James Laing (Medoro) and Claire Booth (Angelica) in <i>Orlando</i> © Early Opera Company
James Laing (Medoro) and Claire Booth (Angelica) in Orlando
© Early Opera Company
October is Baroque Month here at Bachtrack. Recent years have seen the unstoppable rise of the countertenor – they're everywhere! We thought it was about time we caught up with some of today's leading countertenors to find out more. We spoke with James Laing, fresh from his triumph in this summer's Flight at Opera Holland Park

How do you explain the explosion in popularity of countertenors?

I think the countertenor revolution has had a few key components; the strong grounding of what the voice is through singers like Alfred Deller, Michael Chance, and especially James Bowman with his stage work showing that the voice wasn't just a thing born from the English choral tradition, but a truly dramatic instrument; the decision by opera companies to produce more Baroque repertoire giving more opportunity for casting countertenors, which in turn promoted a need for new voices. Subsequently, composers are now regularly writing roles specifically for the voice so new works are being created all the time. 

Which is your favourite opera role and why?

Ooooh, favourite roles... this is a difficult choice. I have to say that The Refugee in Jonathan Dove's Flight is probably my favourite. Although I didn't know Jonathan when he wrote the part – I now know him very well having performed pretty much his whole countertenor rep (except Hojoki which I would love to do) – it feels like my voice sits perfectly into what he envisions when he thinks of a countertenor. The opera itself is a wonderful ensemble piece and the Refugee sits at the heart of it, guiding the other characters to their new beginnings. It is only at the end of the opera that we discover why the refugee is stuck in the airport and his story is incredibly moving, and also pertinent with the recent events involving the refugees from Syria and beyond. Our penultimate performance at Opera Holland Park over the summer was particularly moving as that day the news covered a story of two men who had fallen from the undercarriage of a plane over Richmond... a not uncommon case of what The Refugee had gone through himself. 

When did you discover your countertenor voice?

I discovered my voice when I was 17, singing in my school choir at Uppingham. There was already a countertenor in the choir so I knew what the voice was, and when it seemed like a whole group of the trebles voices broke we all got squished onto the bass row of the stalls. Being rather fickle, I looked around and noticed there was a nice space amongst the ladies on the alto row. Squashed with the boys or sitting with the girls? Tough choice indeed! 

What is your approach to da capo ornamentation? Is there a balance to be found between florid fireworks and good taste?!

Ornamentation is an interesting one, and likely something singers all approach differently. I'm of the opinion that the best ornamentation comes organically from the action on stage and so is something I develop as I create a role. Although I may have a few ideas before rehearsals, I don't like to fix anything until I know what moves I'll be making at any particular point. Some conductors have their own opinions (ornaments should never go beyond the range of the notes written in the aria for example) and I've done a few shows where the conductor has pre-written ornaments for the singers. This is fine in principle, and can be great for out of the box ideas, but often these don't actually fit the strengths of the particular singer.

James Laing (Nerillo) in the ROH's L'Ormindo © Stephen Cummiskey | ROH
James Laing (Nerillo) in the ROH's L'Ormindo
© Stephen Cummiskey | ROH

What’s the strangest thing you’ve been asked to do on an operatic stage?

I've indeed had to do some strange things but likely rather tame compared to some. The majority of my work has been in the UK and, not that we're conservative over here, we're not Germany where if there isn't something 'naughty' or provocative going on, there's no point doing it. Personally though, alongside playing foxes, angels, fairies, wild boar, lovers, emporers, painters, and psychopaths, my first job out of college was probably the strangest. I was playing the role of Amor in Gluck's Telemaco. My part consisted of standing on a plinth as a statue until I was due to come alive and change positions. So far so good, except the alive part was where my aria was and they had decided to cut it. So, now I'm a non-singing statue and still having to attend rehearsals to stand on my plinth because the director had to be able to see the 'tableaux'. About halfway through rehearsals the director broached the subject of nudity... after all, Grecian statues are all naked. Gladly though, he also asked the entire men's chorus to be naked too. The ensuing revolt ended with a compromise of dance thongs and body paint – phew! So, a non-singing, thong wearing, gold painted statue for my first ever role... an interesting start to a career!

Click here for James Laing's performer page on Bachtrack.