Interview with David Hansen

Born in Sydney, Australia, countertenor David Hansen has proven himself one of the most remarkable artists before the public today.  The owner of a voice of staggering vocal range and agility, his repertoire ranges from Monteverdi to Adès.  Following studies in Australia, Mr Hansen made his European debut at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in 2004.  Since then, he has performed on leading lyric stages and at major festivals such as Santa Fé, Innsbruck, Oslo, La Monnaie – De Munt, and the Staatsoper Berlin.  His solo album Rivals – Arias for Farinelli & Co was released in 2013.  Recent, current and future engagements include Nerone in Zürich, Ruggiero in Karlsruhe and at the Bolshoi, Arbace in Sydney and Prince Go-Go in Zürich.  I caught up with Mr Hansen by telephone from Vienna between rehearsals for Ruggiero at the Theater an der Wien. 

David Hansen. Photo: © Tonje Thilesen.

Mr Hansen, you are currently in rehearsals for Ruggiero at the Theater an der Wien.  This is a role you’ve performed quite frequently, also in Karlsruhe and at the Bolshoi recently.  How do you approach taking on a familiar role again with a new cast, director and conductor?

With an open mind but also with the mindset to continue learning; just because I’ve done the opera several times previously doesn’t mean there isn’t more to learn.  Already during these first rehearsals, I’ve learned new approaches to the arias I sing and to the scenes I play.  It’s my first time working with the director, Tatjana Gürbaca, but it’s actually the first of two operas we’ll be doing together this season – the other is Le Grand Macabre in Zürich over the winter.  Prior to starting rehearsals here I was most curious about this relationship, seeing as we’ll be spending a good four or five months together this season.  I’ve worked with the conductor, Stefan Gottfried, before.  He was playing harpsichord in the concerts I did with Harnoncourt before he passed away, but it’s my first time working with Stefan as a conductor.  To know that Harnoncourt passed on his orchestra, Concentus Musicus Wien, to Stefan is a massive legacy and a huge compliment to his musicianship – and in fact, after just one day of working with him I could see why: he is in the same mould as Harnoncourt; a man of great humility coupled with an equally great sense of musicianship.  It is an absolute joy to work with him and musically I’m really excited to see how things develop over the next few weeks before we open.  It’s always nice when you like the people you’re working with and it’s even nicer when you can learn from them.

As Ruggiero at the Bolshoi in 2017. Photo used with the kind permission of Mr Hansen

Your last production before this was of course Nerone in L’incoronazione di Poppea in Zürich.  It was a remarkable show – one of those evenings where the singing, orchestral playing, conducting and production came together to create something quite special.  Tell us about your experience of working on this show.

It was the absolute highlight of my operatic career to date and it made an enormous statement as to the relevance of opera in the world today.  Everyone did such a fantastic job – the cast, the crew, the whole team.  There was an unmistakable buzz from day one.  Of course, until you see everything put together on stage you don’t know how it really will be, but we all had a very special feeling throughout.  When we finally got to being on stage, seeing and hearing the way audiences reacted was the icing on the cake.

And of course you were very close to the audience there because you were performing surrounded by audience members.

They certainly saw more of me than they probably bargained for!  I think I was probably either sweating or spitting on them most of the time!  That just made it all the more immediate.  We could see, and even hear, reactions at times from the audience.  There was one performance where at the moment when Julie Fuchs’ Poppea and I were embracing, while Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s Ottavia sang ‘addio Roma’, I heard a woman in the audience say ‘nein!’  She was so shocked that the two of us were embracing while my soon to be banished, ex-wife was singing her great lament.  I thought that it was wonderful to evoke a verbal reaction from the audience.  It was one of those special productions where we could really feel that surge of emotions in the audience with what was going on, on stage.

How did you find working with Mr Bieito?

I loved it.  I didn’t know what to expect – although I’d seen quite a few of his productions in Oslo, where I live.  I knew his productions were bold and provocative, but what I didn’t expect was a softly-spoken, gentle, kind man with enormous ideas.  He’s such a warm and genuine man.  He said that the staging of the penultimate duet between Nerone and Poppea was his proudest moment as a director for any duet that he has staged.  And we felt it too.

I’ll admit I see a fair bit of opera but that feeling of absolutely everything coming together – the cast, orchestra and production – is so rare and that’s precisely how that performance felt for me as an audience member.

