10 Questions for Daniel Cabena

Canadian countertenor Daniel Cabena is highly regarded in both Canada and Europe for prize-winning performances ranging from baroque to contemporary repertoire, described as “very classy, with his freely flowing slender, well-sustained alto voice”. Cabena holds an Honours Bachelor of Music from Wilfrid Laurier University and a Doctorate of Music from l’Université de Montréal. He has also taken part in numerous workshops and academies, including the Centre for Opera Studies in Italy, l’Académie Internationale de Musique de Comminges, l’Académie Baroque Européenne d’Ambronay, and the Briten-Pears Young Artist Programme, for which he was assisted by the Canadian Aldeburgh Foundation.

Cabena’s engagements this season will include appearances in Europe with Musica Fiorita, Ensemble La Morra, Ensemble Diapsalma, Le Concert Spirituel and at the Schlossmediale Festival. In Canada, Cabena will appear with the Guelph Chamber Choir and Nota Bene Period Orchestra, as well as with pianist, Stephen Runge, in a tour of “A Sanctuary in Song,” a recital program of 20th Century English and Canadian song, which they premièred on CBC radio in 2013. In the summer of 2015, Cabena will appear with l’Orchestre de la Francophonie in the première of Chants dérobés, a song cycle for countertenor and orchestra by Stacey Brown on texts by Québécois writer Augustin Rioux.

On the occasion of “A Sanctuary in Song”, an eight concert art-song tour running until early December 2014 in Eastern Canada with collaborative pianist Stephen Runge, I ask him ten questions: five about himself and five more about his creative projects.

1) Are you more like your father or your mother?

Counter-tenor Daniel Cabena

Countertenor Daniel Cabena

I suspect that I most closely resemble my father, Barrie. I share many of his features and predispositions, especially a passion for music and what I would call a devotion to story, in a number of different guises – fiction, liturgy, anecdote, legend…. We’re also both quite involved in an inner life, both introverts and both fascinated by the processes and influences that shape that inner life. But we’re also temperamentally quite different one from the other, so I might look to my mothers for insight. And perhaps you noticed the odd plural there! My biological mother died when I was a child, a bit too young to have known the term “melancholic,” though certainly old enough to know its most famous representative, “Eeyore; so, in other words, it would be difficult for me to identify in myself traits of temperament that I might share with my mom. But I’ve been blessed with a wonderful step-mother with whom I do share many traits of personality and many values and interests. In choosing a musical path, I follow both my father, who’s primarily a composer and organist, and my step-mom, who’s a very accomplished amateur singer. I’m grateful to my parents for having raised me in a way that honours honesty, love, hard work and intuition. I find that those values inspire me in all that I do, in all my singing and living.

2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being a singer?

Singing has a lot to do with bests and worsts! The process of singing is complex and as fraught with emotional danger as it is full of spiritual possibility. The lifestyle that comes with singing can also be difficult to manage. And singing is a profession in which there’s no single and often no evident career path. In all of those areas one can see “bests” and “worsts,” difficulties and possibilities.

I love the process of singing, that is to say, the intricate technical, musical, poetic, physical, spiritual, theatrical… processes by which something comes to be communicated through the human voice. I love the feelings associated with the most basic singing gesture of uttering and shaping a tone; and I love to speak the language of that tone and the language of speech at the same time. I love to speak with people and to be a conduit by which to share with them beautiful sounds, beautiful music, beautiful words. And I love, perhaps most of all, to be involved in an act that seems to carry with it – for performer and audience alike – the possibility of healing.

There are hard things, too, painful things about singing – like the gap between what one feels one can accomplish in the practice room and that which one can “deliver” on-stage. That can be a frustration, even though I’ve been encouraged to notice that, as the years go by, the gap can actually shrink a bit. And the profession itself can bring with it many challenges, especially simple, practical ones, like the necessity to make music far away from where one might live. I find it painful to be away from my family.

