Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo explores early operatic gems

Lawrence Zazzo

Lawrence Zazzo

Last week, we caught up with American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo about his upcoming collaboration with La Nuova Musica, their well-researched programme and new CD.

When did you start singing professionally? Did you always want to be a singer?

I’ve been singing most of my life; in boys’ choirs, barbershop choruses, close harmony/jazz groups, madrigal ensembles, and symphonic and church choirs.  I also did some children’s theatre, and performed as a professional magician at children’s birthday parties (I was known as ‘the Great Zazzini’), but never really cared for all that ‘wobbling’ in opera.

When I came over to England to study at Cambridge, it was solely with the intention of fulfilling a dream to sing in one of the great English chapel choirs, and it wasn’t until I started vocal studies at the Royal College of Music and was offered a role in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I got bitten by the opera bug.  Although I work in and visit my family in America as much as I can, most of my work is here in Europe, which has an appreciation for Baroque music that one really can’t find anywhere else.

People may not realise that I’m not only a British-trained musician and performer but have lived in the UK for the past 20 years, in Cambridge, London, Leeds, and now Northern Ireland

Throughout your career, you’ve had the chance to sing the parts of many title roles. Have you had a favourite?

I would have to say it’s a tie between Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Gluck’s Orfeo, both of which I’ve done many times over the years and which always surprise me in their ability to completely absorb me vocally and dramatically.

I’m also very interested in new music, and like to think that my “dream role” has yet to be written: next year in Frankfurt, I’m looking forward to singing Odysseus in Sirenengesang, based on the Circe-Siren-Argonaut episode from the Odyssey. This will be the first opera I sing in for which a role has been written expressly for my voice.

Also, a wonderful thing about singing Baroque music is that one always has the opportunity to discover lost treasures—I hope the audience will feel after tonight that Ariosti’s Coriolano and Bononcini’s Crispo are two of them.

As a sought-after countertenor, you get to travel all over the world. When you’re in London, where do you like to go?

I suppose it’s a cliché, but for that not any less true, that London is the theatre capital of the world, so I try to see a play in the West End or at the National Theatre whenever I’m here.  Like many singers, I’m also a devoted foodie, and am always on the hunt for that new restaurant, café, or bakery, especially here in the East End.

You’re singing with La Nuova Musica on Friday 13 December. How did the collaboration come about?

David Bates (founder of LNM) and I first met about a year ago to discuss another project (Conti’s Issipile, which LNM will perform at the Wigmore Hall 22 January).  We then had the opportunity to work together last spring in Paris on Giulio Cesare. David and I immediately hit it off—we not only make each other laugh (terribly important when one is on the middle of an intense rehearsal or recording session), we’re both countertenors with English choral backgrounds who nevertheless have experience working with continental groups and therefore have a similar aesthetic when it comes to performing baroque vocal music.

Could you talk a little bit about the programme that you’ll be performing? Handel is known for his extravagant tales of love and death. Could you reveal any of the stories within the works?

I’ve wanted to do an orchestral solo recording for several years—since I’m known for my stage performances of Handel’s music, I knew it should include opera arias by Handel, but I didn’t want to do the usual Handel Hits CD, or a CD designed around one of Handel’s singers like Senesino or Carestini, which has been done well many times before me by other artists.

In my research I came across John Gay’s quote to Swift about ‘Handel, Bononcini, and Attilio (Ariosti)’, and read the work of Professor Lowell Lindgren on both Bononcini and Ariosti, which piqued my curiosity into these two often overlooked composers, who were obviously seen by some 18th-century audience members as equals to Handel.  I thought a snapshot of these three composers and their work together at a highpoint of the Royal Academy made sense both artistically and conceptually.

As listeners familiar with my two previous solo recordings (Byrdland, Lunarcy) may know, I’m prone to a bit of experimentation. Tonight is no exception.  One of the arias I’ll perform, ‘Così stanco pellegrino’ from Bononcini’s Crispo, exists in 3 different versions, none of which are in Bononcini’s hand (his autograph has been lost).  Two sources have string accompaniments, and one is a printed version, for solo viola da gamba and harpsichord.

We tend to forget that 18th century audiences didn’t have iPods or the radio, so their enjoyment of operatic music would primarily consist of playing and singing along to one of the printed ‘arrangements’ of opera arias, and designed to be performed by smaller forces in salons or music rooms.  David and I were enchanted by this printed version of ‘Cosi stanco‘—its intimacy suits Costante’s isolation, and I have a scene in my mind of Handel (on harpsichord), Bononcini (on cello) and Ariosti (on viola da gamba) performing the aria with Senesino at an intimate post-premiere soiree.

Since it’s an arrangement that was probably authorised by Bononcini himself, we’ve decided to try out two versions live, starting with this ‘chamber’ version but doing a da capo with the fuller string accompaniment, which probably is closer to what Bononcini would have performed at the King’s Theatre. While we can’t promise our final decision for the CD will be a democratic one a la “Britain’s Got Talent”, David and I would love you to let us know what you think!

For those of you attending Lawrence Zazzo’s performance with La Nuova Musica on Friday 13 December at Shoreditch Church (St Leonard’s), which arrangement of Bononcini’s Cosi Stanco do you think works best?

Send your comments via Twitter to @SpitsMusic using the hashtag #Bononcini or email

Book tickets via our website.

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