Interview with Lawrence
René Jacobs recently described American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo as ‘maybe
the best countertenor now on the stage’. Zazzo (LZ) has several recent Handel
recordings under his belt (Serse with William Christie, Partenope
with Christian Curnyn and Saul with René Jacobs), and in September 2005
met David Vickers (DV) at a Borders bookstore near Leeds (Yorkshire, England) to
drink coffee and talk about Handel.
DV: What is your first
memory of Handel’s music?
LZ: I was in the
Philadelphia Boys Choir, but thinking back to the repertoire, we didn’t do any
Handel. We did Bernstein, a lot of folksongs, Orff’s Carmina Burana, some
Bach even, but we didn’t do any Handel. I didn’t do Messiah until High
School: the tradition was at the end of the Christmas musical extravaganza we
always did the Hallelujah chorus. So that was the first time I heard any Handel:
the Hallelujah chorus at Christmas, with everybody standing up.
DV: How did your familiarity
with Handel’s music increase?
LZ: The change in the perception came from listening to
the King’s Singers and getting more into countertenors. From there, I got an LP
of King’s College Choir doing Messiah with James Bowman – that famous
recording which I still love. I just finally got it on CD a few weeks ago and I
hadn’t listened to it in about 10 years, and I still love it. I fell in love
with the section about ‘refiner’s fire’ – the Guadagni aria – and so I sang ‘But
who may abide’ in a vocal competition during my senior year of High School. I
was 17 years old and that was the first time I had ever sung publicly as a
countertenor. I won a prize to go to Westminster Choir College, which I didn’t
take, but it gave me the encouragement that I could do something with the
countertenor voice. But what really blew me away was probably singing with a
choir in Dixit Dominus during my sophomore year at Yale [University],
with Yale Camerata.
DV: Did you study music at Yale?
LZ: I studied English Literature. I took some very
rudimentary music classes while I was there, but I did lots of singing in
choirs. I sang in a close-harmony group called the Whiffenpoofs – I don’t know
if you’ve heard of them over here in England, but they’re like a barbershop
group which actually started in 1912, long before the King’s Singers. It
features Yale seniors who do a lot of close harmony stuff and things from The
Yale Songbook. So I was doing a lot of popular song, but my exposure to
Handel was very slow.
DV: So when did you first
LZ: It could have been in a choir I suppose, but I
don’t think it was until I was at Cambridge, singing in the Clare College Choir
under Tim Brown. We did Messiah with René
Jacobs at the Karlsruhe Handel Festival, which featured Andreas Scholl in one of
his first solo outings. This must have been in about 1995. And so my career is
sort of going in circles because I’m just about to do a concert tour with René
and Clare College Choir, in which I’ll be sharing out the alto solos with
Patricia Bardon. I don’t know who is going to get which arias, but I’m hoping
René will give me ‘But who may abide’. You never know
what he’ll do, except that it will be something interesting.
DV: So you chose to be a musician rather than an English
LZ: I think my singing just kept pulling me, and at a
certain point I thought ‘Before I die I want to sing in a Cambridge choir’. So
then I had the opportunity to have a scholarship to study at Cambridge for 2
years. I could have done a Masters in English, but I chose to do a second BA
[Bachelor of Arts] because I really wanted to study music. I also thought it
would be a good place for me to study choral conducting because a lot of my life
has revolved around singing with choirs. So I went to Cambridge and sang in
Clare College Choir, and also in King’s College Choir for two terms.
DV: Did you do any academic work on Handel?
LZ: I studied a little with the Handel scholar Andrew
Jones over at Selwyn College. And I did some work on Samson, but funnily
enough it wasn’t really about Handel. It was really Milton that brought me
closer to Handel. I did my Yale thesis on Milton’s Samson Agonistes, so
at Cambridge I thought it would be good to compare that to the libretto of
Handel’s Samson. So it was really a libretto study more than anything.
Unfortunately, Handel’s Samson doesn’t really have a major role in it for
countertenor, unless you count Micah. There are some beautiful arias, which I
can certainly sing. So it would be really lovely to do Samson having
studied it. It’s such a great piece.
