Jakub Jozef Orlinski relaxes on the set of a film related to Vivaldi’s ‘Stabat Mater’. ANNA LIMINOWICZ/nyt
When foreign stars visit the Glyndebourne Opera Festival in the countryside outside London, it’s common for them to take part in age-old English rituals, such as sipping a Pimm’s on the lawn or nibbling on a scone for tea from the afternoon.
But when young Polish countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski arrived to perform the title role in George Frideric Handel Rinaldo in 2019, he announces his presence differently: by breaking dancing on the terrace in front of an audience in prom dresses and tuxedos, as well as a photographer or two.
Judging by Orlinski’s Instagram account — 123,000+ followers — it wasn’t an isolated incident. To promote his Metropolitan Opera debut in Matthew Aucoin Eurydice in the fall, he exercised his breaker skills in the Lincoln Center plaza, and the company’s publicity team filmed him in slow motion. During a recent stint at the Royal Opera House here, Orlinski posted a photo of himself on that hallowed stage doing a so-called slave squat (if you’re over 30, google it) with the hashtag #LetsBarock.
“Man these pics are so FIRE,” wrote one commenter.
Of course, Orlinski, 31, has the credits you’d expect of a fast-rising star: a record deal with Warner, a lively recital program and appearances at prestigious European opera houses and festivals. But there’s also the taste for hip-hop and streetwear, trumpeted on Instagram, and brand deals and crossover tracks, including a 2020 collaboration with a trio of Polish rappers and pop stars for Pepsi. Although classical music is branching out, it’s hard to think of another singer who lists break dancing awards alongside concert awards on his resume.
Whatever happens, it clearly works. In autumn, Gramophone magazine featured Orlinski on the cover. The title was “A countertenor for our time”. This month, he will embark on a North American recital tour – traveling from Georgia to the West Coast and ending in Canada – performing a mix of Baroque arias and Polish songs.
Jakub Jozef Orlinski performed ‘Theodora’ at the Royal Opera House in London last month with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. Jakub Jozef Orlinski/FB
During a lunch in London last month, there were faint patches of fatigue under his eyes, but he was restless with energy. The reason Orlinski was in town was Theodoraan expected debut in a rarely staged play.
Based on the story of an early Christian martyr and a failure for Handel when it debuted in 1750, the oratorio had been revamped for a post-War on Terror world, #MeToo by director British Katie Mitchell. Theodora (sung by American soprano Julia Bullock) was portrayed as a freedom fighter plotting to plant a bomb at the embassy of his Roman overlords. When the scheme was foiled, the heroine was held captive in a dance club and sexually assaulted.
Orlinski appeared as the boy Didyme, a Roman security guard who converts to Theodora’s cause and comes to her aid. Although he drew favorable reviews, some audience members seemed a little shocked by a scene in which he swapped clothes with Bullock and then performed a solo pole dance wearing his sequin dress and wedge heels.
“It could have been hilarious, but it wasn’t,” Orlinski said. “People were completely on board.” And he admired the production for its feminist focus on Theodora’s story, he added. “The concept is so good and so well argued,” he said.
Characteristically, Orlinski was also spinning several other plates in London. One was the start of a movie tied to an upcoming Antonio Vivaldi recording Stabat Mater. Somewhere between a short art film and a high profile music video, it featured Vivaldi’s score in its entirety, superimposed on scenes resembling a Polish remake of The Sopranosin which Orlinski plays a man bent on revenge after his friends are killed in a gangland murder.
Another project was a concert at Wigmore Hall alongside period band Il Pomo d’Oro, with repertoire taken from another recent record, this one containing Italian works from the early 18th century. Somewhere in the middle of it all, he was getting ready for the US tour.
Countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski dances on the set of a film linked to a recording of Vivaldi’s ‘Stabat Mater’ in Warsaw, Poland February 22. pictures: nyt
Was he able to rest? He momentarily closed his eyes. “I haven’t slept much for 10 years,” he said.
As a child growing up in Warsaw, Poland in the 1990s, a career in music seemed unlikely. Although Orlinski’s family is artistic — his father is a graphic designer, his mother an artist — the idea of becoming a professional singer barely crossed his mind, he said. Although he had been singing with an all-male amateur choir since age nine, he mostly spent his time listening to rap, skateboarding, and learning parkour.
Unlike Britain or Germany, Poland has almost no countertenor tradition, in which adult male singers sing at altitudes usually reserved for boy altos or mezzo-sopranos.
Although pioneering soloists such as James Bowman, David Daniels and Michael Chance helped revive long-forgotten operatic countertenor roles of the 1980s and 1990s – many of which were originally written for the castrati who dominated the opera scene in the 18th century – the number of professional countertenors remains tiny.
It wasn’t until his choir asked for volunteers to sing the high parts that Orlinski thought of trying it. To his surprise, the register suits him and he enters the prestigious Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw to study singing in 2009.
One of his tutors there, Eytan Pessen, recalled his astonishment upon hearing about the new student. “One day the program director said to me,” Mr. Pessen said, “‘There’s this strange, beautiful singer; I don’t know if you will like it. He’s a breakdancer, but he also wants to sing countertenor.’ But the voice was absolutely there.”
Another photo of Jakub Jozef Orlinski in Poland. ANNA LIMINOWICZ
Even so, Orlinski’s early attempts as a soloist failed, hampered by a lack of confidence. “I would bring 10 people for concerts,” he said. “When I started singing countertenor, four of them were leaving.”
After graduating, Orlinski headed to Juilliard, then returned to Europe and began to dabble in recitals and operas, making a name for himself in Handel, a composer he reveres.
Orlinski’s defining moment was a raucous live performance by Vivaldi Vedro con mio diletto of the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in 2017, broadcast on Facebook Live by France Musique radio and then posted on YouTube. It has been viewed 8.4 million times – far more than you would expect for an obscure baroque tune.
His recital at Wigmore Hall in February was distinguished by the youth and ardor of his audience. There were three recalls, and in the CD signing line that followed, a woman, an Instagram fan, was seen holding a notebook she had purchased on Amazon whose cover read, “Sorry, I wasn’t listening, I was thinking of Jakub Jozef Orlinski”.
“Someone is really making money off of me,” Orlinski joked.
Jakub Jozef Orlinski on stage at Carnegie Hall in New York on March 25, 2018. HIROYUKI ITO/nyt
The new Polish-themed disc – recorded with regular collaborator, pianist Michal Biel, and due out in May – features songs by Karol Szymanowski and Mieczyslaw Karlowicz: a lavish, late-Romantic repertoire that most countertenors don’t never approach.
He wasn’t even sure if he would stay classical or even stay within his current vocal range, he said. “I’ve already talked about it with my management,” he said. “I told them right away, ‘I won’t be like 60 and I’ll still sing as a countertenor.'”
What else would he do? Maybe host a music festival or make movies, he said, or maybe switch to the baritone scale and sing some pop. “There are hundreds of open doors,” he said.
Things were moving so fast, he said. “As with the Met and the Royal Opera House, it was so far away,” he added, with a hint of disbelief. “I was aware of these projects in 2018, and it’s already gone.”
Another snap of Jakub Jozef Orlinski at the Royal Opera House in London last month. Jakub Jozef Orlinski/FB