That’s how it was for us, too.  I remember the first production I saw where I felt everything came together was a production of Giulio Cesare in Sydney directed by Francisco Negrin.  Then later, I saw Glyndebourne’s TheodoraI walked away from it thinking I had witnessed something close to operatic perfection.  It’s always been as an audience member, as an outsider that I’ve seen work like this – and quite a jealous audience member at that because I wanted to be up there doing, creating, being a part of that work (this isn’t to say I haven’t been a part of some incredible productions in the past).  When it finally came this year with Poppea, I was so happy and thankful.  All of us, who were a part of it, just hope so much that it’ll be revived.  I really felt that it was a life-changing moment for me, not just as a professional singer but also as a person.  We have a Whatsapp group of all my colleagues from Poppea and we’re still in regular contact.  These colleagues and friendships I will always cherish.

As Orfeo in Oslo in 2016. Photo: © Erik Berg

Your social media handle is ‘guywhosingshigh’ and having seen your Nerone I’d say that was a very accurate description.  How did you develop the height in the voice?

It came by surprise, to tell you the truth.  I grew up thinking I was an alto and that’s how I was trained.  It’s probably because the teachers and those with whom I worked in Australia, before I came to Europe, hadn’t ever really experienced or encountered a really high countertenor before.  They taught me based simply on what they knew – and fair enough.  I spent my first six years in Europe singing as an alto, with mixed success, because as an alto my voice didn’t carry in big, dry opera theatres.  In a concert hall environment, however, I had no problem.  It was a steep learning curve for me.  It wasn’t until I did Poppea for the first time in Melbourne that I realized what my voice could do.  After the first month of preparing it, I remember thinking that it felt so natural that I almost didn’t need to warm up.  It was one of the first really big successes I had in opera and it was from that moment on I knew: this was the repertoire and tessitura that I must concentrate on and specialize in.  I remember having a conversation with my then manager about doing exactly that and he said ‘that will never work because casting directors prefer mezzo-sopranos in those roles’.  At the time they did, but I feel things have changed now.

In many ways, I’m spoiled because my voice sits a fifth or sixth higher than most of my countertenor colleagues.  I’ve noticed with my colleagues that started singing higher roles, as they’ve grown older, they’ve moved on to lower repertoire.  I hope that by taking good care of my instrument, even when my voice does start to slowly come down, I’ll still have enough height that I can continue to sing roles like Nerone, Ruggiero and Sesto because they’re a joy to sing.  I’d be very sad if the day came when I couldn’t sing these roles.  As far as managing the height is concerned, it all comes down to support.  The result: I can sing higher as a countertenor than I ever could as a boy.

You have the height in the voice, how did you develop the agility? Because you can certainly get the voice to turn the corners.

When I was 16, I started studying with a new teacher, Andrew Dalton, who’d had a career as a countertenor in Europe during the 1970s, 80s and 90s.  He gave me Giulio Cesare’s entrance aria ‘presti ormai l’egizia terra’.  I started singing it at a greatly reduced speed and the exercise was simply to speed it up a notch every time I repeated it until I could sing it faster than I thought possible.  What happened was a very natural process, making sure that each note was precise.  Muscle memory is also a huge part of singing and by singing something slowly and gradually speeding it up, over the span of a week or two I got the hang of it.  Ever since, singing coloratura is one of those things I’ve found pretty straightforward to do – I did have to learn to do it though.  The biggest challenge I’ve had so far was a rarely-performed Handel serenata called Parnasso in festa.  The last aria in the piece is this fiendish coloratura number complete with choir, full orchestra, timpani, trumpets – you name it.  Most Handel coloratura passages are four, eight or twelve bars.  These were twenty-four, twenty-eight, thirty-two bars without any possibility for breath.  I remember looking at this piece of music thinking there was no way I could sing it.  By breaking it down, singing it slowly until it was really solidly in my muscle memory, and then slowly but surely speeding it up until I could sing it at breakneck speed – all of a sudden it just worked.  And it’s one of those things that’s just a joy to sing once you can actually find a way to negotiate it.

As Farnace at La Monnaie – De Munt. Photo: © B Uhlig

You grew up in Sydney, Australia.  What was it like musically, growing up there?