DV: Do you think it was a good thing for you to be
drawn more into Handel’s music by a piece that doesn’t have an obvious
countertenor role? Did it give you a rounded appreciation of Handel?
LZ: Yes, maybe. But to be honest at the same time as I
was doing my work on Samson I gave a recital at Cambridge as a solo
countertenor. As part of that I did the mad scene from Orlando, which I
fell in love with. I compared different recordings and approaches to the music.
I interviewed Christopher Hogwood about tempi and stuff like that, and he
couldn’t really remember much about it - which at that time I thought was a bit
odd because he said something like ‘Oh, James [Bowman] takes a tempo, and we
just follow him!’ Which seemed so unscholarly when I heard that, but now, having
the experience I’ve had since, I can totally understand where he was coming
from. I couldn’t tell you why certain tempos are taken for certain things. I
just listened to the new Saul I did with René
and I can’t remember much about it! It seems like it was done 10 years ago
already, so listening to it in the car on the way here just brought it all back.
But Orlando is definitely a role I would love to do. The idea of madness and a
5/8 bar in baroque music is fascinating!
DV: What was your first
encounter with Handel’s operas?
LZ: While at the Karlsruhe festival I went to see a
production of Ezio, which I thought was a fantastic opera. I particularly
loved the production, which was very modern and adventurous: at one point the
bass character [Varo] was conducting the orchestra from the stage, and all sorts
of crazy stuff was going on. After that, my next experience of Handel opera was
singing the title role in Arminio at the Royal College of Music during
the London Handel Festival. I’d been having voice lessons as part of my choral
scholarship at Cambridge, and my teacher David Lowe was about to join the
faculty at the Royal College of Music, which made me think ‘I need to pursue
this’. Just like I’d been decided I wanted to sing in a Cambridge Choir, I felt
like I had some potential and wanted to see what I could do.
René Jacobs listened to me sing at around
this time and was very encouraging. So I thought ‘I need to try this’. Luckily
in my first year at the Royal College of Music they were doing Britten’s A
Midsummer Night’s Dream and Handel’s Arminio. So A Midsummer
Night’s Dream was my first opera ever, but I was there as just a postgrad
student – I wasn’t even on the opera course and wasn’t even thinking of going
into opera. I had been thinking that I would mainly be doing church music and
oratorio. I hadn’t been on a stage since I was a boy, when I had done a lot of
children’s musical theatre: Jack and the Beanstalk, Aladdin, and that kind of
thing! I didn’t go near the stage during high school and wasn’t interested in
drama at all. My madrigal group had dressed up in renaissance costumes, but we
were just doing the music. But then at the Royal College I got bitten by the
stage bug again, and it felt so natural to me. It was so interesting to
integrate all of the different disciplines. So I did two operas in three months
from never having done any before. It was a baptism of fire!
DV: What was good about
performing in the London Handel Festival?
LZ: I had nearly a year to prepare for a role. I
started learning Arminio in October and the production was in March, so I
had the resources of the college and the coaching to get me through it – which
you don’t always get in opera productions. And also language coaching. The
Britten Theatre is a good size for Handel, although it could be better
acoustically. Also in the London Handel Festival you have good players – Denys
Darlow conducted it, but Lawrence Cummings and Paul Nicholson were the continuo
players, which was fantastic experience. I went for coaching with Paul Esswood
and James Bowman, and also used arias in master-classes with Michael Chance. So
all that was useful too.
DV: Who was your main
teacher at the Royal College?
LZ: David Lowe – a tenor! I’ve never really been taught
by another countertenor. The only exception is Nicholas Clapton, but no other
countertenors have really given me voice lessons per se. To me it’s not
so important a voice type, as long as the teacher has good technique and likes
countertenors. Some teachers don’t identify with the voice. I had one teacher
who kept trying to get me to sound like her, you know, a big mezzo voice, and I
came out worse. Whereas my current teacher Russell Smythe is a baritone, does a
lot of singing as well as teaching, really likes countertenors and loves the
repertoire. He’s very interested in trying to get me to sing with my
voice with as much efficiency as possible, and not trying to get me to sound
like somebody else. So the last couple of years have been really good. I started
with him right before I did Serse with William Christie, which was really
helpful for me to prepare for Arsamene because it lies that much higher in the
voice than Senesino roles. I think I’m more of a Senesino singer.
