Jakub Józef Orliński in Ascension

Jakub Józef Orlinski | 1 credit

Countertenors are quite rare. But a champion break-dancing countertenor with his own team? It is enormous. And so, one might add, is the rising superstar Jakub Jozef Orlinski. At 31, Orliński not only sells concert halls and opera houses across Europe and the United States – and attracts new followers of this art form – his recording career is not to be despised either: Exclusive artist on the Warner/Erato label, the singer has three albums to his credit, including the first, Anima Sacra (2018) which won him the prestigious Opus Klassik Prize for solo vocal recording. Currently on a North American recital tour with the pianist Michal Biel, Outings from Orliński a new album in May, Farewellwhich will feature all Polish songs.

Born in 1990 in Warsaw, Poland to an artist mother and a graphic designer father, Orliński began singing in an all-male Gregorian choir in his hometown. At age 16, he and several other choristers started a men’s ensemble where Renaissance music called for a pair of countertenors. The rest, as they say, is history, with Orliński eventually making it to Juilliard. Indeed, while he was still a student, the singer triumphed in multiple vocal competitions, including the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions in 2016, after which The New York Times‘ Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim wrote that Orlinkski, “the combined beauty of tone and an unusual unity of color and polish throughout its range in the selections of Britten and Handel.”

Graduated in 2017, the Pole, who still lives in Warsaw, immediately began an international career. That same year he sang Vivaldi’s aria “Vedrò con mio diletto” at the Aix en Provence Festival before addressing Handel’s title role Rinaldo at the Frankfurt Opera in 2019. Television appearances included the “Paris Concert” at the Eiffel Tower and “Rebuilding Notre Dame de Paris”. Both have been streamed to millions of people around the world.

And the gigs kept coming: highlights from past seasons included Orliński’s first solo concert at Carnegie Hall with members of New York Baroque Incorporated; as he made his Metropolitan Opera debut last November in Matthew Aucoin Eurydice (the 2020 world premiere was with the Los Angeles Opera shortly before the pandemic).

I was lucky enough to catch up with the devilishly busy musician on the phone, while he was in Santa Barbara between concerts. Orliński – unsurprisingly – was not at a loss for words, discussing his recent performances, his love of breakdancing and his latest trip to Warsaw.

I would like to start with Poland’s role in the Russian assault on Ukraine. While you and your family still lived in Warsaw, you were there just when the war broke out. How was it for you?

Jakub Józef Orlinski | Credit: Honorata Karapuda

It’s a very, very difficult time and a stressful and scary situation. Right now it is heartbreaking what is happening to our neighbors. Hundreds of thousands of people arrive in Poland and those who try to help donate their own homes by Airbnb has canceled [rates]. School gymnasiums are transformed into living spaces. It’s a huge amount of volunteer work that the Poles do, which I find extremely comforting and important because they are our neighbours.

I was there those few days and tried to help as much as possible, to provide whatever I could. It’s not like a few people are coming. The trains are crowded and you can see them sleeping on the floor. People prepare hundreds of sandwiches to bring. They have nothing, maybe a suitcase. It’s not numbers, it’s real people coming. It’s difficult and frustrating.

It seems your heart is as big as your voice, which speaks to the healing power of music. So it’s no coincidence that during your current tour you sing a number of Polish songs from your upcoming album, Farewell.

I make Polish songs that are relevant in this situation. Most were written in the late 19th century and early 20th century. These are beautiful poems that contain a lot of frustration, sadness and longing for your own country, and I am happy to present them. This recital tour with my pianist, Michal Bielis the result of what we recorded [including music of] Stanislaw Moniuszko and Henrik Czyż.

Your appearances in California also featured Purcell and Handel, which brings me to the notion of how you decide on a program.

With Michael, we are trying to take a trip. The idea here was to present as much Polish music as possible and make people aware of what we have. These songs, which in Poland, everyone knows, all the pupils sing them. It’s very popular vocal music and they are masterpieces in my opinion. The fact is that no one but the Poles knows them.

To make [the songs] in England, Spain or Atlanta [Georgia]where people were so amazed by them, they [wondered]”What is it? Who are these composers? I’m super happy to see this amazement, and then they go home and check the music. That’s our goal. We also added Purcell, because that these are cool tracks to play with this very intense group of Polish songs that are dramatic and tragic and have a good balance.

Here’s the question you must be hating now: How would you describe yourself – a breakdancing countertenor or a breakdancing countertenor?

