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Bad Guys and Mad Songs: An Interview with Xavier Sabata

05 April 2017

Xavier Sabata, Catharsis, Tamerlano, HWV 18 (1731 version), George Frideric Handel, Baroque, Aparté, harmonia mundi, George Petrou

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You studied at the ESMUC (Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya) in Barcelona and perform frequently in some of the city’s most prestigious concert halls. Does Barcelona feel like your “musical” home? 

As a freelance musician and being lucky enough to work all around the world, I feel that one loses the sense of a musical home. Actually, I have to admit that my professional beginning as a singer was linked to other places like Germany, as I came to perform in Spain quite late. Although I did study in Barcelona, after which I went to Karlsruhe to do a masters course in German Lied.

Thankfully, I was soon able to perform in Barcelona and I cannot complain – the city has treated me very well and almost every season they invite me to perform there, so I feel very lucky. Although I should add that before becoming a singer I was an actor, and so there was a period in my life where I was performing as an actor in Barcelona.

In what ways do you think your background in theatre has influenced your career and performing style?

I have to confess that this was actually a big turning point, although I didn’t know that at the very beginning. I realize now that having been an actor and having studied theatre has been such a strong influence, and everything I do artistically has something to do with theatre and drama. Also in my solo projects, like when I make a record or give a recital, I always end up finding a subject or a concept that is very much linked to theatre.

This makes me very happy, because I feel comfortable on the stage, I belong there. And it is perhaps because of this that when I started singing, things went very fast with my first opera, as I was already an actor. So it made things easier and faster.

Your performances feature in acclaimed recordings of Handel’s music, such as his operas Alessandro and Tamerlano, while your very original solo release Bad Guys [featuring arias sung by villains in Handel’s operas] was also enthusiastically received. What is it about Handel that fascinates you? 

Well, let’s just say that you cannot escape Handel, even if you wanted to. He was such an amazingly gifted and talented genius that you just cannot escape him. And that’s not only because of the beauty of the melody and his inventiveness as a composer, but also due to how deeply dramatic his music is. It is something I find extraordinary – every time I get to perform an aria or a role, you can really go deeper and deeper in many different aspects when you face any of his characters.

They say that with Handel, even if you sing a small role you can still make an amazing work for yourself, because he is such a master in crafting his arias and various characters. You very soon start to understand why he was putting all those notes in these words, because sometimes you find baroque composers who just write for vocal virtuosity, which is wonderful, but sometimes you miss this connection with the text. Handel was extremely genuine with that, because he was capable of making the most beautiful lines but in deep contact with the words and the poetry. And sometimes his music is what I call sexy, because it gets in your skin, it makes you shiver. And not many composers are capable of doing that.

How did you first discover Handel?

I was still an actor and I remember the first baroque opera I got my hands on was Handel’s Giulio Cesare at the library of the drama school. Seeing it was easy for me to sing in that register, and being already a musician (I had studied the saxophone), that became my first opera. It was already quite late, I was 22 or something like that, but that’s how the first seed was planted. And then my interest in this music continued to grow.

Could you share a few things about your latest release Catharsis and your collaboration with George Petrou and Armonia Atenea?

Basically Catharsis comes from the same type of work as Bad Guys. It was very clear to me that I wanted to collaborate with George, because we had done Handel’s Alessandro and we immediately connected musically and personally. Of course, the concept of “catharsis” links to my obsession with theatre, and it was a very powerful concept while at the same time open enough to different sorts of music. Because there was a moment when I thought I’d make a record with just one composer, but after collaborating with musicologists I started to discover such wonderful composers as Orlandini or Conti, and I also wanted to do my own version of Vivaldi’s Gelido in ogni vena, so that became the final edition.

I collaborate with George often and we know each other very well, so the recording went extremely smoothly. I am very happy, because he can take my crazy ideas about how I see things and make them grow with the orchestra and has such big theatrical input and energy, so it was really a pleasure to work with him. We actually didn’t have to talk a lot about many things, George can feel the energy of the singer and at the same time he makes things grow and is capable of taking you to another level, which I admire. And when he has clear ideas he makes them happen, but he is also open to what you have to propose.

One of the interesting things about Catharsis is the choice of repertoire. Unlike Bad Guys, which was focused on Handel, here we have a varied selection of composers, some of whom are not so well known.

Indeed, some of them are not really well known. But when you listen to some of these composers, you want to take them to the mic and have people listen to this music because it is so beautiful. So this was also one of the reasons why I didn’t want to do a monograph of just one composer, but include many instead. Baroque was an extremely powerful period when several composers composed as many as 30 or 40 operas and none of those have ever been staged, so this music deserves to be out there.

I am really happy with the whole project, because I was able to do everything exactly as I wanted to: from the album’s cover to the selection of the music, to the way we worked with George and Armonia Atenea.

What’s in store for the future? Are there any performances or collaborations you are particularly looking forward to?

I just finished doing Bertarido for a wonderful production of Handel’s Rodelinda at Teatro Real in Madrid, which was an amazing job by Claus Guth for the stage and Ivor Bolton with the orchestra. I love the role of Bertarido who, unlike other heroes in Handel’s operas like knights or soldiers, is like a real human being. In the coming months, I am also taking back contemporary opera that I did last year, among many recitals and concerts.

Something I am really looking forward to is the recording of a Stradella opera with Il Pomo d'Oro, but that won’t happen until after summer. And then towards the end of the year there is a new production of Monteverdi’s L'incoronazione di Poppea at the Berlin State Opera, directed by Diego Fasoli.

Mimis Chrysomallis

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