Counter-tenor Daniel Cabena

Countertenor Daniel Cabena

Those are some elements that I see on each side of the singerly coin.

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I find that my days are and that my imagination is so full of music that I don’t spend very much time listening to it! Nor do I find the medium of recorded music to be particularly compelling. And I find far less compelling the newest sound media, which entail so much digital editing and so much file compression that one feels many steps removed from the original moment of music-making.

I do, nonetheless, love the radio. I love live performances on the radio. I love radio documentaries and interviews, and I suppose that what I listen to most are those sorts of things. Garrison Keillor’s broadcasts are among my favourites; and I also like programs like “This American Life.” But I simply adore ‘my’ CBC programs – “Writers in Company,” “Ideas,” “The House”…. I also really love what public radio stands for; and I’m fascinated and inspired by its history. I wish we were, in Canada, more protective of that tradition and more imaginative about all that it can and could be. And I can’t help but be upset by what’s becoming of CBC2, both in terms of its gradual commercialization and in terms of its programming.

As for watching, in the “media” sense, there are lots of fine TV programs that my wife and I like to watch. And I have some enduring favourites, like “M.A.S.H.,” “Star Trek” (especially The Next Generation), the Jeremy Brett “Sherlock Holmes,” and “The West Wing,” to name a few.

But what I really like to watch and listen to are live performances. I love to attend theatre shows and dance shows. I love chamber music concerts, recitals and symphonic concerts. I love the opera. I love to listen at church, in concert hall, under tent, in salon…anywhere where folks come together to appreciate and create something. Together.

4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I wish I could play the piano. When I was wee I fell in love with the violin. So, from about the age of 4 until the age of 23, that was my big musical outlet, to the exclusion of keyboard studies. That’s a bit odd, seeing as my father, Barrie, is a extremely accomplished organist, choirmaster, pianist and composer. But we – wisely, I suspect – decided that I shouldn’t be taking lessons from my dad! But that meant that I – unwisely, I know – never pursued the keyboard. For a singer, indeed, for a musician of any kind, I think the piano is a very helpful ‘tool,’ that, of course, along with being a beautiful instrument in its own right. Anyway, it’s a tool that I don’t have in my toolbox, though I’m always working to improve my skills. (In fact, one of the most enriching elements of all my musical education was the two years of mandatory harpsichord lessons that I took at the Schola Cantorum in Basel. Each lesson was simply a joy; and I would happily have spent three hours a day just doing my little exercises on the Schola’s beautiful instruments and sampling from the large repertoire of pedagogical music.)

5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favorite thing to do?

It’s funny, but I find that there’s no obvious point in a given day when the work ‘stops,’ so restless and curious is the imagination, and so close-to-hand is the voice. (I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t work harder to create such a point.) In any case, when I’m not practicing or rehearsing or studying or doing business emails or booking travel… I find that my favourite things to do are domestic things. I love doing the laundry and ironing. I love tidying and cleaning. I love cooking. And the thing that I love best of all is to do those things with my wife, Mary. We have a great time making and keeping house!
But we also have a good time reading together, doing the Globe crossword (and swearing at the same, in both official languages), walking, sitting and chatting. Simple things. We also like shopping at vintage shops, searching for hidden gems. And I have a great interest in tailoring and all things sartorial. I also love to do yoga, which I’ve been practicing, sometimes in studios but usually on my own, for almost ten years.
I also have a wonderful time being involved in the busy lives of Mary’s two children, walking beside them as they pass through the adventure that is highschool. They’re both budding artists, too, one a thespian, one a graphic artist, so it’s a joy to be able to share with them some “shop-talk,” and much silliness.

And speaking of silliness reminds me of a quote from G.K. Chesterton, something about home being the one “wild place” in a world otherwise dominated by “rules and set tasks.” I like very much the idea that home can such a place, wild – a place of freedom and adventure as much as it is one of safety and repose.

