19 April 1999 - Countertenor Brian Asawa was in Geneva last year to
sing the role of Arsamenes in Handel's Serse, a role he has also
recorded. One of the new breed of countertenors that wants to break out
of the baroque and early music ghetto, Asawa - along with David Daniels
- spearheads a generation that is probably more inspired by Jochen
Kowalski than Alfred Deller in terms of sound quality, stamina and above
all volume. One might even apply the neologism, heldencountertenor.
Brian Asawa was born in California in 1966, grew up in Los Angeles and
began as a piano major at the University of California in Santa Cruz. He
then transferred to Los Angeles when he discovered his countertenor
Brian Asawa: I sang in choruses as a tenor, and
then discovered this falsetto voice by imitating sopranos or the soprano
line in the choral music I was singing at the time, and realized it was
a strong sound. I took this idea of singing falsetto to my teacher, not
knowing anything about early music, about baroque opera, about
ornamentation, repertoire, or anything about what the countertenor was.
My teacher at the time informed me about the period, the genre, and we
started working on this countertenor voice. Then I transferred to UCLA
to go back to Los Angeles, a city where there was more music.
Who were your teachers originally?
BA:I did have one
teacher at Santa Cruz, Harlan Hokin, who was a light tenor and sang a
lot of Messiahs and baroque music, and was involved in the whole
northern California early music scene. He's the one who told me what a
countertenor is, saying "let's try it out". He was excited.
Strangely, we worked on a Schumann piece, a Debussy mélodie and a
Buxtehude cantata, so at least one piece of music was appropriate for my
voice. Then I had a private voice teacher, Virginia Fox, who in my early
training was probably the most influential in terms of vocal
development. She's not well known, but she's the one who developed the
power and strength in my voice, and then I took this voice and went to
San Francisco for the Merola program at the San Francisco Opera. Then
they invited me back as an Adler fellow in 91-92, as one of the young
artists in residence, and it was then that I started with a high
coloratura, Jane Randolph. She's probably the person most responsible
for how my voice sounds today and for my technical abilities now. She
took this voice that I couldn't do very much with and gave it the
ability to express...
Operanet: What do you mean you
couldn't do very much with it, expressively or technically?
Technically, because the technique I was given by Virginia was very
tight, a Germanic biting-the-apple approach, where the sound is
impressive but there was no flexibility, I couldn't do anything with it
because it was all held so tight. When I went to San Francisco I found
Jane Randolph who had just moved from San Diego. We started to work, and
she's given me the ability to do with music what I've always wanted, to
express and convey emotions without feeling trapped by a technique that
was very tense.
Operanet: I've noticed that you're part
of a new school of countertenors where the voice is more closely
integrated, which hadn't always been the case previously.
It's a lifelong process to stay on top of your technique and your
engagements. Every time I do a new role, there are different
difficulties and hurdles to overcome. In Mitridate, a lot of the
role of Farnace lies in a very comfortable range, but then from time to
time Mozart puts in these high notes that, for me, don't feel all that
comfortable, singing all the time in the middle range and then suddenly
shoot up and come back down. The range is definitely a big challenge.
Christophe Rousset also writes out all the ornamentation for every
singer. Some of it is just so difficult, but it is negotiable. He
subdivides 16th notes into 32nds in some places. It's not that bad,
because it's a slow aria, but it sounds like he's trying to Rossini-ize
it. Some of the runs start from a high G, and this isn't my voice.
Would you prefer to do your own ornamentation?
or at least work on it together. That's my favorite way of working.
Operanet: How many new roles do you add in the course
of a year?
BA: It depends on what year. This year, I'm
doing Anfinomo and Umana Fragilita (Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria),
my first Nero (Incoronazione di Poppea), the title role in Admeto
(Handel) and Farnace, and then Polinesso in Ariodante in
Dallas-I finally get to sing in my own country, it's so exciting.
That's not your first experience in the USA?
