Deceptive Cadence
4:12 pm
Sun March 2, 2014

Philippe Jaroussky And The Impossibly High Male Voice

Originally published on Sun March 2, 2014 6:09 pm

Philippe Jaroussky cuts a masculine figure on the cover of his new album, Farinelli: Porpora Arias, but you might do a double take upon hearing the music. The arias the French opera singer performs on this release were written in the 18th century for a castrato — a boy singer castrated to retain his high singing voice through adulthood.

Jaroussky is still intact, as they say. He's a countertenor who achieves that high pitch through vocal technique — singing in a 'head voice,' the way the way a female soprano would, rather than in his speaking register. It's the reason, he says, that he'll never sound exactly like a real castrato.

"They were sounding more brilliant than us because they are bigger. They have enormous chests, with very small vocal cords," Jaroussky explains in an interview with NPR's Arun Rath. "That was probably pretty impressive to hear. And we know that they could keep a sound for one, two minutes, without breathing at all. You can imagine, the impact on the audience was probably amazing."

Jaroussky took a particular interest the music Neapolitan composer Nicola Porpora wrote for the castrato Farinelli, perhaps Porpora's most famous pupil. Audible in the work, Jaroussky says, is a mutual understanding between teacher and student that singing is about more than just biology.

"It wasn't enough to make the operation on a child. They were training, practicing, for many, many years. They were practicing for eight hours, 10 hours a day," he says. "What I liked with this Porpora music, particularly, is it wasn't based about virtuosity. I think he's respecting Farinelli more like a musician, and not only a vocal monster."

Jaroussky says the point of taking on this repetoire was never to emulate Farinelli — though at least one critic has needled him for not sounding enough like the master.

"I don't want to say that I'm singing like Farinelli. That would be very pretentious," Jaroussky says. "But I think the people, they need to hear this music! When I was a student I practiced a lot, all these technical points. But now, what matters for me is really to sing for the audience in front of me. And the audience in front of me is a modern one."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: This is the voice of a man named Philippe Jaroussky. That's right. This is a man. He's a French opera singer, and this is an album of arias written in the 18th century for a castrato. In case you haven't heard of the practice, back in the day, boy singers were sometimes castrated to retain that high-singing voice through adulthood.

PHILIPPE JAROUSSKY: I'm not a castrato. I'm a countertenor. But I'm singing high, we can say.

RATH: Philippe Jaroussky is still intact, as they say. He's a countertenor. He achieves that high pitch through vocal technique. Think falsetto on steroids. And because of that, he explained to me he will never sound exactly like a real castrato.

JAROUSSKY: They were sounding more brilliant than us because they were bigger. They have enormous chests. And...

RATH: Bigger rib cages, right? They could breathe more.

JAROUSSKY: Yes, and with very small vocal cords. That was probably pretty impressive to hear. And we know that they could keep a sound for one, two minutes, without breathing at all. And you can imagine the impact on the audience was probably amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAROUSSKY: I'm not singing with my speaking voice. I'm singing with my head voice, like a soprano, a woman would do the same, actually. To sing this castrato repertoire now, we have two options. We can use a female singer, of course, and we can also use a countertenor.

RATH: Let's talk about this music on this album, which is all of these songs are associated with maybe the most famous castrato.

JAROUSSKY: Yes, Farinelli. We know that Farinelli was one of the most incredible virtuoso singer of the entire history of music. When I started to sing, I really didn't want to make a project about this castrato, particularly Farinelli because I wanted to take distance with that. And of course I had a lot of (unintelligible) and I wasn't so convinced by the music.

And when I started to sing music from Nicola Porpora composed for Farinelli - and Nicola Porpora was this Neapolitan composer who was a teacher - I really felt when I started to sing these arias, all the love that Porpora had for his most famous student.

What convinced me to make a project to explain that finally this castrato voice, you know, it wasn't enough to make the operation on a child. They were training, practicing, for many, many years. And they were practicing for eight hours, 10 hours by day. They were arriving on stage at the age of most of them 15, 16 years old.

PHILLIPPE JAROUSSKY: But what I liked with this Porpora music particularly is that music wasn't based about virtuosity. I think he's respecting more Farinelli like a musician and not only a vocal monster, you know? And that's why I was convinced to make a Farinelli project finally.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAROUSSKY: You know, of course, you have good critics and bad critics. And I received a bad one about the CD. And the title was that I wasn't Farinelli. And of course, I'm not. I don't want to say that I'm singing like Farinelli. That would be very pretentious. But I think the people, they need to hear this music.

JAROUSSKY: And, you know, when I was a student, I practiced a lot, all these technical points. But now, what matters for me is really to sing for the audience in front of me. And the audience in front of me is a modern one.

RATH: Of all the arias on here, what's the one that you feel touches the audience?

JAROUSSKY: There is one that's probably the best, best aria that Porpora composed probably for a singer in his entire life. And for me it sounds like a farewell of Porpora for Farinelli. It's "Alto Giove" by "Polifemo."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ALTO GIOVE")

JAROUSSKY: A lot of people (unintelligible) when I'm starting with this note - the single note you have to keep. We know that the castrati, they were able to keep a note very long, to start very sweet, very pianissimo to make a huge crescendo and after, go down. They could take not for maybe probably - for sure more than one minute but probably finally could - even two minutes and try to keep a note just 20 seconds. It's already something.

And I explain to the people that - when they say that it's impressive what I do in this note, I say, imagine that castrato was keeping this note three times longer than me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ALTO GIOVE")

RATH: What is your favorite aria from this album?

JAROUSSKY: The favorite aria, there is one I like very much because it's a small tiny thing. This is the last track of the CD. Most of the time, you finish a CD with fireworks. And for this album, I didn't want. I really choose this very small cavatina from (unintelligible). I think this music is very touching and very simple. And finally, you know, the CD is ending with these last words (foreign language spoken) which means, of course, I'm unhappy. And then it's finished.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Philippe, thank you so much.

JAROUSSKY: That was my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Philippe Jaroussky is a countertenor. He's on tour right now promoting his new album "Porpora Arias" written for the Castrato Farinelli.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. You can follow us on Twitter: @nprwatc. We're back again next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.