Countertenors are rare enough. But a countertenor who’s a champion break dancer, one with his own crew? That’s a huge deal. And so, one might add, is the ascendant superstar Jakub Józef Orliński. At 31, Orliński is not only selling out concert halls and opera houses throughout Europe and the United States — and attracting new followers to the art form — his recording career is also, well, nothing to sneeze at: An exclusive artist on the Warner/Erato label, the singer has three albums to his credit, with the first release, Anima Sacra (2018) having earned him the prestigious Opus Klassik award for Solo Vocal Recording. Currently on a North American recital tour with pianist Michał Biel, Orliński releases a new album in May, Farewells, that will feature all Polish songs.
Born in 1990 in Warsaw, Poland, to an artist mother and a father who is a graphic designer, Orliński began singing in an all-male Gregorian choir in his hometown. At 16, he and several other choristers began a men’s ensemble where Renaissance music called for a pair of countertenors. The rest, as they say, is history, with Orliński ultimately going to Juilliard. Indeed, while 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 Orliński, “combined beauty of tone and an uncommon unity of color and polish across his range in selections by Britten and Handel.”
Graduating in 2017, the Pole, who still calls Warsaw home, immediately began an international career. That same year he sang Vivaldi’s aria “Vedrò con mio diletto” at the Aix-en-Provence Festival before tackling the title role of Handel’s Rinaldo at Oper Frankfurt in 2019. Television appearances included the “Concert de Paris” at the Eiffel Tower and “Rebuild Notre Dame de Paris.” Both were broadcast to millions worldwide.
And the gigs kept coming: Highlights of past seasons included Orliński’s Carnegie Hall solo concert debut featuring members of New York Baroque Incorporated; while his Metropolitan Opera debut last November was in Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice (the 2020 world premiere was with Los Angeles Opera shortly before the pandemic).
I had a chance to catch up with the fiendishly busy musician by phone, where he was in Santa Barbara between concerts. Orliński — no surprise — was not at a loss for words, chatting about his recent performances, his love of breakdancing, and his most recent trip home to Warsaw.
I’d like to start with the role Poland is playing in the Russian assault on Ukraine. With you and your family still living in Warsaw, you happened to be there just as the war broke out. What was that like for you?
It’s very, very difficult times and a stressful, scary situation. In this moment, it’s heartbreaking what’s happening to our neighbors. Hundreds of thousands of people are coming to Poland and those trying to help are giving their own houses through Airbnb at cancelled [rates]. School gyms are turning into living spaces. It’s an enormous amount of voluntary work that Polish people are doing, which I find extremely heartwarming and important because those are our neighbors.
I was there those few days and was trying to help as much as possible, to supply whatever I can. It’s not like a few people are coming. Trains are packed and you can see them sleeping on the floor. People are making hundreds of sandwiches to bring them. They have nothing, maybe one suitcase. They’re not numbers, they’re real people who are coming. It’s difficult and frustrating.
It seems as if your heart is as big as your voice, which is testament to the healing power of music. It’s no coincidence then, that on your current tour, you’re singing a number of Polish songs from your upcoming album, Farewells.
I am doing Polish songs that are relevant in this situation. The majority were written in the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20thcentury. They are beautiful poems that contain a lot of frustration, sadness and the longing of your own country, and I’m happy to present them. This recital tour with my pianist, Michał Biel, is a result of what we have recorded [including music of] Stanisław Moniuszko and Henryk Czyż.
Your California appearances also showcased some Purcell and Handel, which brings me to the notion of how you decide on a program.
With Michał, we try to do a journey. The idea here was to present as much Polish music as possible and make people aware of what we have. Those songs, which in Poland, everybody knows, every student sings them. It’s very popular vocal music and they’re masterpieces in my opinion. The thing is, nobody besides Polish people know them.
To perform [the songs] in England, Spain, or Atlanta [Georgia], where people were so amazed by them, they [wondered], “What is that? What are those composers?” I’m super happy to see that amazement and then they go back home and are checking the music. This is our goal. We also added some Purcell, because those are cool pieces to play with this very intense group of Polish songs that are dramatic and tragic and to have a good balance.
Here comes the question you must abhor by now: How would you describe yourself — a breakdancing countertenor or a countertenor who happens to break dance?
