People in the News

A Rare Voice, a Unique Sound

July 6, 2009 | By Larry L. Lash
VIENNA -- After more than three hours of revelations provided by Niccolò Jommelli’s “Demofoonte,” a 1770 rarity resurrected by Riccardo Muti for the Salzburger Pfingstenfestspiele in May, the character of Adrasto got his chance to shine.

In paring down “Demofoonte,” Muti reduced Ardasto’s part, the briefest of seven, to a few lines of recitative in the first two acts. Then, nearing 11:00 p.m., Valer Barna-Sabadus, barely noticeable before, was left alone center stage to sing the aria “Non odi consiglio?” I later learned this was his professional debut.

I was immediately struck by the timbre of his voice: a countertenor, but an extremely high countertenor with an uncommonly sweet tone. And then the coloratura fireworks began and my jaw dropped as Barna-Sabadus hit two staccato high C-sharps in passages that seemed to outdo any Queen of the Night.

Subsequent recordings -- arias by Johann Adolph Hasse, a chanson by Reynaldo Hahn and Valer’s current favorite, “Caro sposa” from Handel’s “Rinaldo” -- revealed an astounding range and virtuosic technique not tapped by the three-minute “Demofoonte” aria. I have never experienced a voice like this.

“I was singing countertenor but I didn’t understand: it wasn’t anything special,” Valer told me in a phone chat between performances of “Demofoonte” at the Opéra National de Paris. “I was watching Andreas Scholl on TV with my mother and she said, ‘How can anybody do this?’ and I said, ‘I do!’

“'Where?’ she asked.

“'In the shower,’ I replied.”

Born in 1986 in the village of Arad, Romania, the young singer spent his early years under the harsh dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. He can remember going without food or electricity as a small child, but one thing never lacking in his home was music: his father was a cellist in the local philharmonic and his mother a concert pianist. Both of them moonlighted as teachers to make ends meet.

His father died when he was only four, and the multiethnic family (Romanian parents, a set each of Hungarian grandparents and German great-grandparents), took advantage of the fall of Communism to relocate to Germany a year later. They stayed in a refugee camp until Valer’s mother secured a job as a piano teacher, and she and Valer moved to Landau an der Isar in Lower Bavaria.

At six, he was playing violin and piano and singing in his school chorus. While he excelled in the younger chorus for boy sopranos and altos, he floundered when forced to sing tenor in the older boys’ chorus: there was an uncomfortable pressure at the passaggio that he instinctively knew was not good for his voice. He floored his teacher by singing in his natural range and was henceforth allowed to sing alto.

At 17, he tagged along with a friend to an open house at Munich’s Hochschule für Musik und Theater. He was told outright that as a countertenor there would be no chance for him, but he was allowed to audition nevertheless. Professor Gabriele Fuchs, a noted soprano, was summoned and she decided that Valer would be the second countertenor in the conservatory’s history. For a year, he traveled weekly to Munich for sessions with Fuchs while still in high school in Landau.

After graduation, while performing an obligatory year of civil service, the Hochschule provided a stipend that enabled him to continue lessons with Fuchs. Finally, at 20, he entered the conservatory as a fulltime voice student.

On a whim, a family friend, a Romanian Jew, decided to contact another Romanian Jew, Ioan Holender of the Wiener Staatsoper, to request an audition for Valer.

“It was the chance of a lifetime to sing on that stage. I began ‘Cara sposa’ from ‘Rinaldo’ and midway through I heard Holender go, ‘Bah! What can you sing that I know?’” Cherubino’s “Non so più” – written for mezzo-soprano – was hastily substituted. Holender’s assistant later told Valer, “We’ve never had a countertenor before,” but a letter was sent by Holender to Valer’s patron, stating that if a possibility for him to sing at Staatsoper should arise, he would be glad to have him.

The letter opened the door for an audition at the Salzburger Festspiele in July 2008. After singing arias by Handel and Hasse, artistic director Evamaria Wieser said, “What are we going to do with you?” The other countertenor role in “Demofoonte” lies too low for Valer, so he was given Adrasto’s aria – with its high C-sharps – to sing for Maestro Muti. “It’s not the favorite part of my voice,” he confessed, “but I learned the aria, sang for Muti, and waited for a month. In August, I got a message that I got the part.”

“He’s a phenomenon!” he enthused about Muti. “I get so much from him, I can’t describe the feeling. He’s like the last connection to the old giants. There is no one else who has so much experience. He’s a complete musician, one who understands singers, too. I’m having a great time!”

Between “Demofoonte” performances in Salzburg, Paris and at the Ravenna Festival in July, the 23-year-old Barna-Sabadus returns to his dorm room at the conservatory (“I like the atmosphere of being around musicians all the time, the mutual respect”) where he still has two years to go before earning a diploma.

Meanwhile, offers and auditions are pouring in, many of which he cannot yet disclose, but he will sing the title role in Mozart’s “La clemenza di Tito” at the 2010 Schwetzinger Festspiele, and an audition for Lyric Opera of Chicago is scheduled.

“It’s a different career than for a soprano or baritone,” he explains. “It’s a very special category. I think countertenors hit their peak at around 30. If they’re lucky, they can sing until 40 or 45, but the voice will probably become fuller, more dramatic.

“For now, I want to see the world and experience different types of singing – the canto. I don’t want to be overbooked by an agent. I just want to keep growing. But I do have one dream: I want to sing everywhere Farinelli sang.”



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