Counter-tenor Daniel Cabena

Countertenor Daniel Cabena

Five more about your upcoming Canadian tour of concerts & masterclasses.

1- Please talk about the concert programme you’re singing on your tour, including your favourite.

Pianist Stephen Runge (click for more about him)

I feel quite spoiled to be singing this program, which is called “A Sanctuary in Song,” because it’s composed of so many of my favourite songs. The program features music by a number of 20th Century English composers, including R. Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi, Edmund Rubbra, Ivor Gurney, Roger Quilter, Herbert Howells and Benjamin Britten. I’ve put this recital together with Stephen Runge, a truly wonderful pianist and accompanist, whom I met while we were both studying for our doctorates at l’université de Montréal and with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work a number of times in the last few years, including in 2013, when we first recorded a version of “A Sanctuary in Song” for broadcast on the CBC.

The idea behind the program is, as its title suggests, to explore some of the themes that surround the idea of sanctuary; and we’ve grouped together the songs in order to address those themes specifically and from a few different angles. We’ve also shaped the program as a whole such as to suggest a narrative, trace the progress of a central figure, a sort of pilgrim who, passing through joy and tribulation, is seen to experience the qualities of sanctuary that the songs describe.

In selecting the songs of our “A Sanctuary in Song” recital, Stephen and I have also sought to recognize a few interesting and touching connexions. One of those connexions is the close friendship between Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi, a friendship that, as it happens, was in part spurred on by a mutual admiration for another composer featured in our program, namely Ivor Gurney. And to mention the latter also highlights another theme which Stephen and I have sought to address in our exploration of sanctuary, that of war, whose tragic reality touched (and in some cases shattered) the composers and poets whose works we are presenting.

We’ve also included in our program two songs by Australian-Canadian composer, Barrie Cabena, who, along with being my father, was a composition student of Herbert Howells’, whose beautiful “King David” in one of my most favourite songs.

2- The counter-tenor voice is no longer the novelty it once was, but there is still sometimes controversy about the correct vocal type to sing certain roles, especially given the various vocal types that are sometimes subsumed under the category of “counter-tenor”. Could you talk about your voice, and what you feel your voice is best suited to sing?

I’ve had an interesting parcours as a countertenor in the sense that I began my studies in Canada, in which milieu my voice type is at once scantly represented in number and provided with a great liberty in terms of repertoire, and completed my studies (insofar as one’s studies can ever be said to be “complete”!) in Europe, where there are hundreds of countertenors but where that voice type’s repertoire is more strictly circumscribed. So, on the heels of a time of intensive exploration of a countertenor ‘orthodoxy,’ I’ll take this opportunity to reveal one of the bees that’s gotten stuck my bonnet, a deliciously strange and liberating irony, which is that, though countertenors have found themselves at the forefront of the early music movement, they represent the newest voice Fach. In fact, to hear a solo falsettist was, as far as I can determine from my own reading, an extreme rarity to say the least until the latter decades of the 20th Century, after Deller had inspired a generation of male altos. It happens, therefore, that countertenors are now very much in demand but that we’re called upon mostly to sing repertoire that would almost never have been sung by singers of our kind.We sing music written for boys, castrati and women; and – in part as a result of the role played by Deller in the Purcell revival – we are often, and in my view too often, solicited to sing music better suited to high tenors (hautes-contre).

And this brings me to a detail of your question that I appreciated very much, which is that you recognize that “countertenor” is in fact a rather large umbrella. I don’t think that’s widely-enough understood, in fact; and misunderstandings in the area of vocal “Fach” can be a real frustration (even a danger) in the training of a singer, which is why I’m emphasizing this point. There are male sopranos, mezzo-sopranos and contraltos – distinctions to be made, I mean, along the lines of range and tessitura; and all the more subtle Fach distinctions can also be applied. Perhaps most of us are “lyric” countertenors; but there are “coloratura” and “spinto” countertenors, I would venture to say. And there are a few who could perhaps be called “Karakter” countertenors – I’m thinking of a singer like Dominique Visse, whose preferred opera roles might be said to fall into that sort of category. In any case, I don’t think there’s any need to define all of that to too great an extent, especially considering the fact that so much of our repertoire is borrowed from entirely other voices! But I do think that it helps to recognize the diversity that reigns under the broad umbrella that’s come to be known as “countertenor.”