I know the press loves that, but I don’t really 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 lifestyle. I may not do it for a week, but it’s still part of me and I do my breakdancing routine before I sing on stage.
Somehow, I can’t see Anthony Roth Costanzo throwing down a floor rock before donning royal garb in Glass’s Akhnaten. And I understand that to promote your Met debut in Eurydice you were filmed on the Lincoln Center Plaza — in slo-mo, much less, busting a move. But what about vocal warmups?
I do vocal warm ups, yes, but first I have to awake my body, then I can sing. It’s important for the vocal hygiene, for the healthy lifestyle, especially with all the travel. I do a lot of physical stuff to maintain that and mental health, not only bad emotions, but good emotions.
Aren’t you afraid of injuring yourself doing a power move like a flare or a windmill?
Not really! The first thing you have 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. Just go for it.
I’m still in awe, but back to the music. Is there a cult of countertenors, meaning are you all up for the same roles — and who were some of your influences?
I believe that there is a place for everybody and we all have different colors, different tones. I do not fight for a role, I do my thing and I’m happy to do it. I’m doing a concert tour, another concert tour, then another production and it’s all great. I can’t complain because there’s space for everybody.
[Regarding] influences, I listened to [Philippe] Jaroussky, David Daniels, all of those great countertenors. But I also listened to Marilyn Horne. I was trying to get whatever I like from each person, each voice, and apply it to my own.
What was it like making your debut at the Royal Opera House in February in the rarely staged Handel work, Theodora, with Julia Bullock to your Didymus 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. The director Katie Mitchell is kind of a legend and Julia Bullock was so great. She’s such a live person, a real actress. This is the thing: There is no pretending, no operatic acting, there was nothing like that stand and sing [old school of performing]. It was super relatable and we were very realistic in that opera in that staging. It was difficult but amazing.
What’s your process in preparing for a role?
Usually, you have to know the whole background. Historically, what is the piece about and the basics, before you take the score and then read slowly through the music. I have a lot of ways to put the music into my voice. It takes a lot of time and work, but it’s not boring [and] I love to practice. You have to put every aria, every recitativo into your voice. The thing is, when you are onstage and when you’re doing it with a director, I need to know, “What kind of shoes I’m wearing?” These shoes imply the movement, it describes your character, then I know exactly what and how I can move as a character.
That’s fascinating! You and pianist Yuja Wang — and shoes!
Yes, we’re friends!
Okay, Jakub, what about the idea that you’re actually becoming a brand? You collaborated with a trio of Polish rappers and pop stars for a Pepsi ad in 2020 that’s gotten more than four million views on YouTube. Are you fielding offers left and right?
The thing is, of course what’s happening is I get a lot of offers, but it’s a tricky situation. I’m getting offers from different rappers, as a countertenor and person who does [breakdancing]. I started my journey some time ago and those kinds of things can be tricky, if they’re badly done or cheap. I am very aware of that.
I want to do things that are going to be tasteful, from the point of classical music. With Pepsi, it was risky, but I knew with whom I was going into it and had a talk with the producer, that we have to make it in a way that it would work for everybody, the rappers, me, the hip-hop producer. If it’s no risk, it’s no fun.
Nobody can accuse you of not taking risks. But what gave you the confidence to pursue a career as a countertenor?
I was very not confident at the beginning. When you go along the way and struggle so much, you become harder and stronger and tougher. The journey taught me how to do things my way. From the beginning I had to be my own manager and for the first few years I was doing everything by myself. It taught me quite a lot — how people are trying to use you and what you can demand from institutions — what they should provide.
It’s been a very educational experience, to learn that on your own skin, feel it on your own skin.
I just spent thousands of hours learning things and practicing. I don’t sleep much.
I don’t doubt it. You’re also big on Instagram, where you’ve got 125,000 followers and seem remarkably upbeat, with your posts, for the most part, reflecting that. Do you ever have down days and what’s your remedy?
I do have down days. Now, people who know my Instagram know something’s happening. It’s very real what is happening with our neighbors in Ukraine. I don’t feel as happy as I would doing this tour. It’s very difficult to find sense in what you do when things are happening like this — to find this pure joy, which is there with me. But there’s still people who need a moment of light, I guess, a moment of exposure for the arts. This is what we try to do — bring some light and also awareness with our tour right now.