Joël Vuik has been immersed in classical music his entire life. He grew up singing liturgical music in church and knew that he wanted a life in music. But first his father made a demand of him: he would have to study something practical before he would support him going to a music conservatory. Vuik settled on Hotel Management and is now a qualified sommelier. He followed that with earning a Bachelor of Music in Rotterdam’s Codarts Conservatory. 

Joël Vuik © Gaby Jongenelen
Joël Vuik
© Gaby Jongenelen

It was while he was there that a teacher, after hearing him sing falsetto, suggested he listen to some recordings and see if he might be interested. She gave him a recording of Bach’s “Erbarme Dich” and his connection was immediate: “It was actually quite magical because I didn’t understand it, when I first heard Andreas Scholl singing. Is this really a man and not a mezzo soprano? I had always sung using my falsetto voice with popular music like the Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, and Beyoncé. When I tried doing it in a classical way I really identified with it.” Even the vocal technique came naturally to him. “I remember learning coloratura arias and my teacher wanted to know how I was learning it so quickly. I don’t know. I love doing trills, arpeggios, vibrato, all of it. Some people need hours and hours to work on trills but I just tried it and it was there. It doesn’t mean I still don’t have to work on it and maintain it, but it came more easily to me than I would ever have expected.”

Upon finishing his degree, Vuik went on to study for a master’s degree in Hamburg, attended master classes with all the best countertenors he could find and took part in the scholarship programme stART.up, a Claussen-Simon-Foundation initiative for freelancing artists. All the while he was making friends and professional contacts, planning for the future. He had a great success with his graduate recital of Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus and was ready for the world. “I had all kinds of bookings,” Vuik tells me. “I was singing at that time with the Dutch National Opera and we had a premiere scheduled. I had booked singing recitals with pianists. 2020 was my first full year after graduating and I had worked so hard on building my name and career. I was making contacts, getting in touch with people, doing auditions, contacting theatres where I had played as a student. It was going well and then we had to cancel everything. It was devastating.” His career was derailed by the pandemic just as it was taking off.

At the beginning of the shutdown in Germany, Vuik was doing anything just to perform, including free live streaming events, but that had its limits. “At first I did it all free and it was very nice but at a certain moment you realize that you would normally be in a concert hall earning a living,” he relates. “In a sense, you are a company and you have bills that must be paid and at the end of the day, we all need to make ourselves dinner.” He acknowledges the seriousness of what he has been facing, saying, “Everything is fragile at the beginning of a career. I was wondering if I would ever get that momentum back again.” He racked his brain to think of ways to continue to earn money and keep himself afloat until public performances could resume.

He began by adding the donation option to his livestream performances and that helped. He continued to look around for other possibilities. He hit upon a very old idea that he made new again: the singing telegram. It took a little time but he eventually made it successful. Initially people didn’t see the value he brought to it. With examples of his polished, professional recordings with personalised messages that he was able to produce, people began supporting the venture and it did quite well through the holidays. He also has been using his degree to take in students and every little bit helps.

Another of his pandemic ventures is making podcasts. His goal is “to talk about the things I’ve been studying and the music I enjoy, which is Baroque. I love to talk about the castrati and what they were. They were pop artists. How do we work with that in this time and connect that with racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism? How did it work in that time? In opera?” Coming out as a gay, cis male was not an easy experience for Vuik, even with a highly supportive family. He was surprised to discover that he himself was not as informed as he thought he should be about the non-binary community. He has completed a pilot podcast and announced that his first podcast will be devoted to Candace Owens and her prejudiced views. “She compared non-binary people to being a mug or a book,” Vuik tells me. “She said, a mug cannot decide to be a book one day, so a man cannot decide to be a woman. That broke my heart when I heard it. We are so much more complex than that. Comparing a transgender person to a mug was quite difficult for me to hear. For a long time men were fascinated by castrati and were even sexually aroused and they would travel from London to Rome where nobody knew them. There was a lot going on behind the curtains. To deny that male and female can exist within one being, and one or the other can be more dominant from day to day, is to deny the existence of humanity.”

Coming up next for Vuik is a planned recording with the Mirror Strings Quartet: “I met Johann Jacob Nissen, who played the lute when I was performing in Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea. I discovered that he was a member of the Mirror Strings and he suggested that we make a recording together. I managed to get them to play for my graduation recital – Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus.” (The five of them are gripping in “Cum Dederit”, recorded live.) “It took a while because they were a bit skeptical. They were already very professional and I was just starting. Now we’re working on doing a recording of a Schubert song and a Vivaldi song.” (Vivaldi's Cessate omai Cessate, the aria "Ah ch'infelice sempre" and from Schubert’s Schwanengesang, “Ständchen”) They could have a great future playing and recording together as their interests mesh perfectly.

In the end, I was unable to resist asking about the wine. I mentioned to Vuik that I was planning a dinner that included roast pork loin with apples, onions, thyme, and a demi-glace with Madeira. Vuik recommended: “Well, you have the roast pork with the freshness of the apples, the richness of the Madeira, spiciness of the onion… I would go with a lighter red wine. Pinot noir might be a bit too strong. If you can find a Beaujolais Villages that would go well, but I would not go with a heavy Shiraz. If you have a heavy Chardonnay that could be good. People always say that fish only goes with white and meat with red wine. Not true. It always comes down to taste, taste, taste. Some people just don’t like red… what can you do?” He went on to relate his experience in guiding friends in wine selections and slipping them information to help them understand wine better. In a follow-up email he wanted to make sure that I would consider a chenin blanc. His fallback position is secure.

Young performing artists around the world are dealing with this calamity in different ways. Joël Vuik is keeping busy learning new works and trying to do everything he can. He is playing his guitar and piano, learning new material, recording singing telegrams, creating podcasts, and taking in students. When asked about future plans, after the pandemic, he says: “I would like to sing Cesare from Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto which I’m working on. I think it’s one of his best operas. There’s always something going on and something to listen to. I’d love to sing on the main stage of the Dutch National Opera. I’d also like to travel around Germany singing at all the houses that are open to having me as a countertenor – that’s what I have on my mind. As a countertenor, I won’t ever be part of a permanent ensemble. It will always be project to project because there just aren’t spots for a countertenor.” He will be ready when it’s time to start over. It’s too soon to know exactly when live performances can safely begin again but the performers who have kept working, kept themselves prepared, will probably the first to get the early bookings. Look for Joël Vuik to be among them.

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With the Young Artists To Watch project Bachtrack aims to shine a bright spotlight on deserving artists from all over the world that might not be getting as much visibility as they would have without the limitations caused by the pandemic. 

Find out more about Joël Vuik:

Official site | Facebook | Instagram | Youtube 

This article is sponsored by the Claussen-Simon Foundation banner