Countertenors are a decidedly acquired taste — men who are trained to sing in the manner of women, or more accurately, in the style of the castrati, those singers hundreds of years ago who were castrated at a young age to preserve their boyish voices.
In this rarefied (even for opera) domain, French singer Philippe Jaroussky stands as the hottest young thing. Charismatic, dashing and still youthful at 35, he has entranced European audiences with his otherworldly pitch and vocal dexterity, while also amassing a sizable online following.
Jaroussky will embark on his second U.S. tour in 2014, with a stop at Walt Disney Concert Hall scheduled for Feb. 5. The program will feature arias by the 18th century composer Nicola Porpora, performed with the Venice Baroque Orchestra.
The concert will mark just the second time Jaroussky has performed in Los Angeles, the first being a 2011 concert at Royce Hall with the Baroque ensemble Apollo’s Fire.
Speaking recently by phone from Paris, Jaroussky discussed his career and his fascination with Farinelli, the celebrated 18th century castrato, who collaborated closely with Porpora. Here are excerpts from the conversation, which was conducted in French.
At what age did you start studying voice?
I was a violinist by training, with some piano. I began my singing career at 18 and I began right away as a countertenor. I don’t remember my first vocal lesson, but I’m told that after an hour my professor said I had a small voice and that it wasn’t certain that I could become a countertenor. I apparently replied, “Believe me, I will become a countertenor.” So I think I had an idea in my head of how my voice would develop.
Did you come from a musical family?
Not at all. I don’t know how it is in the U.S., but in France, we had one hour of music per week in school. We had a fantastic teacher, so I have to thank the school, which allowed me to find my passion. And my voice.
Are countertenors from Europe different from those in the U.S.?
I find that American countertenor training is more focused on the operatic — singers like David Daniels and Bejun Mehta, you see them more on operatic stages than in a concert setting. But these days, there are so many different countertenor sounds.... It may seem like a joke to say this, but why can’t a countertenor sing the role of the Queen of the Night [from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”]?
What’s it like performing in the U.S. after spending most of your career in Europe?
The U.S. is practically virgin territory for me. I’ve done relatively little there.... There used to be a disparity between the Europe and the U.S. [in terms of Baroque performances], but now there are more and more excellent groups in North America. And now more major opera houses in the U.S. that are programming Handel and other Baroque works.
Can you talk about your fascination with Farinelli?
When I was younger, I didn’t want to do a disc on Farinelli. It was shortly after the movie [the 1994 Oscar-nominated Belgian film “Farinelli”] came out and there was a Farinelli craze in Europe.... But a few years ago, I began to sing some arias that Porpora had written for him, and I felt more comfortable than I thought I would have. It’s music that corresponds closely to my own voice.