BA: No. I
was one of the few young singers able to start in the States and stay
there for a while. Then, suddenly, all the European engagements started
coming in and the American engagements fell off a little. I think that's
due largely to the repertoire I sing. If an opera company in the States
likes me a lot, I have to wait, or they have to wait, until something in
the repertoire comes along.
Operanet: How much
repertoire do you do outside the baroque? You're adding a Mozart opera,
and I know you've sung Baba the Turk in Rake's Progress.
And Prince Orlofsky. I've done a role in a Henze opera, Das
verratene Meer, which was actually my professional debut with an
opera company in 1991 in San Francisco, and Oberon in Britten's Midsummer
Night's Dream and the Voice of Apollo in his Death in Venice,
which is not that exciting a role. It's strange, because he gets third
billing, but he's offstage. I'm very interested in modern operas, and I
hope more opportunities come about.
I tell Brian Asawa
about Peter Eotvos's Three Sisters that I have just seen in Lyons, where
four countertenors are needed for the female roles, a concept he finds
BA: That's a lot of treble singing.
Operanet: Have any other countertenors had a
significant influence on you?
BA: I have listened to
everyone pretty much. In terms of actual beauty of timbre, I've really
enjoyed hearing Jochen Kowalski.
Operanet: What about
BA: I love his artistry, but it's a much
lighter, more "period" way of singing...
...a different approach...
BA: It's interesting because
I came from the world of opera and then moved into the early music
world, because I studied with singers who trained operatically and
treated my voice not as an early music anomaly but rather as a real
voice. I was never really comfortable with singing totally straight
tone, which a lot of early music singers even now still do. It's changed
a lot. All these early music conductors are now realizing that it's more
exciting to have real voices as opposed to these lighter, white
Operanet: ...like Emma Kirkby.
I've enjoyed listening to recordings by James Bowman, Michael Chance,
Drew Minter, Derek-Lee Ragin. It's interesting, because every one of
them has such a different sound. There's a more typical sound, say, in
English countertenor singing. A straighter tone, avoidance of chest
register at the bottom, but in general, especially with American
countertenors, everyone has such a different sound, whereas with mezzos,
for instance, one equates a certain timbre to that voice type. When
people call a countertenor a male soprano or a sopranist, I frown,
because in that case he should be singing soprano pitches, but people
are classified by their timbre rather than the actual pitches.
Do you feel any restrictions when you do recitals concerning choice of
material or do you feel you can sing whatever you want?
I try and choose a variety of repertoire because I think audiences
appreciate that, rather than going to hear a Russian singer do nothing
but Rachmaninoff. I do a couple of sets of early music and then move on
to something classical and then a contemporary song cycle. I definitely
try and choose specific songs that complement my voice, whatever the
period or whoever the composer. I would never sing "Erlkönig",
for instance, because I don't have a dramatic soprano voice. I think
even lighter countertenors can find Schubert or Mozart songs that are
appropriate for them. It's dangerous to do a lot of high repertoire.
When a countertenor goes back and forth between low and high parts, that
can be dangerous.
We talk about contraltos, countertenors,
and upcoming plans, including the role of Tolomeo in Handel's Giulio
Cesare in Bordeaux with Natalie Stutzmann in the title role, just before
he goes to the Met where he will be joined by Jennifer Larmore and David
Daniels who will be singing Sesto.
Daniels is obviously a higher countertenor than you.
I think he feels more comfortable up there, but our ranges in fact
pretty much overlap. I probably feel more comfortable doing lower parts
like Oberon and he would be more comfortable as Nero or Sesto. He said
he would never attempt Baba the Turk, which is pretty much in the
middle, with a high A, but I think if we had to sing scales and go up
and down, the ranges would be pretty similar. He sounds more like a
soprano and he feels more comfortable at the top.
In most of the Handel operas you've sung, you're usually the second
male-a role usualy written for a woman, incidentally-but you've just
sung Admeto. Is that a higher role?