I know the press likes it, but I don’t care. I know what people like to read and those are catchy phrases. I love [breaking] and I still do it actively. I also still have my Skill Fanatikz Crew in Warsaw. It’s not a hobby, it’s a way of life. I might not do it for a week, but it’s still a part of me and I do my breakdance routine before singing on stage.

Somehow I don’t see Anthony Roth Costanzo throwing a ground rock before putting on the royal outfit in Glass’s Akhenaten. And I understand that to promote your Met debut in Eurydice you were filmed in Lincoln Center Plaza – in slow motion, much less, snapping a motion. But what about vocal warm-ups?

I do vocal warm-ups, yes, but first I have to wake up my body, then I can sing. It’s important for vocal hygiene, for a healthy lifestyle, especially with all the travel. I do a lot of physical things to maintain that and my mental health, not just bad emotions, but good emotions.

Aren’t you afraid of hurting yourself by doing a powerful move like a flare or a windmill?

Not really! The first thing you need to learn is how to fall. If you know how to fall – and you have to know your limits – but if you know how to fall, you won’t kill yourself. Go for it.

I’m still in awe, but back to the music. Is there a countertenor cult, meaning you’re all set for the same roles – and who were some of your influences?

I believe there is a place for everyone and we all have different colors, different tones. I’m not fighting for a role, I’m doing my thing and I’m happy to do it. I do a concert tour, another concert tour, then another production and everything is fine. I can’t complain because there is room for everyone.

[Regarding] influences, I listened [Philippe] Jaroussky, David Daniels, all those great countertenors. But I also listened to Marilyn Horne. I was trying to get what I like from each person, each voice, and apply it to mine.

What was it like making your Royal Opera House debut in February in Handel’s rarely staged work, Theodorawith Julia Bullock at your Didyma and Harry Bicket in the pit?

I’ve known Harry for a few years, but it was amazing to work with him for the first time on an opera project. Director Katie Mitchell is something of a legend and Julia Bullock was awesome. She’s such a lively person, a real actress. That’s the thing: there’s no simulation, no opera play, there was no such thing as standing and singing [old school of performing]. It was super relatable and we were very realistic in this opera in this staging. It was difficult but amazing.

What is your process for preparing for a role?

Usually you need to know all the background. Historically, what the piece is about and the basics, before picking up the score, then slowly reading the music. I have many ways to put music into my voice. It takes a lot of time and work, but it’s not boring [and] I like to practice. You have to put every tune, every recitative in your voice. The thing is, when you’re on stage and you’re doing it with a director, I need to know, “What kind of shoes am I wearing?” These shoes imply movement, they describe your character, so I know exactly what and how I can move as a character.

It’s fascinating ! You and pianist Yuja Wang — and shoes!

Yes, we are friends!

OK, Jakub, what about the idea of ​​you becoming a brand? You collaborated with a trio of Polish rappers and pop stars for a Pepsi ad in 2020 that had more than four million views on YouTube. Do you present offers left and right?

The thing is, of course what’s happening is I’m getting a lot of offers, but it’s a tricky situation. I get offers from different rappers, as a countertenor and a person who does [breakdancing]. I started my journey a while ago and this stuff can be tricky, if done poorly or cheaply. I am very aware of that.

I want to do things that are going to be tasteful, from a classical music standpoint. With Pepsi, it was risky, but I knew who I was doing it with and I had a discussion with the producer, that we had to make it work for everyone, the rappers, me, the hip hop producer. If it’s not risky, it’s not fun.

No one can accuse you of not taking risks. But what gave you the confidence to pursue a career as a countertenor?

I was very do not confident at first. As you advance on the path and struggle so much, you become harder and harder and stronger. Travel has taught me to do things my way. From the start I had to be my own manager and for the first few years I did everything by myself. It taught me a lot – how people try to use you and what you can demand from institutions – what they should provide.

It has been a very instructive experience to learn this on your own skin, to feel it on your own skin.

I just spent thousands of hours learning and practicing. I do not sleep a lot.

I have no doubt about it. You’re also big on instagram, where you have 125,000 followers and seem remarkably upbeat, with your posts mostly reflecting that. Have you ever had rest days and what is your remedy?

I have dead days. Now people who know my Instagram know something is up. It is very real what is happening with our Ukrainian neighbors. I don’t feel as happy as I would doing this tour. It’s very hard to find meaning in what you’re doing when things are like this — to find that pure joy, which is there with me. But there are still people who need a moment of light, I guess, a moment of exposure for the arts. That’s what we’re trying to do – bring some light and also awareness with our tour right now.

Comments are closed.