The Argentinian countertenor Franco Fagioli made a little bit of history last year when he became the first male singer to record the role of Cecilio (written for Venanzio Rauzzini) in Mozart’s early opera Lucio Silla, and his new all-Mozart debut on Pentatone sees him taking on another work composed for the celebrated castrato – the exuberant motet Exsultate, jubilate, almost exclusively the province of female sopranos on disc.
Over Zoom last month, we discussed how Franco’s love for the composer’s music was sparked by a childhood appearance in Die Zauberflöte and the recommendation of a bookstore assistant in his native San Miguel de Tucumán, his gratitude to the vocal coaches who encouraged him to think outside the box in terms of repertoire as a student in Buenos Aires, overcoming resistance to the idea of male singers taking on roles usually allocated to female mezzos – and why he thinks it’s ‘about time we revised the whole business of classifying high male voices’…
What was your first experience of singing Mozart on stage?
I was 11 or 12 years old when I auditioned for a choir in my hometown of San Miguel de Tucumán, and it just so happened that the theatre there was presenting Die Zauberflöte at the time…They picked me from the choir to sing First Boy, and that was more or less where everything started. It was a magical experience, and it’s why I’m singing today.
And I gather his piano music also made a profound impression on you at a very young age…?
When I set out on my musical journey as a child, it was with the hope of somehow ‘meeting’ Mozart: I loved him so much that I felt I needed to be his friend, the way that little kids often do with favourite characters from films, TV or books. When I went along to the bookshop in my hometown and asked where to start, they gave me an album of sheet-music called My First Mozart…and that was that. I remember that book so clearly – it had an orange cover, and I think my mum still has my old copy somewhere at home!
I played through everything I could read, starting with little menuettos which he must have written when he was about three years old, and eventually I managed my first full sonata, K545. (Once I’d mastered that one I’m afraid to admit that I went around saying ‘I’m the reincarnation of Mozart!’ – but I guess we all did embarrassing things as kids!). As an older student I got to play the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor with an orchestra in my city, and of course I explored the rest of the sonatas too.
When you switched to being a first-study singer, did his music always feel like a natural fit?
It was never about Handel or Bach with me, and I’m so glad that my coaches encouraged me to think beyond the repertoire that’s normally associated with countertenors. I was the first countertenor in the Teatro Colón’s history to be admitted to the Instituto Superior de Arte, which is a sort of finishing-school for conservatoire graduates where you can study everything that happens in a theatre: dance, make-up, stagecraft, the lot. I’m very grateful that when I enrolled there I was encouraged to start doing all the things that I’d been told I ‘shouldn’t’!
The first part I studied with my repertoire-teacher there was Cherubino; in that same year I also sang Hänsel in Hänsel und Gretel and worked on all sorts of other trouser-roles for lyric mezzo. My teacher there used to be very hard on me, and rightly so: I was a strong sight-reader who learned arias quickly, but when I showed up to my lesson with them she’d say ‘It’s very nice, Franco, but it’s not singing!’. I was a musician and I was a showman, but I wasn’t yet a singer! Slowly I understood what she meant, and I owe her so much.
My other teacher there was Ricardo Yost, a great bel canto baritone who opened the door to Rossini for me. At my first lesson he said ‘You should look at all those trouser-roles he wrote for contraltos – I’ll bring one for you next time we meet’. He presented me with Arsace’s aria from Semiramide, and so it began.
Once you started auditioning with this repertoire, did you encounter any resistance to the idea of casting a male singer in roles that are now usually assigned to female mezzos?
Handel still crops up on my schedule much more often than Mozart or Rossini, but things are shifting step by step. A lot of people still aren’t used to the idea of a male mezzo-soprano singing these roles, so the theatre and their director have to be open to the possibility. I’ve been lucky enough to do Sesto in La clemenza di Tito (at the Opéra National de Lorraine) and Idamante in Idomeneo (at Covent Garden), and you still sense that initial moment where some of the audience are thinking ‘What on earth is that?!’ Well, it’s just me working hard and doing my job. You might like it or you might not – just see it as another option!
And I think most people have forgotten (or perhaps never knew) that roles like Idamante and Sesto were actually written for some of the castrati of the past, as was Exsultate, jubilate – it’s lovely when people discover that, and it feels great to be the surprise sometimes!
Cherubino’s absent from the line-up on your new album…did you say goodbye to the role once you graduated, or could you still be tempted to sing him on stage?
I did Cherubino in Argentina when I was 23, and loved it! Cherubino wasn’t written for a castrato, but that isn’t why I don’t sing it any more. (I happily do roles like Sesto in Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Malcolm in Rossini’s La donna del lago, which were written for a female soprano and contralto respectively). No, it’s just because certain roles have to come at the right moment in life – I still enjoy Cherubino a lot, but I think I’m better suited to more heroic-type roles these days. But if the chance arrived again, I’d certainly think about it…
Do you still consider yourself a countertenor, even though your repertoire includes high-lying roles like Idamante and Sesto?
When I started my career, calling myself a countertenor was the easiest way to make people understand what I do. I still haven’t changed it ‘on paper’, but sometimes I think I might start just calling myself a mezzo because of my colour and my range: in Italian, you don’t even have to add ‘male’ as a qualifying adjective for voice-types, because it’s just ‘il sopranist’ or ‘la sopranista’!
I think it’s about time we revised the whole business of classifying high male voices, really. In Handel’s day there were castrati (who sang mainly Italian music) and there were countertenors (who were engaged principally for oratorios). It’s often assumed that the distinction between countertenors and castrati was all about surgery, but it wasn’t that simple: the castrati were trained in the Italian school of singing, and highly required to sing principally Italian opera, while countertenors were mostly concerned to sing in choirs or oratorios.
So should we call all the singers who ‘live’ in head-voice countertenors? That seems odd to me, given how much variety there is within that category today. Maybe it makes more sense to go back to the idea of calling some of them countertenors and the others just sopranos or mezzos or altos, depending on the singing school that they identify with more.
At the end of the day I’m simply a singer, but I do find all these shifts in terminology interesting. For instance, ‘mezzo-soprano’ is a term that only appeared fairly late in the nineteenth century. The castrati were classified as either soprano or contralto, and Mozart and even Rossini stuck with those labels: Rosina in Rossini’s score for Il barbiere di Siviglia is listed as a contralto and so is Angelina in La cenerentola, but as I’m sure you’re aware he writes high Bs for them both!
I see you conducted a concert at Versailles just before Christmas…will we be seeing more of that side of you in the coming seasons?
I hope so! I did conducting alongside piano before I trained as a singer: I used to conduct a choir back home in Argentina, doing symphonic choral works as well as a cappella repertoire. That was a door I half-closed when I came to Europe to make my way as a singer, but somehow it’s always there – everybody I’m close to knows it’s in my bloodstream!
I’ve recorded most of my albums without a conductor, because the circumstances were propitious for it. A couple of years ago I was doing a concert of Mozart and Rossini arias at Versailles like that, and the organisers approached me and said ‘Franco, would you like to actually conduct something here?’. I said yes, and what did they offer me? Oh, just this little piece called Messiah! What a place to start, but sometimes you just have to go for it…
It’s a huge work and I take my hat off to all the conductors I’ve sung with, but I loved doing it: as well as being a fantastic learning experience, it was just such a joy to direct that music. I always say that I’m a singer right now, but in the past I was a musician in different ways and in the future… I hope!