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An Interview with
Brian Asawa

By Joel Kasow

Brian Asawa
GENEVA, 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 voice.

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.

Operanet: 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?

BA: 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.

BA: 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.

Operanet: Would you prefer to do your own ornamentation?

BA: Yes, 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.

Operanet: 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.

BA: 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 fascinating.

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 Alfred Deller?

BA: I love his artistry, but it's a much lighter, more "period" way of singing...

Operanet: ...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 sounds...

Operanet: ...like Emma Kirkby.

BA: 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.

Operanet: Do you feel any restrictions when you do recitals concerning choice of material or do you feel you can sing whatever you want?

BA: 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.

Operanet: David Daniels is obviously a higher countertenor than you.

BA: 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.

Operanet: 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 Guadagni sang.

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 falsetto top.

Operanet: You're going to sing Nero soon, which is a soprano role. Have they said at what pitch they're performing?

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.

Operanet: 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?

BA: 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.

Operanet: 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 third.


The dark is my delight and other 16th century lute songs : David Tayler, lute (RCA)

Vocalises :Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St Martin's in the Fields (RCA): Fauré, Medtner, Rachmaninoff, Villa-Lobos

Handel: Serse (Conifer), with Jennifer Smith, Lisa Milne, Judith Malafronte, Susan Bickley and the Hanover Band, conducted by Nicholas McGegan

To be released spring 1999:

Mozart: Mitridate (Oiseau-Lyre), with Natalie Dessay, Cecilia Bartoli, Sandrine Piau, Giuseppe Sabbatini and Les Talens Lyriques, conducted by Christophe Rousset

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