I had extremely difficult time in New York when I was studying there. At first, I was extremely excited about everything but also incredibly scared. It is not just a different country, but a different continent. New York is so big, the buildings so high and people are running all the time from place to place. It was quite a shock at first.
Also, the language, I could communicate quite well when I arrived but I couldn't understand everything perfectly, so my brain was almost every day really tired and it took me a long time to get used to functioning in English 24/7.
The last part was just work. I knew why and what for I came to The Juilliard School for, so I wanted to get all the things out of it I could — all the knowledge and skills I could possibly get in those two years. So I was sitting in school almost every day from 8am till midnight. It was difficult, but I liked it, and I am really happy that it was like that, and that it wasn't easy. That's why I feel like I really worked for what is happening right now with my career.
What countertenors can achieve technically today is far beyond the capabilities of previous generations.
The countertenor technique, awareness of how that voice works is much more widespread. There are more and more teachers who know how to cope with a voice like that even in an early stage of education. That is a game changer. It is not anymore about exploring and trying to work things out in some sort of way. People know how they should teach countertenors, so the process is much better.
Having said that I think the whole countertenor field is stepping to a next level. We have much bigger range of different types of countertenors.
Why do you think it is that countertenors are increasingly popular? Is it about the sound? The repertoire?
There is something about that voice type which is really intriguing, mysterious and beautiful. I think almost all countertenors sound different, have something else to show, and as early music is getting more and more attention, people just want to listen to countertenors.
There is also a lot of new music being written for that type of voice because of its possibilities. Countertenors can sing high but also if needed they can use their natural register, so they can use tenor, baritone or even bass notes, which is something that contemporary composers like a lot.
While at Juilliard, Orliński took part in Jonathan Dove's opera Flight, a work originally commissioned by Glyndebourne.
I loved working on Flight. It was my first full contemporary opera and I truly loved the fact that we could talk with the composer. It is an incredible feeling to talk with a living composer. I cannot do that singing Handel or Bach. That is why I would love to sing some more contemporary music.
You have to be really careful with this kind of music because sometimes it is really not written in a vocal way and you can easily get in trouble if you use your voice in a wrong way. I perform some contemporary songs, but I haven't yet performed another full opera like Flight. I hope I will have a chance to work on something modern in the near future.
Now you're living life on the road, constantly travelling, and the tour connected with Anima Sacra will take you and Il Pomo d'Oro around France, Belgium, and the United States. You've already sung at Carnegie Hall but will make your recital concert debut there in January 2019.
I love it. This is basically why I became a singer. I absolutely love to travel, meet new people, new places, cultures, languages and food. It's all so exciting! I started traveling as a breakdancer doing some competitions here and there, mostly in Europe, but it gave me the taste which I loved.
I would love to speak more languages because there is nothing more satisfying than talking with people in their own language.
And of course, food. I love food. People think that I don't really eat much, but I eat a lot. As they say – food is always good.
I like to walk around in those places where I perform. I truly love that about traveling so much. You have friends almost everywhere, so you can meet up with them and enjoy all those places in a little bit less touristy way.
Lots of new friends then, but your family, your home?
I try to visit my family as often as possible! It is incredibly important to me to see them. It keeps me grounded and healthy.
Apart from the concert platform, Orliński has many opera commitments, dominated by Handel, including a Rinaldo at Glyndebourne next summer where he will again be working alongside Anima Sacra conductor, Maxim Emelyanychev.
That's true, I sing a lot of Handel. Mostly because those roles just really fit my voice. I did so many Handel arias, operas that I feel like I start to really understand his style, what makes me feel very comfortable in his compositions. I truly adore performing Handel, but I also really like performing pieces by other early music composers like Pergolesi, Hasse, Zelenka, Fago and Vivaldi. There is so much music and so many compositions that I would love to sing. I hope I will have time to sing as many of them as possible.
At this point in your career, you have moved rapidly from being a student to seeing your first album launched by one of the world's most prestigious record labels. There are those two million YouTube views, contracts with the greatest opera houses and concert halls. You can't have imagined this just a couple of years ago.