DV: A lot of countertenors
say that about Senesino. Is it because the range is more comfortable?
LZ: But I think my voice really does lie in the right
place for it. A lot of countertenors say that they like Senesino roles because
the high notes in other castrato roles are too difficult, but I can get the low
notes out: my voice is rich down there. For instance, the role of Ottone in
Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea is difficult for a lot of
countertenors, but it isn’t so difficult for me: my voice feels very comfortable
down there. But I would certainly say that a lot of the Senesino roles are
perfect for me. That’s why I want to do Orlando…
DV: Although you’ve not recorded any Senesino roles yet
apart from Barak in Deborah.
LZ: Is that true? Let me think about that – My God,
you’re right! But I’ve just done Fernando for Alan Curtis, and that was a Senesino role. But there are a lot more
Senesino roles for me to get to!
DV: Deborah was the first
Handel recording you made, but before that you’d recorded Pergolesi’s Stabat
LZ: The company I did that with went out of business,
and I think they sold it to another company. I think you can also get it on DVD.
I saw it in Germany for only about 4 euros! I still get calls from people in
America because before the company went bankrupt they made several DVDs: I did a
Purcell thing with Clare College Choir, the Stabat mater, Britten’s ‘Rejoice
in the Lamb’. And these got sold to public TV stations in America, which get
shown on hundreds of obscure channels. So I still get calls from people who say
‘Oh, I’d been out and got home from my drinking binge, put on the TV at 3am and
there you were singing angelically to me in this church with a bouffant hairdo!’
DV: Actually, I have to admit I’ve seen some of the
Purcell programme on the Performance Channel…
LZ: My Dad saw the Stabat mater on the Catholic
Channel during Lent.
DV: So you started making recordings pretty early on in
LZ: I was quite lucky in that I’d already done a lot of
recordings at Yale with my close harmony groups, so being in a studio and doing
different takes, being under that kind of pressure with a microphone right in
front of you, wasn’t really so new to me. So I was a little bit less terrified
of the microphone, although I have to say that part of the challenge of doing a
recording is forcing yourself to take risks. Even when the microphone is in
front of you, you should not sing safe. So I think it’s very important that you
do these pieces in concert. The ideal way is to do a concert tour or a staging
as much as possible. That’s what I’ve done for all the recordings I’ve done with
René Jacobs. A lot of musical decisions are made
because of the staging, and not necessarily talked about from just looking at
the score first. But when it comes to recording, that dramatic flair is there,
it is already worked into your voice and everybody knows what they are doing.
There’s none of the carefulness and worry about finding your way in a piece. Or
you can do it in concerts and it’s similar. Or maybe both – I think Saul
could be staged really easily, so it would have been nice to have staged it. But
I think we wound up with a very dramatic recording. But Deborah [with
Joachim Carlos Martini] was a semi-live recording, so it’s not perfect. I
haven’t listened to it in years, and I’m not sure I want to – it was recorded
based on two performances in a church and a patching session, which was scary.
Serse with Bill Christie was live, recorded over three performances, with
several days of patching. But the best option is to do a staging and then go
into a studio.
DV: Like with
René Jacobs’ Rinaldo?
LZ: Like with Rinaldo, and also Alessandro
DV: Several conductors seem
to like giving you fairly high castrato parts.
LZ: Or parts that were written for women! Goffredo in
Rinaldo is incredibly low, but it was written for a woman. Arsamene in
Serse was written for a woman too, but that’s higher. I’ve just rehearsed
Serse for an upcoming revival at ENO, and I did the production with Bill
Christie 3 years ago. Coming to this revival of Nicholas Hytner’s iconic
production, I kept wrestling with the English translation which does not always
match the original Italian text. What was explained to me was that Nicholas
Hytner was trying to bring out certain nuances in the characters, and one of the
things he was trying to bring out was the rivalry between the two brothers.
