Countertenor Cameron Shahbazi sings the role of Tolomeo, the King of Egypt and the “troublemaker” in Händel’s opera Giulio Cesare. We caught up with him in rehearsals and asked him six questions.
1. You’re a countertenor. Can you tell us what this means?
It’s always very strange for me to think about this as I don’t personally associate with “countertenor” — I just call myself Cameron. Scientifically speaking, I was explained that singing in ‘falsetto’ or head voice means that the vocal cords do not completely touch, so the tiniest amount of air passes through. Every male singer has access to his head voice — most of them are just too afraid to explore it.
2. Countertenors are often cast in baroque and early classical music. You also have a number of 20th-century and contemporary works in your repertoire. What are the differences?
The countertenor is not limited in repertoire — there is a rich history of music written for the castrato, as well as modern scores for what I consider a modern instrument — the countertenor. I would say that every composer has their own language, their own musical world.
From a structural point of view, a baroque opera is shaped around recitatives and arias, most of them being ‘da capo’, meaning that the first section of the aria is repeated and decorated to showcase the singer’s individual strengths.
3. In Giulio Cesare you will be portraying what looks like the villain of the opera. Does he have any redeeming qualities?
Tolomeo, villain or not, is human and we are all such complicated beings. He’s a bit of a stubborn younger sibling, and wants what he wants when he wants it — I’m afraid I have first-hand experience there. All jokes aside, Tolomeo wants to feel loved and respected by all, it’s simply that his method of gaining respect is awful. I definitely wouldn’t call Tolomeo a role model!
4. How do you approach the ‘da capo’ arias as a singer?
What is so interesting about this ‘formulaic’ music, and what keeps me personally interested in devoting my life to singing it, is in fact the formula itself. The arias don’t just repeat, the singers put their own twist on the text, personalising it to their interpretation of the character. Human emotions are incredibly complex — I think my therapy bills would support this statement. Handel provides the time for one to take what seems like a simple thought and explore it from various perspectives. Different moods, colours, intentions… this music is ALIVE. Giulio Cesare is a piece of exceptional theatre with the added bonus of sublime music.
5. At the moment you are working on projects supporting the women in Iran. What exactly are you doing?
As an Iranian in the diaspora, it is my duty, my responsibility, and my great honour to take action and join in support of the revolution currently taking place in Iran. It is my belief that all Iranians should be able to live freely and enjoy the same basic human rights that many of us elsewhere in the world take for granted.
I produced a benefit concert titled Woman. Life. Freedom. at Oper Frankfurt on December 12, 2022, in support of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC). ABC promotes democratic values and documents the countless human rights abuses committed by a regime that for 43 years has brought destruction to Iran. I was determined to help in whatever way possible and saw an opportunity to help brighten the international spotlight on what is happening inside Iran. I encourage everyone to support them in whatever way they can!
The evening was filled with poetry readings, speeches and musical performances, all in support of the brave people in Iran who fight for a better future. We hope that it will encourage other beloved theatres and concert halls to share this message. I am proud to have been joined by incredible musicians, Iranians and non-Iranians, including sopranos Ambur Braid, Lilian Farahani, Kristine Opolais and Giulia Semenzato, mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, cellist Kian Soltani, percussionist Naghib Shanbehzadeh, violist Micha Afkham, pianists Jeff Cohen and Sophia Muñoz and flutist Azin Zahedi. The event is currently available for global streaming on IDAGIO until January 23, 2023, with 80% of ticket sales going directly to ABC.
6. Tolomeo is a man of big ambitions. What are yours?
Like many of my colleagues, I have spent over a decade training my instrument in order to share and humanise endless operatic characters and songs. It just so happens that my instrument is my voice and I’ve been thinking about how I use my voice on and off stage. I have been questioning the point of singing if the sound has no meaning behind it. How could I possibly accept to sing roles like the title role in Handel’s Siroe, re di Persia, but show no courage off-stage? This opera was composed in 1719, loosely based on stories from centuries prior. In his big scene, Siroe, the rightful heir to the Persian throne, has been wrongfully sentenced to death and no one has come to his defence. He mentions that the people around him are either barbaric or worse… silent.
I wrote a long list of goals and dreams on a sheet of paper when I was 18 years old — many of them felt quite farfetched at the time. Now, twelve years later, I realise that my dreams and ambitions have shaped my life and given me direction. The most satisfying and rewarding dreams are the ones that have to do with elevating and bringing joy to others. In learning to sing, I have learned to be comfortable in my own skin and courageous in front of others — not in an arrogant way, but rather with a sense of internal calm. It is my greatest ambition to put this courage to good use both through advocacy for human rights as well as to bring joy to others.
- Giulio Cesare will run from 16 Jan-5 Feb 2023 at Dutch National Opera: info & tickets