Arrow Soprano Bruno de Sá: ”The voice cannot be confined like a bird in a cage”

06 May, 2024
Soprano Bruno de Sá: ”The voice cannot be confined like a bird in a cage”
© Bruno de Sá / Clemens Manser

Johann Adolf Hasse wrote “Antony and Cleopatra” with Farinelli in mind. The singer, who was on the verge of a great career, was to play the role of the Egyptian ruler. Cross-gender casting was a perverse move – the castrato was entrusted with the role of a woman, and the role of Antony was given to the female singer of African origin Vittoria Tesi. On Friday, May 24, the role of Cleopatra in this unique score, situated halfway between opera and cantata, will be sung by Brazilian soprano Bruno de Sá. He will be accompanied by the {oh!} Orchestra on stage at the NOSPR Katowice.

Bruno de Sá talks to Szymon Maliszewski from NOSPR about whether he considers himself a countertenor or a soprano, elaborates on the range of his voice, the #MeToo movement and his growing up in Brazil when music was more important to him than football.

Szymon Maliszewski: Countertenor, soprano, or perhaps male soprano? How do you define your voice?

I am a male soprano. But I don’t mind being called simply a soprano. Although the basic, natural voice of a countertenor is tenor or baritone, they have a very developed head register. Their voice thus has mezzo-soprano or alto features. Sometimes singers with exceptionally light and mobile voices sound like sopranos. But they are is still countertenors, there is a fundamental difference between them and the soprano. In my case it is different. When I was a teenager, I didn’t undergo any mutations. So I have retained a number of features characteristic of a boy’s voice to this day. I simply do not have a tenor or baritone register, as is the case with countertenors. When I was a child, I could easily sing the Queen of the Night’s aria. Today, when I am in very good shape, well-rested and well-hydrated, I can sing up to high F. My scale normally ends at high E. However, the scale is not everything. The most important thing is to be able to stay in a specific register, sing messa di voce within it and use other means of expression necessary to create individual opera roles.

Male soprano is a relatively rare phenomenon.

Yes, because it is a combination of several specific factors. To begin with, hormonal conditions prevent voice break. However, this is only a starting point. A lot depends on whether you meet the right teachers, whether you manage to develop the right technique. Finally, you need a lot of luck to be successful.

You sing a lot of roles originally written for castrati. In the past, they had a completely different type of voice.

Their voices had completely different characteristics. However, we must not forget countertenors existed in those times. Having said that, castrati were far more popular, they best suited the tastes of the era, and in fact, much of the music of that time was created with the capabilities of their voices in mind. But let’s go a little further – in the 17th or 18th century, the connections between the creation and performance of music were much more direct. In most cases, the composers knew who they were writing the role for – the opera character was closely related to the performer. Therefore, when an opera was performed in a different place and by a different cast, transpositions or adaptations to the performers’ abilities were common. Individual performances differed to a much larger extent than today. Yes, contemporary countertenors or male sopranos find singing arias written for castrati quite challenging. But sometimes the same tenor aria can be easy for one singer and extremely difficult for another with the same type of voice. The voice is an extremely individual instrument, although the singing technique remains unchanged. Once you find a repertoire that suits your voice, it doesn’t matter whether it is baroque, classical or contemporary. The same rules of vocal technique still apply.

How did you discover your voice?

Singing has always been present in my life. I’ve been singing since I was a few years old. For as long as I can remember, I felt like I had to discover my own path. Singing high notes has always been very easy for me. When I decided I wanted to become a professional singer, my motivation was not to perform on stage. Above all, I wanted to improve my technique and sing in the best and healthiest way my vocal instrument would allow me. Quite early on, I had the opportunity to take part in master classes conducted by Nicolau de Figueiredo, a Brazilian harpsichordist and conductor who collaborated with, among others, with René Jacobs and Fabio Biondi. We worked on the real basics – breathing support, proper inhalation and exhalation. He was very quick to figure out from the timbre and characteristics of my voice I was a soprano – a male soprano. So it has never been a surprise to me my voice sounds so high that I can sing “like a woman”. The meeting with Nicolau de Figueiredo was an important moment – someone told me what my voice was called technically, how in what way it was different from other voices and what it meant.

What did it mean for a young boy from Brazil back then?

My beginnings were not easy. Brazil is quite a patriarchal country with a cult of football. Every young boy wants to become a footballer. But I hate football! So I constantly had to make people around me realize that you could dream of something else than becoming a football player, that a man could sing with a voice as high as a woman. And to confuse matters even more – that a man was able to sing soprano and that not every guy with a high voice was a countertenor. Initially, I was very irritated when people referred to me as a countertenor. At some point I gave up. I said, “Okay, you can call me whatever you want. You’ll hear the difference on stage.”

It is worth mentioning the names of voices that we have commonly used for centuries refer only to pitch ranges. They do not and have never been used to classify the gender of the singer.

When countertenors began to gain popularity, they had to fight wars to be allowed to sing on large stages. Their voices were thought to be “too small” for opera stage. I recently discussed the problem with my friend Bejun Mehta, an accomplished countertenor. We came to the conclusion that a generation of artists like him paved the way for my generation. I think it’s the job of my generation and people like me to show the audience that there are other kinds of voices and that this world is even more diverse.

When I started performing, I had no idea that I would have to deal with such things. I have always wanted to sing the best repertoire that suits the voice I was born with. And my voice can do more than just sing baroque! I can sing a number of roles, including Cleopatra from “Antony and Cleopatra”, Susanna from “The Marriage of Figaro”, Gilda from “Rigoletto” or Violetta Valéry from “La Traviata”. If I were to sing castrati repertoire all my life, I would feel like a bird in a cage. The music is great, but my voice needs other challenges.