Sometimes you can forget that Serse is Arsamene’s brother, and that there is an
element of competition between them for Romilda. I had originally thought of my
role totally in terms of my sexual jealousy and protectiveness, my fear that she
would betray me with somebody else. Whereas now I’m really starting to approach
it from a sense of rivalry with my brother. It isn’t so much that I don’t want
Romilda to have anyone else, but I certainly don’t want her to have my brother!
DV: It is a particularly manipulative jealousy on the
part of Serse. In a lot of good productions you get the feeling that Serse knows
exactly what he is doing: that he knows his brother loves Romilda, and that he
enjoys playing a cruel game…
LZ: Yeah, maybe the bigger brother is always taking
things away from Arsamene.
DV: How do you approach singing Arsamene? There is no
denying it is a high role for a countertenor to tackle - did you have to adjust
your technique at all?
LZ: It was a struggle at times – but it was a good
struggle: it’s one of those roles that really stretches you rather than it being
something you shouldn’t have done. It was a challenge, but I really expanded the
top of my register so now I feel a lot more comfortable up there. It isn’t a
role which I can just roll out of bed and sing, but it is a role which certainly
stretches me and that I have to work into my voice. But it was great to come to
terms with that and face that. So when I came to do Jonathan Dove’s opera
Flight this summer, which is extremely high and has lots of E naturals all
the time – which are sometimes more difficult than Fs – it wasn’t so difficult
and I didn’t lose my voice because I could approach it the same way. Arsamene is
one of those roles which stretches your technique, and, gosh, you get some
DV: What was it like going from Serse to Partenope?
LZ: There’s a lot of parallels in the characters: the
cross-dressing, the rivalry and competition between three very different men for
one woman. Although if I was going to do Partenope again I’d like to
think more about Arsace’s relationship with Armindo, and it’s also interesting
when Rosmira briefly passes herself off as a fourth suitor.
DV: Both Serse and Partenope were adapted for Handel
from old librettos by Silvio Stampiglia. In both those operas you see Handel
portraying relationships in a way that is superficially comic, but the operas
are actually quite profound in their exploration of love, jealousy and
LZ: Partenope is much more of an exploration of
erotic and romantic love. Serse is partially that, but I’m becoming much
more interested in the non-romantic relationships in Handel. That comes much
more to the fore in oratorio, where you have family relationships or
friendships. In Serse you have the jealous brother relationship, which I
find quite interesting. You can contrast that with the relationship between
David and Jonathan in Saul, which is not a jealous relationship at all –
David essentially takes the kingship away from Jonathan, who is quite happy for
that to happen.
DV: Jonathan is the perfect model of humility, which I
suppose was the whole point about his character.
LZ: Yeah, not being covetous. And covetousness also
goes into the romantic relationships in Handel. That’s why I think the sexual
jealousy is such an important part of Serse. It isn’t just that Arsamene
doesn’t want anyone to have Romilda, but most specifically that he does not want
his brother to have her! There’s a point in Act 3 when Arsamene says that he
adores Romilda, and it is almost as if it is a surprise to him! It is a moment
when he realises that ‘this is actually about you, and our relationship – not
just my brother!’ But the non-romantic and non-erotic relationships are
fascinating too. I’ll be doing Tolomeo in Giulio Cesare next year and I
just saw it at Glyndebourne. There is the relationship between Tolomeo and his
enemy Giulio Cesare, but also between Tolomeo and his sister Cleopatra. The
brother and sister fighting…
DV: The squabbling siblings…
LZ: … and a lot can depending on how it’s staged. They
way David McVicar stages it, there is a cringing moment where Tolomeo is almost
raping his sister, when he almost goes to French kiss her, and you just think
‘Urgh! That’s brother and sister’, but it portrays a relationship that has
clearly gone wrong. It isn’t a healthy relationship.
DV: It is interesting to consider what you said about
erotic or romantic love in Italian opera compared to oratorios. If you look at
David and Michal in Saul, romantic love in oratorio tends to be very chaste in
comparison. Even in Theodora, the love relationship between Didymus and Theodora
is uncompromisingly virtuous.