And I would say, finally, that, rather than limiting himself to repertoire that’s come, by way of the early music revival, to be understood as “authentically” his, a countertenor should sing the music that he loves and that fits the dimensions of his voice beautifully and challenges him in all the right ways, the music that makes him sound fabulous and his audiences cry.

For me, there are many that fit but no single repertoire that fits those essential criteria. I love to sing Medieval music and music from the Renaissance; I love to sing works from the early Baroque and the high Baroque; I love to sing Classical music (though I regret that there’s not more Mozart that works well for my voice!); I love the 19th Century; and I adore the 20th and 21st Centuries. And I also love the music of the theatre, the church, the concert hall, the recital, the salon…. I love it all!

But, finally, I would say that I’m often struck by the verity of two observations, one made by the founding father of countertenor singing, Alfred Deller, the other by a champion of the generation that followed him, namely James Bowman. I saw the first on the back of a record jacket of Deller’s great folksong recording. The quote was something about the “inherent melancholy” of the countertenor voice. I think one hears that quality in Deller’s singing, and I wonder if it’s not an ingredient of many countertenor voices. (It’s in any case a quality that characterizes a lot of the music written in the 20th Century for male altos and a lot of that which has come to be most closely associated with our voices.) The other comment comes from James Bowman, and he made it to me when I met him a few years ago at a competition in France. His feeling was that the countertenor voice, as he put it, “creates an atmosphere of relaxation.” Those two phrases have often provided me with guidance as I seek to discover just what it might be that I have to offer with my voice.

3-What role(s) are you preparing / looking forward to singing in the future?

I’m very much looking forward to carrying on with the Ontario leg of Stephen Runge and my “A Sanctuary in Song” tour. I’m also eager to begin work on a couple of lovely Bach projects, one with the Spiritus Ensemble in Waterloo, Ontario, and one with another Waterloo-based ensemble, Nota Bene. I’ll also sing Handel’s “Messiah” with the Guelph Chamber Choir before Christmas. And then I’ll turn my attention to slightly earlier repertoire, as I’ll have a concert with Musica Fiorita of Basel, Switzerland, of the music of Vialardo, followed by a project with Toronto’s Scaramella of 17th Century German music. Then it’ll be back to Europe for another “Messiah” project in March 2015; and then I’ll turn my attention towards Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” which I’ll be singing with Les Violons du Roy in April in Quebec City, Montreal and New York City. In the spring I’ll turn my attention towards the 21st Century, as I’ll be learning a new work for countertenor and orchestra by Stacey Brown and which I’ll be premiering with Jean-Philippe Tremblay and the Orchestre de la Francophonie in the course of their 2015 summer season. What a joy it is to have so many fascinating projects on the go, to have the chance to work with such wonderful colleagues and to sing such various and beautiful music!

4-Do you have a favourite counter-tenor either currently singing or from the past, whose voice represents your ideal, possibly a sound you either emulate, or simply one you enjoy?