BA: It's actually
very low, because it was written for Senesino, and it might even have
been towards the end of his career when his ranged dropped a bit. It's
about a minor third lower than Rinaldo. I have to keep going into the
chest register, but it's quite comfortable as well. I need to start
doing some research on this, because roles like Ascanio (Mozart's Ascanio
in Alba) or Farnace feel really comfortable, so that if I found out
who the singer was, I could see what else he did. Gluck's Orfeo
is another comfortable role, so I should look into what other roles
Operanet: Is your technique self-taught
in terms of dealing with the chest register, integrating it with the
rest of the voice?
BA: No, I've been trained to try
and blend it as much as possible, but I definitely use it in dramatic
parts, but it was all part of the training I was given by my teachers.
They treated my break as a mezzo or soprano break, except that a
countertenor break between chest and head voice is a lot more prominent
than for a soprano. Mezzos tend to bring the chest voice much higher
before they start mixing the registers and emerging into the head voice.
For countertenors, I think the key is to keep the head voice as low as
possible and then change at the very bottom of the range. I think it's
dangerous to bring the chest voice higher and higher, like N*** who
brings the chest voice so far up that he sounds like a tenor with a
Operanet: You're going to sing Nero soon,
which is a soprano role. Have they said at what pitch they're
BA: I was told 440, but then the company
said 415. It should be 440 from what we know today. When David (Daniels)
did it at Glimmerglass with Jane Glover it was at 415, but he's since
done it at the higher pitch and he told me, "Brian, you better be
really solid because it's a tough role at 440 for a countertenor."
I've been working on it at the higher pitch, but I must find out.
What are some of your other projects?
BA: I just got
through doing an unusual solo CD of vocalises: Rachmaninoff, the
Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasilieras, a newly arranged Fauré Pavane,
and a vocalise from hell by Medtner and songs by those four composers,
with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.
It was a big project, in four languages. It was all new repertoire for
me, except the Fauré. It'll be interesting for listeners to hear
the Rachmaninoff Vocalise down a perfect fifth. Serse will be
out soon, and then I'm recording two song cycles by Ned Rorem with
chamber orchestra: "More than a day" is new, to a series of
poems by Jack Larsen for his lover who passed away, and "From an
unknown past" was originally an a capella four-part song cycle,
rewritten for solo voice and piano, and Rorem is now arranging it for
chamber orchestra for me to sing. The first was written for me, I think,
but the engagement with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra clinched the
project. I had already done the second in my senior recital at UCLA.
They're about 15 minutes each, and the disc will be completed with two
orchestral pieces. And then at sometime, always for BMG, I'm supposed to
make a disc of Handel arias, which will be the third of the series under
this three-disc contract.
Operanet: And beyond that?
One of my dream roles is Malcolm in Rossini's Donna del Lago. I
have to start praying to the coloratura gods, because "Mura felici"....
(with vocal illustration). It's a perfect range for me, but a little too
florid for the moment. But you have to have some goals.
And other goals?
BA: I would love to do Cesare, but a
lot of it is strangely low, around middle C. That's what's so amazing
about Larmore - she's so comfortable in that lower register, and then
she can pop up to a high B. Others take the arias up a minor or major
The dark is my
delight and other 16th century lute songs : David Tayler, lute
Vocalises :Sir Neville Marriner, Academy
of St Martin's in the Fields (RCA): Fauré, Medtner, Rachmaninoff,
Handel: Serse (Conifer), with
Jennifer Smith, Lisa Milne, Judith Malafronte, Susan Bickley and the
Hanover Band, conducted by Nicholas McGegan
To be released
Mozart: Mitridate (Oiseau-Lyre),
with Natalie Dessay, Cecilia Bartoli, Sandrine Piau, Giuseppe Sabbatini
and Les Talens Lyriques, conducted by Christophe Rousset