Philippe Jaroussky And The Impossibly High Male Voice : Deceptive Cadence The French opera singer takes on the repertoire of a famous 18th-century castrato. Jaroussky cuts a masculine figure on the cover of his new album, but you might do a double take upon hearing it.

Philippe Jaroussky And The Impossibly High Male Voice

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


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. (Laughter)

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.


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 scrolls at home, 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 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 the 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.

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.


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."


JAROUSSKY: A lot of people are touched 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 note 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.


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 Opheil (ph) I think this music is very touching and very simple. And finally, you know, the CD is ending with these last words sono infelice, which means, of course, I'm unhappy. And then it's finished.


RATH: Philippe, thank you so much.

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


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


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.

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