This is a wonderfully important question for singers, I think, a question that touches upon an important element of any singer’s apprenticeship, which is that special mentorship that recognizes itself – sometimes from a distance; sometimes simply through listening – as kindredness. I’ve always felt a deep kindredness with the singing of Paul Esswood. His singing has always struck me as beautifully well-rounded and beautifully simple. He cares for the text, its clarity and its meaning; he cares for the melodic line, its tensions and releases; and he cares for the tone, allowing it to be magical and animal, deeply alive. I encountered Esswood’s voice shortly after I began singing countertenor, at which point my father kindly and wisely began acquiring for me recordings by the Deller Consort and by the Early Music Consort of London; and it was in the latter recordings that I discovered Paul Esswood, singing Medieval and Renaissance polyphony, and in marvelous company! But, of all the beautiful voices on those discs, it was in Esswood’s that I recognized something of myself; and it was in his singing that I recognized something of how I sought and seek to sing. And that’s why I speak of kindredness.

I had the privilege to spend a week with Paul Esswood, studying with him in St-Bertrand-de-Comminges, France – in the Pyrennees – where he’s been offering summer courses for a number of years. In 2010, when I attended, there were only two students, myself and a very fine Catalan countertenor called Sergi Moreno Lasalle; so we each had about three hours of private lessons each day of that week! And most of the time that we didn’t spend studying and singing we spent eating at a little restaurant with Paul and listening to his tales and anecdotes. He is a most generous and eloquent teacher, which is no surprise, for those two qualities are abundantly present in his singing.
I would say, too, that I’m grateful to have been offered in my teens those discs of Alfred Deller’s, to whose recording of the Couperin Lamentations I’ve listened perhaps more than any other (even more than I’ve listened to the Bach motets and the Ravel and Brahms string quartets or the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs – and that’s saying a lot!). I find the sound of his voice touching, haunting and his commitment to the text compelling. He’s also a man to whom I, as a countertenor, owe a great debt of thanks; and I must say that I’m mindful of that fact each time that I hear his voice. Finally, I would say that I’ve been deeply touched and inspired by the singing of Derek Lee Ragin, whose recording of Gluck’s “Orpheo” I hold close to my heart.

5- Is there a teacher or influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

I’ve been blessed to have come into contact with a number of fine teachers over the course of my apprenticeship. Each of them has instilled in me essential insights into the universes of singing and teaching; and the process of learning with each of them, of developing a pedagogical vocabulary and getting to know them personally and musically, has been a great gift.

Wendy Nielsen

In the last couple of years I’ve been studying with two magnificent teachers, one in Canada and one in The Netherlands. In Amsterdam, I work with Margreet Honig, who’s really helped me both to clarify my technique and to bring it into a unity with all the other elements of my singing. She’s also helped me to hear new possibilities in my voice and, more importantly, to feel them. My teacher in Canada is Wendy Nielsen, from whom I’ve gained innumerable and invaluable insights into singing and my voice. Wendy and Margreet have slightly different but entirely complementary ways of working with the voice, and I benefit greatly from their twin influences. But I’m also so inspired by them, by their calm and positive energy, their honesty and their magnificently virtuosic pedagogy.

I’ve also had the great good fortune to have encountered Aaron Low, a Toronto speech pathologist, whom I consult regularly and who’s been a great help to me in breaking down vocal barriers, discovering new physical dimensions, and learning how best to manage the physical demands that every singing athlete must face.


A Sanctuary in Song, Daniel Cabena’s art song tour with collaborative pianist Stephen Runge reached Ontario, with stops at University of Guelph (Nov 6th), Western University, London (Nov 7th), University of Waterloo (Nov 12th), and finally at Hart House at the University of Toronto, on Dec 7th. LOW-RES-Draft-Tour-Poster-v2

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4 Responses to 10 Questions for Daniel Cabena

  1. barczablog says:

    “Australian-Canadian composer Barrie Cabena” has 20 entries in the University of Toronto music library catalogue. Hmmm(!) I shall investigate further.

  2. Pingback: Daniel Cabena COUNTERTENOR » Daniel interviewed by BarczaBlog

  3. Pingback: Daniel Cabena, Canadian countertenor: 10 questions with blogger Barcza | thecanadaproject

  4. Pingback: Countertenor Daniel Cabena answers 10 Questions for BarczaBlog ‹ Bōwman Media

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