As the English National Opera continues to expand the Handel operas in its repertory, I took some time out with one of America’s leading countertenors, Laurence Zazzo, on the eve of his role debut in David Alden’s eagerly anticipated new production of Radamisto.
When I ask him why he wanted to become an opera singer his reply comes as no surprise, as it’s what most singers say. “An opera singer? I don’t think I ever wanted to become an opera singer. I kind of fell into it.” Having sung in choirs, and been a children’s entertainer in his youth, he continued his love of classical choral singing when he was in high school in New Jersey, and carried this through to his days at Yale University.
He found himself becoming more engrossed in the Anglican choral tradition, especially when he studied music at Cambridge. Although he describes himself as an “unhappy baritone” in high school, he started experimenting singing as a countertenor in the shower and before long was singing the alto line in Victoria’s O magnum mysterium. “When I went on to study voice at the Royal College of Music, an operatic career for a countertenor was still very unusual, but that all changed in my first year when they were looking for someone to sing the role of Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I had also been asked to sing in a Handel opera so there I was, not even on the opera course singing two operatic roles.”
It was during the first stage rehearsal for The Dream that Lawrence first realised that a career in opera beckoned, “I’ll never forget stepping on stage and just feeling completely at home on stage again. All the memories of a kid doing Jack and the Beanstalk and Aladdin’s Lamp came flooding back.”
And as he points out what he has always strived to achieve, “is to find the drama in the music, make the music itself and the expression within the voice to connect,” something that he learned from René Jacobs whom he cites as one of the most important influences in his career. “Opera is not just about the costumes or what you are doing on stage, it’s about finding the expression in the voice for an emotion that makes it so special.”
When I ask him what he considers to be the most important turning points in his career he’s quick to say that the person whom he owes the most to is conductor René Jacobs. “We worked together on Scarlatti’s Griselda in Berlin in 2000, and those were the performances that launched my career. I have worked many times with him and he has been the most influential person in my career. He can be difficult, but he’s exacting and never gives up on a singer.”
Unlike most countertenors, contemporary music is an important part of Laurence’s repertoire and he likes to maintain where possible a 50:50 balance between the Baroque and the modern, so it comes as no surprise that appearing in Peter Eötvös’ opera Three Sisters was another milestone in his career, “as that was probably my most exciting dramatic role. I was singing in Russian and singing a piece that was really truly theatrical so I would have to say that probably stretched my dramatic bones more than anything in opera.”
For all American singers, appearing at the Met, New York, is an important landmark in their careers, and not only for himself in Lawrence’s case, “but for my family as well. My father is a doctor and not particularly musical and always thought his son would be a high court judge or a neurosurgeon – he never really got the opera thing, but for him to see me singing at the Met was a really important moment in my life.” The role was Giulio Cesare and Lawrence’s performances met with universal critical acclaim.
The conversation returns to Handel, and as we begin to discuss ENO’s forthcoming staging of Radamisto. Lawrence, like everyone else who works with opera director David Alden, is effusive in his praise for him, “This is the fourth time I’ve worked with David, having worked with him on La Calisto and Poppea in Munich and Giasone at the Spoleto Festival. He is so knowledgeable about the music – he knows every note, every word, he knows exactly how it goes and picks up on the energy or gesture in the music and then focuses on that.”
He goes on to add that at times what David asks for can seem counter-intuitive, and it’s not a standard classical approach for a character, but everything he asks for in rehearsal is based on how the audience sees the character, not from the character’s perspective. “Baroque opera can be strange and I don’t think David tries to make it any less strange, and in bringing out the oddness he makes it very effective. I absolutely trust him, and trust his instincts.”
Thrilled to be working with ENO again after his acclaimed performances as Arsamene in Xerxes not only is Lawrence full of praise for the director but the rest of the cast and conductor Laurence Cummings as well. And what’s on the horizon? “I have a busy year ahead. I’m very much looking forward to singing Giulio Cesare in Paris opposite Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra, then there’s my role debut as Farnace in Mitridate in Munich which is very exciting as well.” And are there any roles on his wish-list? “Yes - I’m very excited about singing roles that haven’t yet been written.” Given Lawrence’s total commitment to everything he does, so are we.
Lawrence Zazzo sings the title role in ENO’s new staging of Handel’s Radamisto which opens on Thursday 7 October at the Coliseum.