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Jakub Orlinski, the breakdancing countertenor, explores his Polish roots

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IL GIUSTINO, RV 717, ACT 1: 'VEDRO CON MIO DILETTO'")

JAKUB JOZEF ORLINSKI: (Singing in Italian).

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Jakub Jozef Orlinski says he was an active kid growing up in Poland, like...

ORLINSKI: Rollerblading in a very extreme way in skate parks - I did all those tricks. I did skiing with tricks, snowboarding, capoeira, acrobatics, skateboarding.

KELLY: Also breakdancing - he still does that, actually.

ORLINSKI: I just did a little session right before our talk here.

KELLY: Orlinski is 31 now. He has a career touring the world not as a professional breakdancer, not as a trick skier but as an opera singer. He has made several albums of Baroque music. This month he released an album of classic Polish songs called "Farewells."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KARLOWICZ: 10 SONGS, OP. 3: NO. 5, SPI W BLASKACH NOCY MORSKA TON")

ORLINSKI: (Singing in Polish).

KELLY: And, yes, Jakub Jozef Orlinski speaks in a bass baritone...

ORLINSKI: As you can hear, I speak quite low.

KELLY: ...But he sings much higher, in falsetto. He is an internationally renowned countertenor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KARLOWICZ: 10 SONGS, OP. 3: NO. 5, SPI W BLASKACH NOCY MORSKA TON")

ORLINSKI: (Singing in Polish).

KELLY: And that decision can also be traced back to his childhood, when he was in a choir and they needed someone to sing the high notes.

ORLINSKI: We made a lottery, and I lost that lottery, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

ORLINSKI: So I lost the lottery with my friend. Me and my friend Pyotr (ph), we were the youngest ones. So I think that somebody manipulated this lottery. But then I actually understood how much satisfaction it brings me to actually use that part of my voice, to use this register. Because with this register, I felt from the very beginning, that I'm very well-connected with my emotional system - I don't know - with my heart, with my soul, with my brain.

KELLY: It does feel like we are having a moment for countertenors right now in opera - more roles, more prominent roles. Why, do you think?

ORLINSKI: To be honest, a few decades ago, basically everybody said, like, oh, those are the very pure voices but very fragile, very soft and not loud enough to be in the theater. And that changed in very, very recent times because we have now voices like, you know, Philippe Jaroussky, Andreas Scholl, Bejun Mehta, Franco Fagioli. All of those singers not only developed their own technique to show the world what is possible with that kind of voice but also brought it to actually, let's say, a mainstream of classical music. And so they opened the doors for people like me. And I think it is a fascinating phenomenon because it has so many different effects it can do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANCTUS PETRUS ET SANCTA MARIA MAGDALENA: 'MEA TORMENTA, PROPERATE!'")

ORLINSKI: (Singing in Latin).

Plus, of course, the fascination about Baroque music, which, in my opinion, is the pop music of their time. So it's super-fun and cool.

KELLY: I read that you have a very soft spot for Handel, the Baroque composer. I'm just trying to figure out - I mean, Handel is - it's the canon. It's as well-received, well-established as you can get. And it's music that was written and set down and hasn't changed in four centuries. How do you - in 2022, how do you find freedom in that? How do you give it life now?

ORLINSKI: No, because it's absolutely freeing to sing Baroque music, and especially Handel. Because I sing it quite a lot, so I developed my own style of singing Handel. You understand the lyrics. You know the placement in the opera. So you kind of try to send a message with the few words that the composer gives you, and then you can color it. You can filter this character, which is written through your own experience, through your own life, which is now. It's in 2022.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMADIGI DI GAULA, HWV 11, ACT 2: 'PENA TIRANNA'")

ORLINSKI: (Singing in Italian).

Of course, I did study the style and the ornamentation and the rhetorical figures because you have to have the knowledge because I do believe that if you know the rules, you know if you break them, then you know what you are breaking. And it's a choice. It's an argument. It's a very clear and argumented (ph) decision. And that's what I try to do.

KELLY: How does the breakdancing fit into all of this?

ORLINSKI: You know, I am completely in love with that culture, like, hip-hop culture. It's great. And it kind of gave me another place where I can express myself. It's really freeing, like music, with your interpretation. In breaking, there is no right or wrong. Like, you can do certain moves in thousands of ways, and nobody can tell you that this is wrong.

KELLY: Talk to me about the new album. This is all Polish composers, Polish classics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONIUSZKO: SPIEWNIK DOMOWY, ZESZYT III: NO. 7, PRZASNICZKA")

ORLINSKI: (Singing in Polish).

KELLY: Some of them are gorgeous. I had never heard them before. They're not, many of them, well-known outside Poland. Why was this something you wanted to record, these particular classics?

ORLINSKI: To be honest, I always wanted to record an album with Michal because Michal is my pianist but also...

KELLY: This is Michal Biel, who's on the album with you.

ORLINSKI: Exactly. And we decided, OK, let's spread some Polish music. And we decided to choose only Polish music because in Poland, those are very famous composers. Everybody - when they start singing, they basically sing those songs. And I now have this ability that I build up my brand a little bit more so it will be exposed to more people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONIUSZKO: SPIEWNIK DOMOWY, ZESZYT III: NO. 7, PRZASNICZKA")

ORLINSKI: (Singing in Polish).

KELLY: Are you going to do this forever? I saw you said recently you don't want to be singing countertenor when you're 60.

ORLINSKI: Yes, definitely not. So I am loving what I'm doing for now because I love traveling. I love meeting new people. I love kind of getting to know new cultures, new places. And I love sharing. I love sharing through the music, through my interpretations. So I think I am going to do it for quite a bit but definitely not forever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KARLOWICZ: 10 SONGS, OP. 3: NO. 10, ZACZAROWANA KROLEWNA")

ORLINSKI: (Singing in Polish).

I just think there are so many other things that I feel like I want to do also, like - I don't know - building furniture from wood. I am a woodworker. I would love to be a woodworker because I'm not yet.

KELLY: The next chapter.

ORLINSKI: Yeah.

KELLY: I have to say, you sound really happy. It's so rare and so refreshing to speak to someone who's really happy doing what they're doing, who's actually just having a ton of fun.

ORLINSKI: I am kind of happy to hear that and sad at the same time that it's so rare because I think people should be happy. I know that it's - like, we are living in a very difficult times, and there are thousands of things to be sad about, but we have to be happy from time to time, at least a little bit.

KELLY: Well, I have been very happy to speak with you. Thank you for making the time.

ORLINSKI: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: That is countertenor and breakdancer Jakub Jozef Orlinski. His new album is titled "Farewells."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KARLOWICZ: 10 SONGS, OP. 3: NO. 10, ZACZAROWANA KROLEWNA")

ORLINSKI: (Singing in Polish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.