So which opera roles would you like to sing?

Oh! I have a role plan in my head for many years ahead! The voice is constantly changing. Different stages of life require new roles. Female voices also follow a similar path – from Zuzanna, through Adina, Gilda, Zofia from “The Bachelor of the Silver Rose”, and then Violetta. And then? I am not sure if I want to sing Tosca. However, I could sing Musetta in “La Bohème”, Juliet in “Capuleti et Montecchi” or the Countess in “The Marriage of Figaro”. Yes, I would love to sing The Countess! So far, I have already sung several small female roles, such as Barbarina in “The Marriage of Figaro” or the First Lady in “The Magic Flute”.

Soprano Bruno de Sá: ”The voice cannot be confined like a bird in a cage”
© Bruno de Sá / Laure Bernard

What audience feedback do you get when you sing female roles?

I think it is worth mentioning two different things. The first is who selects the cast. Casting directors often underestimate the audience. I know that their choices are often dictated by business reasons – they need to sell tickets, so they make safe decisions, offering audiences what they already know and what they will surely like. But such approach never gives listeners a chance to discover something new! Similarly to a restaurant, how can guests know they won’t like a dish if they have never tasted it, and the waiter only recommends dishes that they are familiar with? I do not support such attitude. For me, the most important criterion is quality.

As I said, directors frequently underestimate the audience. As a society, we have quite advanced debates about inclusivity, for example on ethnic grounds. Despite this, in many opera theaters the presence of black singers is not at all obvious. Likewise with the #MeToo movement. The theater community is, to put it mildly, a bit behind the times when it comes to working through issues of abuse of power and sexual exploitation.

I believe art should reflect the diversity we experience every day. Of course, we have to maintain the highest artistic quality. As artists, we want to show the audience our truth, our interpretation. Some people will love it, others will not, but that’s the beauty of it! It’s not just about comparing male and female sopranos. Take Diana Damrau and Anna Netrebko. Two wonderful sopranos and two completely different voices, although sometimes they sing the same roles – Violetta in “La Traviata” or Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet”. Which one is better? Is there one correct answer? One of the interpretations may appeal to you more. But there is no room here to judge whether something is better or worse. Same with Maria Callas. People often say she was the best Tosca. But she was just herself. And that’s the only thing we can do as artists. Only if we accept who we are can we become the best at what we do. And that’s what I love!

Such approach allows you to break down barriers and reach very diverse groups of recipients, including young people. Do you think this is the reason for the phenomenon of artists such as Jakub Józef Orliński? That they show people that you can be yourself, combining such different worlds as opera and breakdance?

Jakub Józef Orliński is my close friend, and I think he does great things. Although he is a countertenor, not a soprano. Orliński masterfully presents an issue that is important to me. He is able to maintain his identity no matter what he does. When we sing music from hundreds of years ago, it is easy to succumb to the illusion that we are only talking about distant times that have long passed. When we see an artist who evokes historical heroes with all the power of his personality, it is much easier for us to empathize with their emotions. We then notice that all these life and love dilemmas on stage are very close to what we experience today.

The same is true of the score that will premiere in Katowice – “Antony and Cleopatra” by Hasse. We are still trying to figure out what direction the staging will take, because it is something between opera and cantata. There are two characters in it, and the entire content is their conversation about emotions. We know their fate from the pages of history, but in this piece we only look at what they feel.

Interestingly, Hasse wrote this piece with very specific singers in mind: the part of Cleopatra was written for the famous Farinelli, while the role of Mark Antony was written for Vittoria Tesi, an alto. We can see the singers’ sex was assumed cross-gender from the very beginning. Also, if we look at the characters’ personalities, we can assume that they were constructed contrary to stereotypes. Cleopatra is reasonable, composed and logical, while Mark Antony gives in to emotions. In our production, I decided that we could go a little further and cast a man in the role of Mark Antony. This role will be played by Yuriy Mynenko, probably the best performer of the role of Handel’s Julius Caesar nowadays. I am very glad he accepted my invitation. The concert in Katowice will be the premiere of this project, I can’t wait to see the results!

You post reels of yourself singing, cooking and dancing on Instagram – you show your very private face.

(Laughing) Yes, Instagram is a space where I like to share various things, but I want to maintain a balance between showing what I do professionally and my private life. People tend to put artists in gilded cages, believing they are inaccessible and isolated from life. It is not good. It is important to show not only the different sides of this profession, but also your personality.

Do you feel people perceive you differently when you perform in Brazil?

Totally! There is a saying that no one is a prophet in his own country. And I still experience things in Brazil that would be unthinkable for foreign artists. But at the same time, I see that the way people perceive and understand what I do has changed a lot. I get a lot of messages from people from Brazil who write that they are proud of me and want to express their support. I recently gave a concert in Brazil – the first one in three years due to COVID. It was a concert tour of the album “Roma Travestita”. I was dying of fear! Even though I had sung the same program at Versailles the week before, singing for the people you love after such a long time was incredibly emotional. I was terribly nervous. I had never been so frightened before! When I got on stage and started singing, the audience went into a frenzy, just like in a football stadium. I started crying immediately!

It was the first time I felt that not only those who had always supported me – my parents and loved ones – were applauding me, but that there were also people in the audience who, listening to me, changed their attitude towards what I was doing. That I managed to open something in them and at the same time show the value of myself and what I do. Even though it was not a football game!

First published in the April issue of NOSPR Bimonthly (Polish version available here).

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