Singing in falsetto: the life of a Dutch opera singer in Hamburg

Singing like the sweet-voiced castrates of the olden days: for Joël Vuik, a budding Dutch opera singer in Hamburg, it’s his calling. A classically trained countertenor with a tall physique and eye-catching red hair, it’s not hard to imagine why Joël’s star is rising fast. Meeting over a coffee at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, we discuss castrates, religious childhoods, gay life in Hamburg and living life fearlessly.

Text: Irene BroerPhotography: Teresa Enhiak Nanni

 

 

Alright, let’s get to it. What’s a countertenor?

Simply said, a countertenor is a man who sings in his boy’s voice, the falsetto. You actually keep it even after the vocal change, and with proper training, any man can find that voice again. That way you can sing alto and soprano voices as a man.

Interesting! Where does it come from?

A lot of countertenor music was written during the baroque age, from 1600 to 1750. The church didn’t allow women to sing, so for soprano voices, they used boys. At some point, people discovered that when they castrated these poor kids, their voice stayed the same. That sadly became common practice, and a lot of boys died as a result.

That’s terrible.

It was. Back then it was really popular. Famous composers like Vivaldi, Händel, Porpora and Scarlatti wrote a lot of music especially for castrates. Famous castrates like Senesino or Farinelli had the same status as Beyonce today.

But you are not castrated …

Absolutely not!

… so how can you sing this way?

Honestly, nobody can say what castrates really sounded like. But we assume that countertenors sound much like them today – although it will take time to get it perfect. Unlike the soprano voice which has been around for hundreds of years, the countertenor technique is still being developed. You can’t just sing in a high pitch and that’s it: you actually have to fill a concert hall with sound.

If castrates were mimicking women’s voices because they weren’t allowed on stage, do countertenors still have this purpose?

It wasn’t so much about filling female roles: castrates were especially present in leading male roles. In that time, the vocal range signaled a certain role in the opera. The bass was usually a wise old man, the tenor a hysterical hero, the alto a suffering woman, the soprano could be the male lead – and so on.

I see. And how did you discover your falsetto voice?

I was studying to become a music teacher, and one of my instructors noticed that I would frequently use my falsetto voice when singing higher parts. She told me to look up what a countertenor was, and I thought it was simply genius. I practiced singing a Bach aria for a year and then I auditioned to do a Bachelor’s in Classical Singing. The rest is history!

Awesome! How old were you?

I was 24.

Isn’t that late?

You can do that with singing, it’s not like a violin where you have to have been practicing since you were six.

So what did you do before?

After I finished school, I actually already wanted to audition for the musical conservatory. But my Dad told me that first I should learn a trade – so I studied hotel management. I’m actually a trained sommelier!

That’s an excellent skill. But where does this singing passion come from?

I started singing in primary school and in church, at the Sunday school. I was the one singing solos during mass. You get the biblical stories and the songs that accompany them. My Mum sang a lot, and my Dad used to play the organ – so music was always around.

Did the church play an important part in your life?

I’m from a very religious family. Originally my family was even following a branch of very strict protestantism, we call it “the black-socks-church”. It was too doom-oriented for my parents, so we became members of the Dutch Reformed Church which was a bit lighter-hearted, a lot freer and more social.

Are you still religious?

Well – I’m no longer a member of the Church. That’s different. If you’ve lived with religion for such a long time, that’ll never leave you.

You’re also gay. Does your family accept it?

I came out to my Dad at 21, I was working on Malta at the time. When my Dad came to visit, the last night we opened a bottle of nice wine, and … I told him I was different. The first thing he said was that he had assumed it and nothing would change. But being religious, and all that, it did take him until recently to fully accept it.

Do you know why it took so long?

We talked and my Dad explained to me that the moment your child comes out of the closet, the image that you built up of them having a wife, kids, grandkids vanishes. You enter a grieving process of some kind and that takes time.

I see. And what do you think of gay life in Hamburg?

Well – it’s interesting. Hamburg is quite a big city, but the gay scene is a village – I think you’ll find that anywhere you go. In Rotterdam where I’m from, but also in Amsterdam and in Hamburg it’s like this: everybody knows each other. The gay scene in Hamburg specifically is a bit too rigid – maybe it’s the North German mentality. It’s difficult to make initial contact, but when you do make friends, you make them for life.

*somebody comes in to shake Joël’s hand and congratulate him*

What are you being congratulated with?

I won the first prize of the Elise Meyer Competition! It was very exciting because I had to make it through the pre-rounds and then I made it to the finals. The finals were yesterday – and I won!

Awesome! So things are going well for you, then?

Absolutely. Just this past Spring I got the lead role in the opera Orlando Furioso staged at Allee Theater, it was great.

Did you think you’d get so successful?

I had never imagined it. I worked very hard these past years – learning classical techniques, singing in German, learning to act – and even though I started relatively late, I’m sure that I’m on the right track. Also, being a countertenor is a bit of a niche. It’s not like sopranos of which you have thousands. Around here, I’m one of the very few ones.

Pretty inspiring!

I hope so. I hope I can be a bit of an inspiration for people who think that life only sucks.

What do you mean?

Well, I had some hard times in my youth. To name a few things, my sister got severely burned when she was young, and when I was 12 our mother died. Quite soon after, my best friend got a brain tumor and he died a couple of years later. Then my brother received a heart transplant, but sadly he also died 4 years ago.

All of this happened before you were even 30 …

That’s the thing. You can experience some pretty traumatic things but that doesn’t mean you should stop living. You can’t give up. You have to find your passion and give everything for it, and good things will come on your path. I already faced doom many times, so I’m not scared of it. Of course I don’t want to get sick or into an accident – but what I can I really do about it? I choose not to live in fear.

Thanks for that inspiring talk Joël, all the best!

Joël’s final exam is held on Monday, 9 July at 20:30 at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater. Visit his website to listen to more recordings.

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