From a “boy wonder” to a rising star as counter-tenor: Alois Mühlbacher is one of the most ex-citing artists in his field. Coming from the forge of the renowned as well as traditional St. Florian Boys’ Choir, he has almost seamlessly pursued his career from young soprano soloist to countertenor range. Today he performs alongside renowned conductors such as Martin Haselböck, Ivor Bolton and Dorothee Oberlinger with ensembles ranging from historically informed formations to symphony orchestras.
He has performed Bach’s St John Passion in Los Angeles and Mexico; he has sung in the Great Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna, at the opening gala of the new opera house in Vladivostok and at the New Year’s Eve concert of the Mozarteum Orchestra in the Großes Festspielhaus in Salzburg. Already as a boy soloist he attracted international attention in concerts and with CD productions in collaboration with prominent artists such as Marc Minkowski or René Jacobs. As a result of many years of working with the Ensemble Ars Antiqua Austria and Gunar Letzbor, his voice has been documented as a soloist on numerous recordings, especially of Austrian baroque music, from his young age to the present day.
Upcoming highlights include his performance at the 25th Telemann Festival in Magdeburg, where he can be heard in the composer’s Pastorelle en musique in the role of Amyntas, under the musical direction of renowned flutist and conductor Dorothee Oberlinger
and alongside the Vocal Consort Berlin and Ensemble 1700. Also in spring, he will make his debut at the Linz State Theatre in the world premiere of Gisle Kverndokk’s Fanny and Alexander, based on the film by Ingmar Bergman, in the role of Ishmael.
On his latest release Nisi Dominus – Stabat Mater Alois Mühlbacher can be heard alongside the Florian soprano soloist Christian Ziemski and the Ensemble Scaramouche. The program includes Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Antonio Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus, two heavyweights of the sacred repertoire of Italian Baroque music, full of melodic beauty and virtuoso interludes. The Nisi Dominus is now being reissued on vinyl (Preiser Records).
NO-TE: Mr. Mühlbacher, you were known as the “child prodigy” of the St Florians – how did the transition from choirboy to countertenor take place?
Initially, it was not my desire to become a counter-tenor. When we worked with countertenors as choirboys, I felt that a man who sang high was artificial. In general, I was not attracted to the peculiar sound. At the peak of my choirboy days, I felt I could sing anything with my voice. Every note felt light and free. For me, it was unimaginable to lose this voice one day. I was afraid of my voice breaking and dreamed of becoming a tenor.
Fortunately, everything turned out differently. I didn’t have a real voice break, meaning a time when I couldn’t sing at all. I practically saved my head voice over the voice break, and underneath that I developed a bass/baritone voice that I still like to use today. I am incredibly grateful for this ability to continue singing in my head voice, even though I had to put my technique on a new basis.
NO-TE: What fascinates you about this particular fach and what does it mean to be a countertenor these days?
For me, this vocal subject is not only fascinating, but also quite natural. I can’t even imagine not being able to use the high register to express my artistic sensibilities. With my falsetto voice I can produce sounds and colours that would not be possible with my full voice, i. e. as a bass or baritone. My counter voice may also not have the typical sound that one has in the ear of a counter tenor. This also allows me to sing repertoire that is unusual for countertenors, such as romantic lieder. Today there are many countertenors with different possibilities. I think this vocal fach has established itself in the last few years and has developed incredibly rapidly. An Octavian sung by a countertenor is no longer unimaginable, Cherubino is already commonplace – who would have thought that ten years ago?
NO-TE: What are your musical goals, and are there any limits (in repertoire)?
I think the greatest gift for a musician or singer is to be able to work with great colleagues from whom you can learn a lot, only in this way you can constantly develop. My goal is to get as close as possible to my ideal with the repertoire I’m singing at the moment. If you do something well enough, then you can justify any repertoire. The countertenor no longer has to be heard only in baroque opera or in the Passions; in the meantime, much more is possible, and that is also a new enrichment for this vocal discipline. One is no longer pigeonholed.
NO-TE: On your latest recording you interpret Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus, two equally popular and demanding works of Baroque literature – how did this come about and what attracts you about the program?
The Stabat Mater has always been fascinating to me, even as a child. I find this music pure and virtuosic at the same time. I have sung many other Stabat Mater settings, but none comes close to Pergolesi’s. I really wanted to record this music, especially in an interpretation as I imagined it. Together with my mentor Franz Farnberger and the ensemble Scaramouche, I realized this dream, and we were lucky to have Christian Ziemski, an absolutely exceptional singer, at our side. Our voices blend very well and I think a boy’s voice in the soprano part is a curiosity, as it is rare to find boys who can sing it satisfactorily.
With the Nisi Dominus we have chosen a virtuoso counterpart to the Stabat Mater, which we have designed with elaborate and in part very independent ornamentation. This work has been interpreted by many great colleagues, so it seemed all the more important to us to create our very own version.
NO-TE: What does music outside the baroque repertoire mean to you?
Since I was a child, I have been interested in a repertoire that is unusual for boys’ voices, and I discovered my love of lieder singing early on – a new CD with songs by Mahler and Strauss has just been released. I have a very strong connection with this music. I feel I can understand and sense these songs for myself. That is something precious for the whole of life. I am also very interested in contemporary repertoire: Recently, I have been approached by some composers who write music especially for my voice. That honours one very much, and at the same time one feels a responsibility. I try to spend so much time with each work I sing that it becomes something natural, a piece of myself. Then, it doesn’t really matter when this music was created, it just has to be very good…