Lawrence Zazzo © Justin Hyer
Lawrence Zazzo
© Justin Hyer
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.

Lawrence Zazzo made his operatic debut as Oberon (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to great acclaim while completing his vocal studies at the Royal College of Music in London. He has since appeared at many of the world’s leading opera houses including The Metropolitan Opera, Staatsoper unter den Linden, Oper Frankfurt, Bayerische Staatsoper, Opernhaus Zürich, Opera di Roma and La Monnaie. His recent appearance in the title role of Giulio Cesare conducted by Emmanuelle Haim at Opéra national de Paris is available on DVD. This month, he stars in Welsh National Opera's production of Handel's Orlando

How do you explain the explosion in popularity of countertenors? 

Two reasons, I think.  First, there has been an explosion of really good countertenors, each with distinctive colours and range, who are expanding the rather generic term “countertenor” into sub-Fachs: alto-countertenor, mezzo-countertenor, coloratura-countertenor, sopranist, even Helden-countertenor!

Second, since our bread and butter repertoire is the Baroque, countertenors have been on the vanguard of rediscovering rarely-performed music (for example, Hasse by Max Emanuel Cenčić, Vinci by Filippo Mineccia, Ariosti and Bononcini by myself), and have hopefully brought audiences along with them.

Which is your favourite opera role and why? 

It’s a bit of a cliché that one falls in love with whatever role one’s performing at the moment, but I have to say I’m fascinated with Handel’s Orlando, which I’m currently singing for Welsh National Opera. It’s the last role Handel wrote for Senesino, and it simultaneously sums up and goes beyond what he had written for this castrato over the previous ten years in London: dramatically full of coloratura and accompagnati, with two unusual duets and an act-ending trio, but also lyrical, with sweet little cavatinas and an incredible sleep trio for Orlando and two violetti marini, not to mention the convention-breaking ten-minute Mad Scene. The libretto, perhaps adapted by Handel himself, is awkward and choppy and slightly disturbing, but this I think makes it only more interesting to modern performers and audiences.

Ben Tinniswood, Lawrence Zazzo (Orlando) and Jack O'Kelly © Bill Cooper
Ben Tinniswood, Lawrence Zazzo (Orlando) and Jack O'Kelly
© Bill Cooper

When did you discover your countertenor voice? 

I sang as a boy alto in the Philadelphia Boy’s Choir, then took a break from singing for a few years in my early teens. I came back to singing in high school as an unsettled ‘baritenor’, but in looking for repertoire for a madrigal choir I discovered the King’s Singers’ Madrigal History Tour and started singing along with the top line, then James Bowman’s arias in the Willcocks/King’s College Messiah – bliss! 

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

Yes, but this balance is sometimes elusive, although I am always comforted by reference to Handel’s own ornamented versions of his arias, which go way beyond what we would consider “bon gout”. Another way of looking at ornamentation – not at all “historically informed” – is to consider it as an organic extension of whatever the character is expressing emotionally or doing physically in the director’s staging rehearsals. For example, as Goffredo, I developed a particular trill as an expression of a religious fanatic’s facial tic in Nigel Lowery’s staging of Rinaldo more than ten years ago, and it’s stuck with me whenever I perform this character.

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

It must be David Boesch’s staging of Mozart’s Mitridate in Munich a few years ago. As Farnace, I had to swing from a chandelier, I batted beer cans with a baseball bat, and then blinded myself with a knife in my last aria – the fake blood spurted into the pit, drenching the harpsichordist’s score and almost hitting Ivor Bolton who was conducting!

Lawrence Zazzo (Farnace) in <i>Mitridate</i> in Munich © Wilfried Hösl
Lawrence Zazzo (Farnace) in Mitridate in Munich
© Wilfried Hösl

Click here for Lawrence Zazzo's performer page on Bachtrack.