Jakub Józef Orliński talks to Rick Perdian

Jakub Józef Orliński (Orpheus’s Double) and Joshua Hopkins (Orpheus) in Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice © Marty Sohl

Jakub Józef Orliński became an international sensation in 2017 with a YouTube video of him singing an aria, ‘Vedro con mio diletto’, from Vivaldi’s opera Il Giustino. Rather than the fiery coloratura Baroque showpieces that he often sings, the Polish countertenor performed a smoothly flowing love song with exquisite tone, seamless line and intense emotion. The video has received over eight million hits, and the number is sure to rise with his career going full tilt.

Orliński is in New York for his Metropolitan Opera debut in Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice on 23 November. In an interview on the morning of the first rehearsal with chorus and orchestra, Rick Perdian and Orliński talked about the excitement of working with a living composer; and about the impact of the pandemic on his career and what comes next. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Rick Perdian: You have garnered fame singing the works of Baroque composers. Is Eurydice your first time singing the music of a living composer?

Jakub Józef Orliński: My first experience with contemporary opera was the role of the Refugee in Jonathan Dove’s Flight when I was a student at The Juilliard School in 2016. Before that, I had sung songs by living composers but never anything so monumental as Flight – with the composer at my side, which is really, really scary, but exciting and fun at the same time.

RP: Matthew Aucoin is your exact contemporary: both of you were born in 1990. Does this bring a special dynamic to your working relationship?

JJO: I don’t know whether it brings a special dynamic, but being the same age means we interact as equals – we work together, not one above the other. I am, however, awed by what he is doing. For me, it’s incredible to be a singer and performing at the Met at the age of 30. On the other hand, Matt is a super-young composer, and this opera was already staged at LA Opera. How cool is that? I’m also really impressed with his way of thinking, and how and why he is composing the music that he does. It is quite extraordinary to discover the colors, different layers, symbols and musical connections between the characters. That’s why I like to ask him questions, because there is so much in his music.

RP: Has he been actively involved in the rehearsal process?

JJO: Matt is constantly there to check things, and he makes himself available so that you can talk to him about your ideas. He is really there for us, and you never get the sense that he is judging us, but rather trying to communicate why he wrote something the way he did, especially if you don’t understand it. And, to be honest, when I started working on the piece I was scared. On the page it looks complicated and difficult rhythmically, but once you start getting into it you sense how amazingly Matthew writes for the voice. It is difficult musically, but once you have it, it becomes organic, natural and authentic, eventually becoming a part of you and your body.

RP: The cast nicknamed you ‘Music’ from the first day of rehearsals. Can you tell us something about your role in Eurydice?

JJO: I am Orpheus’s double. He’s quite a normal guy, just an ordinary dude, and there isn’t anything special about him except that he has this extraordinary music talent. So, Matthew created a double; whenever Orpheus is thinking about music, trying to compose, or when something special is happening in the opera, I appear. It’s not that I am always with Orpheus, but it’s really cool when, in middle of a conversation between Orpheus and Eurydice, I suddenly appear and become the third wheel. I don’t have an aria or a solo as I am always singing with Orpheus. The entire opera requires extraordinary ensemble work, and you have to be super sharp about everything. When it goes right, it’s mind blowing, but if someone is slightly off you immediately sense it. It requires an enormous amount of concentration to capture all of the nuances, but they are essential.

RP: Have you worked with Yannick Nézet-Séguin previously?

JJO: I met him for the first time when I was a student at Juilliard and passed him in a corridor. I just said ‘hello’, and that was it. Later, we had a brief exchange on social media, but this is the first time we’ve actually worked together.

RP: And what has it been like working with him?

JJO: I love it – Yannick is so precise and caring, which is really important for everyone to succeed and be at their best. He’s a very enthusiastic person with positive energy, and I am too, which makes the work even nicer. Yannick knows what he wants, and he can communicate it. You know how to sing when he is conducting as he is putting into his movements everything that he wants. I’m very happy with the work that we are doing with him.

Anima Aeterna © Warner Classics

RP: Will there be more contemporary music in your future?

JJO: I’ve received some offers for more contemporary works, but I could not accept them due to other projects. My third solo album for Warner Classics, Anima Aeterna, was released at the end of October, and I just finishing work on a recording of Polish songs that will come out in April 2022. Other Polish singers have recorded some of them, but this will be the first time that they have been sung by a countertenor. The album’s working title is ‘Farewells’, and it will include songs that Poles know but few others do. They are songs from the period before Poland regained its independence in 1918, which are full of longing, passion, drama, hope and sadness.

RP: Do you spend much time in Warsaw?

JJO: I live in a little apartment that is in the neighborhood where my family lives. I have an old Dutch bike without any gears, which I use to get around. I rarely sing in Poland, but that changed during the pandemic, and I sang there quite a few times. Together with my friend, pianist Aleksander Dębicz (he has a piano in his apartment), we began doing charity concerts via Zoom. The first was in Poland, followed by more in London, San Francisco and other places. When the pandemic hit, I had about one month off during the early days of lockdown, and then got busy with recordings, online collaborations and then live performances.

RP: One of your musical dreams also came true during the pandemic, didn’t it?

JJO: The King’s Singers were one of my main sources of inspiration for what I do now. Their level of musicianship is amazing. In 2020, we began chatting and decided to collaborate on a new arrangement of Purcell’s aria ‘Music for a while’, which was released as a single on Warner Classics. It was one of my dreams to perform with them, and it happened.

RP: What’s next on your schedule?

JJO: After I am finished at the Met, I’ll spend one day in Warsaw, and then I go to London to begin rehearsals for Handel’s Theodora with Joyce DiDonato and Julia Bullock. I am really excited about performing with those two incredible artists. After that comes a North American recital tour and concerts with Il Pomo d’Oro in Europe, along with more solo recitals. That keeps me busy through the beginning of July.

Jakub Józef Orliński © Bożna Wydrowska

RP: Do you still find time to breakdance?

JJO: Of course. In Warsaw, I dance with my crew. In New York, I’ve been able to use a ballet studio at the Met and a small yoga studio. Singing is so physical, and breakdancing helps me maintain that connection with my body. With both singing and dancing there is this sense of freedom when everything is going right. It’s as if you can do anything.

Rick Perdian

For more about Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice at the Met click here.

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