So many great things are happening, and I'm just along for the ride. I am very open minded, and I take things as they come. I had never even thought of singing in, for example, Carnegie Hall and now at this point I've sung there already three times. It is absolutely crazy! There are so many exciting things if it comes to places and people with whom I am working, and I have never thought I would be even close to them. I am constantly blown away with all of those things. Maybe that is why I am so happy all the time!
If it comes to dreams, there are quite a few things which might come true someday, but for now a realistic dream which I am looking forward to is recording an album with my friend's early music ensemble and to put on that album English baroque music which will have a little twist. I cannot say anything more, because I am still working on the whole project and it might still take two or three years till it actually happens.
Certainly Alfred Deller — the English countertenor central to the renaissance of early music in the mid-twentieth century — would not have had the following phrase in his biography:
Orliński is also a virtuoso in breakdancing, having earned fourth place at the Red Bull BC One Poland Cypher competition, second place on the Stylish Strike – Top Rock Contest and second place at The Style Control competition, among others.
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Deller wouldn't have even understood the paragraph — Red Bull? Breakdancing? Orliński is a man of his time, but also a man of curiosity with respect for the past. He's eager to communicate his passion for his centuries-old repertoire with his own generation as well as the ever-growing band of early music enthusiasts.
I mostly enjoy when I get to people, when I make them feel something or think about something else, if I am able to take them to some other place. It does not necessarily have to be my world but if I can take them somewhere else with my interpretations, then I am extremely happy and satisfied.
What do you feel when you are singing?
I enjoy that rare sensation of total freedom. The voice is such a difficult instrument that almost every day it feels different. But there are times when you feel absolute freedom and you feel like you can do with your voice whatever you want, and it costs nothing. Those are very nice moments in a singer's life.
So being in front of an audience is liberating?
I think I enjoy the most that feeling of connection with your fellow musicians and the public. It is incredible when you truly feel like everyone listens and waits for every single note, every single word to come out.
And then after the piece there is so much tension. Everyone is so in the moment and the atmosphere of the piece you have just sung that there is that dead silence… silence… For me, it is the most powerful and rewarding thing ever.
Jakub Józef Orliński's debut album Anima Sacra is released by Erato on 26 October 2018
1. Nicola Fago: Alla gente a Dio diletta – from Il Faraone sommerso
(world premiere recording)
2-8. Nicola Fago: Confitebor tibi Domine
(world premiere recording)
2. Confitebor tibi Domine
3. Memoriam fecit mirabilium suorum
4. Fidelia omnia mandata ejus
5. Sanctus et terribile
6. Initium sapentiae timor Domini
7. Intellectus bonus omnibus – Gloria
8. Sicut erat in principio – Amen
9-11. Johann David Heinichen: Alma Redemptoris Mater
9. Aria: Alma Redemptoris Mater
10. Accompagnato: Tu quae genuisti
11. Aria: Gabrielis ab ore
12. Domènec Terradellas: Donec ponam – Aria for contralto from Dixit Dominus
(world premiere recording)
13-16. Nicola Fago: Tam non splendet sol creatus
(world premiere recording)
13. Aria: Tam non splendet sol creatus
14. Recitativo: O nox clara?
15. Aria: Dum infans iam dormit
17. Domenico Sarro: Laudamus te – Aria for contralto from Messa a 5 voci in Fa maggiore
(world premiere recording)
18. Francesco Feo: Juste Judex ultionis – from Dies Irae in G
(world premiere recording)
19-20. Jan Dismas Zelenka: Smanie di dolci affetti…S'una sol lagrima from Gesù al Calvario – ZWV 62
19. Accompagnato: Smanie di dolci affetti…
20. Aria: S'una sol lagrima
21. Johann Adolf Hasse: Mea tormenta, properate! – from Sanctus Petrus et Sancta Maria Magdalena
22. Gaetano Maria Schiassi: L'agnelletta timidetta – from Maria vergine al Calvario
(world premiere recording)
23. Francesco Durante: Domine Fili Unigenite – Aria for contralto from Messa a 5 voci
(world premiere recording)
Jakub Józef Orliński, countertenor
Il pomo d'oro
Maxim Emelyanychev, conductor
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.
Thank you for an interesting interview! Such an amazing voice. Will begin to follow his career.