Countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński: ‘Breakdancing feeds into my performances – music dictates the way you move on stage’

The prize-winning Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński, 33, has performed in opera houses all over the world, including the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, and the Royal Opera House, London. Born and raised in Warsaw, where he still lives, he will make his BBC Proms debut later this month, followed by concerts at the Edinburgh international festival (3 August) and Wigmore Hall (12 September). Orliński is also a champion skateboarder and breakdancer, and has worked as a model, appearing on the cover of Vogue Poland Man and Esquire Spain. He releases his eighth album in September.

Describe your late night Prom – mood, atmosphere, what to expect.
It’s based on Beyondmy last album – and in the same way it will reach beyond the barriers of classical music. You don’t have to know anything about the music or the composers. It speaks to anyone, of any age. It’s about purity of emotion. And in this kind of early baroque music the bass line is really important. It’s very groovy, very relevant.

Is the presentation distinctive in any way?
Yes! There will be special lighting and costumes. From my point of view this is a concept – like a pop album has a concept. We are building an ongoing story in these early pieces of baroque music, like an artistic diary. I’ve done it 21 times in Europe and North America but this is my first time in England. And my first Prom. I’ll be singing the most intimate music in the huge space of the Royal Albert Hall. I’m excited.

When did you realise you were a countertenor, able to sing as high as a soprano?
When I was eight years old I sang alto in a choir in Warsaw. After puberty I moved into a male voice choir. You can hear my speaking voice is quite low, so I was singing bass baritone. They needed high voices to sing renaissance music – William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Tomás Luis de Victoria. So we had a lottery about who’d do the high parts. My friend Piotr and I lost – as we thought at the time – and started singing falsetto. I was 16 years old and had no idea, physically, how I made that sound. Then one day we had a workshop with an opera singer [the English countertenor Paul Esswood] and he said: Ah, you are a countertenor. I didn’t know what he meant. I wondered if he was trying to offend me…

What changed your view?
The realisation that this was a real voice type, in which you use the edge of the vocal cords instead of the full cords. As more is understood about the technical side, so more countertenors are now around.

What was your childhood like?
We’re a big family. I only have one “real” brother, but we grew up together with our seven cousins and I think of them all as brothers and sisters. They are an important part of my home life in Warsaw. My mother is an artist and sculptor, my father an artist and graphic designer. There was lots of music in the house, of all kinds. But I am the only professional musician.

Where did the skateboarding and breakdancing start?
I was a very active kid. Always jumping and tumbling, climbing trees, snowballing, skiing. I used to collect old bottles from the street for cash that I spent on trampolining sessions, teaching myself backflips. I was a skateboard champion at 14 and then a breakdancer too. The physicality and acrobatics helped me keep fit, mentally as well physically.

‘I hope we – the classical world – can be less conservative, and loosen up’: Jakub Józef Orliński. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

And you still do it?
Absolutely. When I’m singing in Paris I go to Centquatre and train with local hip-hop dancers. When I’m at the Royal Opera House in London I do my eight hours of opera rehearsal and then spend many more hours in the incredible ballet studios there. It’s part of my life. I dance to funk, hip-hop, house, electronica, everything. It feeds into my performances, because music dictates the way you move on stage.

You do some modelling too. You must encounter raised eyebrows – that somehow you can’t be serious?
It didn’t come about because I thought, oh yes, I can do all these things, but because as a young man I needed to earn to go to college. I started modelling for money, doing fashion shoots and commercials, and found that I could work with the camera. And it’s fun…

What’s the idea behind your new album, #LetsBaRock?
Lots of things: covers of baroque music, heard in a fresh light, performed with piano, double bass, drums, Moog and vocals. It’s been produced differently, and made in the Church Studios, north London, famous for recording Coldplay, Madonna, Blur, Paul McCartney and others I revere.

You’ll be accused of crossover…
I struggle with the fact that if you mix house with rap no one blinks, but if you mix classical with something everyone yells. I hope we – the classical world – can be less conservative, and loosen up…

Does that extend to phones in concert halls?
Yes and no. Depends on time and place. Fine for encores, not for a recital. If I’m singing in an outdoor festival in Poland such as Męskie Granie, and everyone’s enjoying their beer and sausages, a sea of phones is fine. The beauty of live performance is you can pause, and focus. If I’m singing Monteverdi you don’t need to know what the words mean. The music will tell you. But if I catch sight of a phone light flickering, I think: Jeez, switch it off.

You’re about to get on the Eurostar to sing Vivaldi in Paris. Will you be listening to anything?
Sure. Melody Gardot, the jazz artist. It’ll put me in exactly the right dreamy mood for the tunnel.

The Guardian

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