My mother is a pianist.  My introduction to music came when I was in her womb (she was pregnant with me while she was a student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music).  My first musical memory was as a toddler crawling under her beautiful, old Bechstein grand piano, being enveloped by a wonderful cocoon of sound.  My father is a doctor, but also very musically and artistically inclined, and my uncle, also a doctor, is an amateur jazz pianist.  I was very fortunate to have musical influences from all around.  When I was in the fourth grade, the Australian government decided to abolish music from the public school system.  My parents pulled me out of public school and took me to audition for St Andrew’s, the cathedral school.  I was given a choral scholarship and subsequently joined the cathedral choir, singing new repertoire and sight-reading every day.  I also played violin, viola, piano and organ on top of that.  By the time high school came around, I auditioned and was given a full scholarship to attend Newington College, one of Sydney’s best private boys’ schools.  There, I had the great luxury to play in a symphony orchestra, a chamber orchestra as well as singing in both the chamber and chapel choirs.  In fact, I even formed a vocal quartet while I was there.  Music was ever-present in my life, even though it wasn’t something I ever thought I would do professionally.  It was just part of my everyday life from the age of eight or nine until I decided to pursue it professionally.

And following your studies in Sydney you came to Europe?

I landed in London and worked privately with a teacher.  I did a few auditions, not really expecting much.  The first job I was given was Dido and Aeneas in Aix-en-Provence.  Back then, I knew nothing about how the music scene in Europe worked.  I hadn’t been to an opera studio or a young artists’ program and so I had to grow up very quickly.  I remember at 23 auditioning at the Berlin Philharmonie and at the end of the audition a really lovely curly-haired man walked down from the back of the hall and said ‘we’ll see you next year’.  That man was Simon Rattle and that audition led to me making my debut with him and his orchestra.  That was when I realized: this is what I would be doing from now on.  My father would remind me, from time to time, that it wasn’t too late to go back and study medicine, because I wasn’t earning much money at the time and I think he wanted to see me financially stable.  I decided after the experience with Rattle to pursue my dream.  I’m really glad I did because those of us who are fortunate enough to do what we love and get paid for it are very lucky souls.

As Telemaco in Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria at Innsbruck in 2017. Photo used with the kind permission of Mr Hansen.

Let’s talk about the future.  What else can we expect from you coming up?

I have the Ligeti in Zürich over the winter.  At the same time, I’ll be revisiting Alcina at the Bolshoi and in Karlsruhe.  Next summer I have a project I’m really excited about.  A few years ago, I found a manuscript in a Viennese library.  It was one of the few surviving operas of Broschi, the brother of Farinelli.  He wrote six or seven operas to showcase his brother’s talent.  Several of them are lost but I managed to find two of them.  I showed them to Alessandro De Marchi, who runs the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, and he agreed to put one of them on in the festival next year.  So we’re going to do what will be the first modern-day staging of an opera by Broschi with what promises to be a very good cast.  I’m also returning to Sesto in Clemenza di Tito next season.  Then, later on, I have my debut in a new production of Hänsel und Gretel.  I’m going to be singing the Witch, Sandman and Dew Fairy.  Apparently, I’m going to be a Stephen King-esque clown.  It’s going to be quite scary.  The Broschi and Humperdinck will certainly both be growing experiences for me, musically, because they’re both completely new to me.

It’s very interesting that you mention expanding the repertoire, not only for you, but for countertenors in general, because you’re taking on roles that, in our era at least, are usually sung by ladies.  Do you feel a responsibility to expand the repertoire in that way?

I’m grateful for the opportunity.  I feel a responsibility first and foremost to sing well, no matter the repertoire, but especially with any repertoire that’s not commonplace countertenor repertoire.  My responsibility is to show people that it can be sung beautifully by men and that, while it might not be what people are used to, if it’s done well then there’s no reason why it can’t be another choice of colour.  Of course, there are always people who will prefer the colour of a mezzo-soprano over a countertenor, and vice versa.

It always irks me when people say that it’s more authentic to have a countertenor in a castrato role – there’s no reason why we should have any more right to these roles than a woman does.  I believe at the end of the day it comes down to a question of who is going to sing the given role the best, the most beautifully, or give the best representation on stage.  As my singing teacher used to say, ‘if you can’t sing it as well as or better than a woman, don’t sing it at all’.  It was the best advice I ever got.  I believe it is important to take on roles I know I can sing well and not just sing the notes.  There’s a lot more to singing than just singing the notes.  And when opera comes together, like it did with Poppea in Zürich, it’s a most beautiful art form.


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