Michał Biel and Jakub Józef Orliński
© Barbara Aumeuller
Many listeners first discovered Jakub Józef Orliński when France Musique released a video of him performing the aria “Vedrò con mio diletto” at a radio concert in 2017. Dressed casually in cargo shorts and tennis shoes, the Polish countertenor looks like any number of contemporary young men you might find lounging in a park on a warm summer day. Yet when he opens his mouth to sing Vivaldi’s lovely lament, a voice for the ages emerges, perfectly balanced between registers and with a rich, rounded timbre that’s both mellow and supple. A performance like this announced Orliński’s stature as an artist to watch on the world stage.

A string of high-profile engagements and recordings in the ensuing years has only confirmed that status. Orliński’s career has flourished throughout Europe and the United States, and more often than not, he’s had pianist Michał Biel by his side for the journey. Few relationships thrive on intimacy and unspoken connection quite like a singer and his accompanist, and in performances from their native Warsaw to Wigmore Hall, Orliński and Biel are claiming their place among the great pairs of all time.

The duo met as students at the Teatr Wielki Akademia Operowa in Warsaw. Both credited the education they received in their home country not only with forging their partnership but also preparing them for the rigors and realities of an international career. “I started having classes for about one week every month with a lot of people coming from around the world – singers, pianists, coaches, Alexander Technique teachers, stage directors,” Orliński told me in a recent joint interview with Biel. “There were really a lot of opportunities to learn from a lot of people who are actually in the business, doing great things in very big theaters.” 

Biel praised the program’s structure and its emphasis on establishing connections between emerging artists and professionals already on the world stage. “It’s not like a usual opera studio, where you have a limited number of people that you work with for a certain period of time,” he said. “Program coordinator Beata Klatka organizes sessions with people who are not all the time in Warsaw but who come very frequently – for one or two weeks in a month. It’s very hard to meet those people when you are just in academia. I would say there is really no connection between those people and the educational system in Poland. That’s why we say that the goal of Akademia Operowa is to introduce young Polish students to how things are being made in the world of international opera. For them, it’s the first time to see how it’s really done in Berlin, how it’s really done in Stuttgart or London or Paris.”

This approach bears undeniable fruit, according to Orliński. “I am positively shocked that Akademia Operowa alumni are singing literally everywhere,” he said. “They are in Zurich, Stuttgart, Berlin, Munich and Aix-en-Provence. Super big places. As a freelancer, I travel around the world and I see that wow, we have this person who was in my year at Akademia Operowa, and this person who was a year after me. They are really doing well, and it’s because there was this bridge, this introduction to those people who could actually hear them, try them out and give them the job.”

For Orliński and Biel, the bridge from Akademia Operowa led first to the prestigious Juilliard School of Music, where they were not only colleagues but roommates. Yet even though both men raved about the experience of living in New York, they never strayed far from their Polish roots. During their American studies, they returned to Warsaw in 2016 for the International Stanisław Moniuszko Vocal Competition, claiming the grand prize with a program that celebrated the history and diversity of Polish song. 

“Of course there was a certain preparation for the competition, but I don’t think it was a certain goal for a period of time,” Biel recalled. “We had been playing the repertoire and trying it out for an entire year. Because we had that contact with each other, we knew how it was supposed to go and had a very clear plan about it. We knew each other very well.”

Orliński jumped in with a further observation: “That was the also the period, especially in America, where it was very exciting, because we were at the age where we could actually benefit from it,” he said. “I played with Michał hundreds of auditions, so we were used to performing and being onstage in stressful situations. Going to Warsaw, the only thing I found difficult was that I was going to my hometown, and I was stressed somehow that my muscle memory would be connected to that place. I learned so much in New York that I was just afraid that I might come back to my old habits singing in Warsaw, where my whole musical journey started.”

Clearly, Orliński needn’t have worried. Since then, he and Biel have come to view themselves as emissaries of the Polish musical tradition in the West. Orliński commended Biel for encouraging him to widen his repertoire and tackle some material that he initially thought would not suit his voice type. “Michał surprised me once at Juilliard when he said: ‘Jakub, you should sing those Szymanowski songs, they’re super cool,’ which I thought was not possible for me to do,” he remembered. “I thought it was going to sound horrible. But then he actually made the transposition for me and he forced me to learn it, and it was spectacular.” The labor of love won the pair an honors recital at Alice Tully Hall.

“What was most important for us was the audience reaction,” Biel said. “They were like, ‘Oh my god, Szymanowski! This is such amazing music.’ The problem with Polish music not being widely known is because it’s written in Polish. Seriously, it’s that simple. It’s not even that the language is that inaccessible – because you have people who sing in Rusalka at the Met and in Czech you have words that have no vowels. The problem is that there are no serious materials for lyric Polish diction, and that’s why this language is not so present on the musical scene.”

The pair are hoping to change that with a CD based on their recital program, which is expected to be released in 2022. “We didn’t have those ambassadors who would go abroad and really spread it at the highest level,” Orliński said. “Those are the things that are happening with other composers and other pieces. An artist at a high level has to present it to the wider public, and then it becomes something more known, and more people want to perform it. I am experiencing the same thing with the older Baroque music that I am also researching and recording after 300 years of not being performed.”

Michał Biel and Jakub Józef Orliński
© Barbara Aumeuller

Since returning to Warsaw from New York, where he was living prior to the pandemic, Biel has taught at the Akademia Operowa. Several of his students will take part in a concert celebrating World Opera Day, which will be broadcast by OperaVision on 25th October

“It’s going to be a concert of Polish music,” Biel said. “We tried, in the studio, to concentrate on 19th-century, early 20th-century Polish music. There’s going to be a lot of Szymanowski – beautiful, beautiful songs. I think there’s also going to be some songs by Różycki. Basically, a lot of very intense, very Polish, post-Romantic music!”

Biel has relished the opportunity to return to his alma mater as a teacher. “For me, it seems like a very natural transition, but it is surprising to be doing it here in the place where I used to be,” he said. “The freelance market completely collapsed with the pandemic and I decided with my wife to move out of New York to survive this time in Poland. Because I always maintained my relationship with the program – and because I always tried, whenever I was in Poland, to say hi to Beata Klatka and say I could play for some lessons – when I came back, Beata asked if maybe I would like to coach. There is an age difference between me and the students, but it’s not that big, so I would say that gives me a certain perspective. I remember exactly and very clearly what I was thinking and what was my perspective when I was here five, six or seven years ago.”

Meanwhile, Orliński is preparing for another full-circle moment: His debut with the Metropolitan Opera in the company premiere of Matthew Aucoin and Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. “Everybody dreams to perform at the Met, and suddenly it’s happening,” he said. “I still can’t believe it. Especially because we had these strange times where everything is canceled the day before you’re supposed to go on tour, so there were quite a lot of debuts in great places that were canceled. I learned in the past year how not to get overexcited, but I am extremely excited to go back to New York.”

Yet no matter how high they ascend in the classical music world, or how far they travel, Orliński and Biel never stray far from the place where it all began. “To be honest, our ears were developed here in this program, when we were observing our masters – how they coach, how they conduct lessons, how they see and hear music and what they think about style,” Biel said. “Juilliard was the cherry on the top, the polishing. Without Akademia Operowa, we wouldn’t be where we are right now.”

Jakub and Michal's teachers at the Akademia Operowa faculty were Eytan Pessen, Izabella Kłosińska, Olga Pasichnyk and Matthias Rexroth.

This article was sponsored by Polish National Opera and OperaVision