‘I Would Love to Sing Lucia’: A Male Soprano Comes Into His Own

BERLIN — Samuel Mariño is a rarity in opera: a true male soprano.

Rather than relying on falsetto as a countertenor would, Mariño, 28, is able to comfortably sing high notes with his chest voice. Now he is branching out from Baroque parts originally written for castrati. A big step in that direction: “Sopranista,” his debut album on the Decca label, which is out on Friday.

He has his eye on a variety of roles, including Sophie, the ingénue of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” and Dvorak’s Rusalka, he said in an interview, with the aim of sending a message that classical music should be “open to all communities,” including a multiplicity of genders. And “Sopranista,” named after the Italian term for a male soprano, offers a glimpse at that more fluid future.

The album opens with Cherubino’s aria “Voi che sapete,” from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” Cherubino, originally written for a female soprano, is now a signature trouser role — an often young male character performed by a mezzo-soprano. Mariño’s program includes more Mozart, as well as the world premiere recording of “Son amour, sa constance extrême,” an aria (again, originally for a woman) from Joseph Boulogne’s little-known chamber opera “L’ Amant Anonyme” (or, “The Anonymous Lover”).

Mariño, who was born in Venezuela and is based here in Berlin, didn’t lose the boyish aspects of his voice at puberty; it only “partially broke,” he said. With a high speaking voice, life as a teenager — a gay one, at that — was difficult. “Everyone was making jokes, bullying me,” he said.

So he sought help from his mother; she took him to doctors who offered surgery or vocal therapy. But one suggested he could be a singer. After studying at the Paris Conservatory, he took lessons with the soprano Barbara Bonney. He then spent his early career specializing in castrato roles.

Mariño’s voice only “partially broke” during puberty, he said.Credit…Maria Sturm for The New York Times

Unlike castrati of the 17th and 18th centuries — always beardless, and typically tall and paunchy — Mariño is short and lithe, and was already sporting a five o’clock shadow on a recent afternoon walk with Leia, his Cavalier King Charles spaniel.

At his apartment, Mariño spoke about his new album, his desire to go beyond castrati roles and his campaign to free himself — along with classical music generally — from the confines of traditional gender boundaries. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

When were you first exposed to classical music?

We sang at home, and my family loved dancing. We did salsa, merengue, this kind of thing — but no classical music at all. My parents were both university teachers, and they worked from 7 a.m. until 9 in the evening. I finished school by 1 p.m., and they put me in a lot of things to fill the time. I did piano, karate, baseball, painting and sang in choirs, and I started doing ballet when I was 12 or 13. I finished high school at 16, and I wanted to study biology because I love animals and nature. I didn’t get a place for that at university, and I told my mom I wanted to be a ballet dancer. She said, “Why don’t you try singing?”

When you started studying voice in Paris, were you training as a male soprano?

The teachers were trying to treat me as a countertenor. I had to sing lower when I could sing much higher. Being a countertenor is an established thing, and they were trying to put me into that box. Then, in 2017, I met Barbara Bonney. A friend told me that I sing very much like her. I wrote to her and said: “Hi. I’m Samuel and I want to take lessons with you.” I went to Salzburg, Austria, and Barbara was like a fairy godmother. She told me to sing how I speak, to just put notes to my speaking voice. And that is what I do today.

When did you start taking pride in how you speak?

I did a lot of psychotherapy when I was a teenager, and I’m still working to respect myself and value who I am. Some people are bigger, some people are smaller; some people have dark eyes, some people have blue eyes. I have this voice. I don’t see it as special. I see it as part of my nature.

“Cherubino is a young teenager, and I do him as a boy who is innocent and confused,” Mariño said. “It’s a totally different vision of how the role can be sung.”Credit…Maria Sturm for The New York Times

Your new album starts with a famous Mozart aria written for a woman who is playing a man. What do you bring to the role as a male singer?

My voice is a light lyric soprano, with a bit of coloratura. In the score, Cherubino is a soprano role, but today it’s for mezzo-sopranos and their male-ish colors. If you talk to any mezzo, they will tell you it’s very hard to sing Cherubino, because it’s quite high — not super high notes, but sitting all the time in a high tessitura. Cherubino is a young teenager, and I do him as a boy who is innocent and confused. It’s a totally different vision of how the role can be sung.

Offstage, you often mix and match traditional male and female clothes. Are you aiming for something similar as a singer?

I am not transitioning; I’m just a man who likes to wear skirts. I have thousands of jeans, thousands of sneakers — and thousands of heels. On the cover of my new album, I’m wearing Vivienne Westwood. I’m trying to expand my bubble, change my technique, mix genders. I have sung male roles all my life, but I hope this is going to change. There are macho castrato roles — Handel’s Giulio Cesare or Teseo — but I don’t like them that much. I would love to sing Lucia di Lammermoor.

How did you discover the aria by Joseph Boulogne?

I first learned about him because of a scene in Sofia Coppola’s film “Marie Antoinette,” where Kirsten Dunst is sitting at the piano with this Afro-Caribbean teacher. Guadeloupe is just around the corner from Venezuela, and I got interested in him as a historical person. I found out about the opera online, and then I found the score online. My generation is lucky to have this; you make two clicks, and that’s it.

Other than Lucia, are there other traditional female roles that you would like to try? What about the Queen of the Night or Carmen?

Technically speaking, I can sing the Queen of the Night, but I don’t have the dramatic voice. So it would be like a kid singing. And I cannot sing Carmen, which is not about the voice, but the personality. I would love to sing a soprano part in a Mahler symphony. Barbara always told me: “Darling, you can sing that. You have a bigger voice than I do.”