Tackling contemporary and taking one’s opportunities – Eric Jurenas and Palesa Malieloa in interview

22 May 2019

American countertenor Eric Jurenas captivated the audience of the preliminary round of Mirjam Helin Competition, immersing himself with contemporary composer Jonathan Dove’s music. South African soprano Palesa Malieloa was also one of the competitors who charmed the audience.

Eric Jurenas.

For Eric Jurenas (b. 1989), the greatest challenge in contemporary music lies in making it affective. “It is easier for the public to react to music that they are familiar with”, the countertenor says. “But I do believe you can make any music approachable if you look beyond the difficulties of the material. The piece by Dove (b. 1959) is not atonal, but I have the same approach with all contemporary music. I try to take things from my experience in baroque and classical repertoire and translate that to new music.” 

This season, Jurenas is performing at the Komische Oper Berlin in Händel’s Poro, and has already reached some other big stages, like Covent Garden, too. Last year, he premiered a chamber music piece by Aribert Reimann’s (b. 1936) with Daniel Barenboim. “For an under-30-year-old, working with legends on top of the industry is exciting”, Jurenas says. “It also makes you more confident in a competition setting.”

Jurenas began his studies as a baritone and only used his high register as a party trick or when doing barbershop. But having heard him sing, his teacher suggested trying countertenor. “As a 19-year-old, singing high did not seem like a good opportunity to meet women”, Jurenas says, amusedly. “But it came quickly apparent that musically, as a countertenor, I could do things which were not possible as a baritone.”

Staying true to oneself

Palesa Malieloa.

In summer 2016, soprano Palesa Malieloa (b. 1992) sang on the distinguished Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, in the choir of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. There, she decided to take her opportunity. “I thought while I was there, I should try get someone to hear me. I asked the assistant conductor, if he would like to prepare a piece with me. And we worked with the aria of Massenet, which I sang also here in Helsinki.”

After hearing the South African sing, the conductor arranged an audience for the Mozart Residency held by the festival every summer. “I went back to my home country and won a national competition there. I had already forgot about Provence, when they contacted me again next winter”, Malieloa says. “Even though the time for application had passed, they were friendly and wanted me there for the summer. And it was an amazing experience: we studied a kaleidoscope of Mozart ensembles and arias.”

Mozart is close to Malieloa, as well. “We have the same birthday, but it is not only that”, she bursts out laughing. “It is a very healthy repertoire for me, and it keeps me grounded.” Now Malieloa is studying in a Master’s programme at Hochschule für Musik Köln. “It is not easy for me to name my favourite repertoire. Nevertheless, in opera, I am interested in roles where you get to be energetic and active, be it more feisty or innocent.” Malieloa mentions Puccini’s Musetta (from La Bohème) as an example. “I do not like to feel vulnerable in a role.”

Malieloa does not want to compare herself with fellow competitors in a high-level competition like this but focus on her own expression. “It is about staying true to yourself, your preparation and your own craft.”                                                           

Text: Justus Pitkänen
Photos: Heikki Tuuli

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