Xavier Sabata © Michael Novak
Xavier Sabata
© Michael Novak
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.

Xavier Sabata is rapidly establishing a reputation as one of the leading countertenors of his generation and has drawn much attention with his recent recording of Handel's Bad Guys. Born in Catalonia, he first trained as an actor at Barcelona’s Institut del Teatre before he came to singing. He's a frequent guest at the world's big opera houses with a broad repertoire from Cavalli and Monteverdi and the heroes of baroque opera seria to innovative new works such as Fabrice Bollon's Oscar und die Dame in Rosa in Freiburg.

How do you explain the explosion in popularity of countertenors?

I think that it's due to the credibility achieved in the last years in the opera world. Countertenors developed a lot technically in the past decades and nowadays you can find all the registers (from a contralto to a soprano) with a very fine vocal technique that allows us to cover all roles written for a castrato. The fact that so many amazing discoveries have been made (I mean unknown operas and composers) helped a lot to spread the curiosity for the register. This and the fascination for a way of singing that doesn't sound real caused this huge explosion. 

Which is your favourite opera role and why?

That's a hard question but I would dare to say Endimione in La Calisto by Cavalli, and also the title role in Handel's Orlando. The first one is poetry made flesh, the role is a gift for a singer who loves "seicento" music, the way that Cavalli unfolds the text musically is a wonder and allows one to colour the words. Orlando is pure theatre. Handel went deep down to the bottom of the human psyche; he composed one of the most complex characters. I’m currently singing this role and enjoying every second of it.

Xavier Sabata and Kim-Lillian Strebel in <i>Orlando</i> © Rainer Muranyi | Theater Freiburg
Xavier Sabata and Kim-Lillian Strebel in Orlando
© Rainer Muranyi | Theater Freiburg

When did you discover your countertenor voice? 

The body is very wise. I was an actor before I became an opera singer. I did try to develop my voice as a baritone but it didn’t feel right, my voice wanted to go another path. I just found the right teachers to help me to discover that. I started singing very late, I was already 26, but everything went very fast!

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

I approach every aspect of my work from the rhetoric of the text and from the drama. I think that the da capos are a very powerful tool to develop the role even more, so I start from there. If the role is more “flamboyant” I tend to exaggerate ornamentation more, with longer cadences and more extravagant variations. If the role and the scene are more intimate, one should control the ornamentation in order to follow the drama. I’m not a big fan of doing extravagant da capo just to show off. I think that this is tacky. But this is just my opinion; fortunately everyone is free to choose. But most of the times, one ends up doing what the conductor suggests (always with some negotiations of course).

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

I’ve done many crazy productions because I’ve been lucky enough to work with amazing stage directors. One among them could be Calixto Bieito, with whom I've done six productions already. I can reveal that I have been covered with Nutella [editor's note: an Italian brand of hazelnut chocolate spread] and I had the choir licking me!!! I’ve been jumping between the people in the stalls of the theatre only in underwear and covered by blood (fake of course)… I have to admit that coming from the theatre world I feel really happy and free working with “avantgarde” stage directors. I do believe that opera is much more than a beautiful voice and nice aesthetics. I do believe in the “Gesamtkunstwerk” with many elements that make opera great and a totally unique piece of art.