LZ: There is also the friendship between Didymus and
Septimius that I find fascinating. Although Saul is unusual in that
David’s relationship with Michal is not all that real. It seems like an
invention. His emotional relationship with Jonathan is much more believable.
Some people say that it’s homoerotic – ‘more than woman’s love thy wondrous love
to me’ always gets a few giggles from people. But this is a kind of idea that
love exists between brothers, friends or comrades which is lost on us these
days. Also you have relationships between fathers and sons, or fathers and
daughters. Just having become a father myself, it has made me start to think
about these relationships more. If I went back and did Rinaldo again I
would have a totally different approach to Goffredo’s relationship with Almierna.
You know, ‘Sorge il petto’ is a love song, but it is a love song to his
daughter. He hopes that he is going to get his daughter back.
DV: Handel excels at the parent – child relationship.
Samson is another example, with Manoah’s love for his son.
LZ: That’s beautiful. And also in Jephtha.
DV: And also in Belshazzar, where Gobrias’ grief for
his son shows the legacy of a parent’s love even though the child has been
murdered before the oratorio starts. Handel isn’t just about boy meets girl
LZ: Also look at Nerone and his mother in Agrippina.
It often seems that mother and son relationships are very fraught. They can
often be very problematic. Later in the oratorios, relationships are often much
healthier and more wholesome. The restoring of family relationships seem to
interest Handel a lot more as he has got older. Maybe it is just the librettists
creating that impression and Handel just works with that, but also maybe Handel
thinks ‘Gosh! Maybe now I can portray a healthy relationship for a change!’ The
enemy is not within because it’s now externalised: the Philistines, Dagon,
DV: Chaste and virtuous love in the oratorios isn’t
supposed to be less strong than the erotic love in the operas, but instead is a
strongly idealistic thing opposed to the agonised complexity of sexual
relationships. Maybe that is something to do with the difference between
Protestant oratorio librettists and the Italian opera librettists.
LZ: I think that there is a lot to be said for that.
That a lot of the erotic feeling is externalised or put into other places by the
Protestants. There is little in Saul that is sexy, but I find it really
hits you because of the family relationships. It is something that everybody can
connect with. When you portray a love relationship in opera and you see two
people screaming at each other and then kissing, it is sometimes very hard to
make that real. What you can really make real is family relationships.
DV: With the complexity of relationships in mind, does
this make you wish you’d had the chance to stage Partenope rather than just
LZ: Certainly. There are a lot of nuances in Arsace’s
relationships with others that I’d really like to explore. That’s one thing I’ve
talked with René about – I’d love to see him stage
Partenope. I think it would be a great opera for him to do. The thing I
like about Arsace is that he is not an entirely likeable character. Some
characters, like Ottone in Agrippina or Arsamene in Serse, are
such good guys. You often get that in Handel, but you sometimes want them to be
a bit meaner. Arsace is not such a great guy. He’s gone after Partenope, you
don’t know why he has abandoned Rosmira…
DV: I think there is something of Rosmira’s manner of gaining revenge that
makes you guess why Arsace has deserted her. I think that is one reason why the
opera is so compelling: all of the characters, including Rosmira and Partenope,
are not perfect people: apart from Armindo, the really perfect guy who gets the
girl in the end!
LZ: Arsace is a playboy grown up. He’s played the
field, but has realised ‘Gosh, that original girl – she’s the one I really want
after all’. So he settles down, but not until he’s had some really great arias –
the sleep scene and ‘Furibondo’ – so it would be really to do those things on
stage because that is where I get a lot of my musical inspiration. Almost all of
my Handel work has been on the stage. Partenope was done in sessions,
which was certainly a different mode of recording. You have to be super
concentrated and stay on your feet, making music and being inspired very
quickly, still taking risks but knowing that you only have a limited time. It’s
totally different to when you’ve done a staged production, when there is more of
focus on getting the perfect take and really refining small details. Although
with that kind of luxury the danger is losing the intensity and making it too
safe, slowing things down and failing to keep that dramatic pace. Whereas when
you have a limited recording session, and you’re all meeting each other for the
first time, there is that intensity where you are just making things happen. But
you have to be as prepared as you can beforehand, so I tried to do as much as I
DV: But Christian had conducted Partenope in the
theatre several times already.
LZ: Well, this helps a lot. The thing I liked most –
and I haven’t with a lot of young British conductors – was his excitement about
the drama and his willingness to let me sing. He was willing to accommodate me
as a singer, and to let me go for certain dramatic effects. I see this more with
the newer generation of directors, who are willing to think about drama.
Christian really knew the opera, and was advising a lot on the characters and
that helped. But there is a lot of recitative as well, which is really difficult
to do without doing a staging and taking it straight into the studio. But I
think the recording was a fantastic tribute to the musicianship of the people
involved that they were able to put together a performance like that in such a
short space of time.
DV: Have you listened to Partenope again yet?
LZ: I find it very difficult to listen to recordings
for years after they come out. I really don’t even go near them because I’m too
close to them. With Griselda, it took me a year to listen to it – and
then I was really happy with it! But sometimes you just think ‘Oh, I could have
done that better’. It’s like reading reviews. When I do an opera I don’t read
any of the reviews until afterwards. I wait until it’s over and I get the press
pack, so then you can read it and then think ‘Hmm, that’s true’, or ‘that’s a
good point but I really disagree with that’. It gives you a bit more perspective
because if you read bad reviews while the opera is still running they make you
insecure and then you start trying to change things, or if they’re good they
just puff you up too much and you get complacent. So I don’t really find reviews
helpful. But afterwards sometimes they have interesting things to say –
DV: René Jacobs is very
much based on drama, although he can be controversial when it comes to musical
LZ: That depends on who you ask. He is someone who can certainly do a nice
brisk tempo, and yet make it sound dramatic – as you can hear on Saul.
What is the Handel style? To me, this music is about having an elegant veneer,
an over-arching style, which every so often is punctured completely and goes
crazy. It is this whole idea of the mad scene – the idea of having a convention
but then breaking it. That’s how this music works. If you never puncture through
it, it all seems a bit safe and a bit staid, a bit boring. But if you puncture
it too many times, then it starts to unravel. I think René
really gets the balance right. Maybe some people find him too over the top, but
I think he is willing to make it a bit crazy and kitschy. He always makes it
exciting, and I don’t think you could ever say that he in unaware of style. I
think he really knows a lot. He knows enough to know that he can beyond normal
expectations. He always says to singers that he wants us to take risks. He risks
going slightly too far – but with so many good recordings of Saul already
out there, why not do something strange and different?
Discography (as of October 2005):
Celebration of the Spirit
(Britten Rejoice in the Lamb and Bernstein Chichester Psalms);
The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; Timothy Brown (cond.); Columns
Classics (also on Brilliant Classics DVD)
Goehr: Arianna; William Lacey (cond.); NMC
Handel: Deborah; Joachim Carlos Martini (cond.);
Handel: Lotario (extracts); Paul Goodwin (cond.);
Handel: Partenope; Christian Curnyn (cond.);
Handel: Rinaldo; René Jacobs (cond.);
Harmonia mundi (France)
Handel: Saul; René
Jacobs (cond.); Harmonia mundi (France)
William Christie (cond.); Virgin Veritas
Pergolesi: Stabat mater; Timothy Brown (cond.);
Brilliant Classics DVD
Purcell: Sacred Music; The Choir of Clare
College, Cambridge; Timothy Brown (cond.); Columns Classics (also on
Brilliant Classics DVD)
Scarlatti, A.: Griselda;
René Jacobs (cond.); Harmonia Mundi (France)
Handel: Fernando; Alan Curtis (cond.);
label to be confirmed
Lawrence Zazzo: http://www.lawrencezazzo.com
Choir : http://www.clare.cam.ac.uk/life/choir
Harmonia mundi: http://www.harmoniamundi.com
Early Opera Company: http://www.earlyoperacompany.com
Ed.: Handel altered Fernando to Sosarme during the
composition process. Despite some conjecture, the reason why Handel
altered the character names, location and title of the opera are not
known. Alan Curtis has reconstructed the original version using evidence
from the autograph manuscript.
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August 30, 2020
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