It is always a good sign when you find a singer attending a performance of something else on his night off. I met the countertenor Lawrence Zazzo and his wife Giselle Allen, a soprano with Opera North in Leeds, at Gualtiero Dazzi's opera Le Luthier de Venise at the Châtelet in Paris.
It is a surprising, poetical work that happens to have a big role for a countertenor. Aha, I thought, that's why he's here. Wrong: they were providing moral support for the soprano Christine Buffle, a friend of Giselle's.
This solidarity is typical of Zazzo. Last Sunday he finished a run of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in a new production by David McVicar that travels to Strasbourg next year, then to Berlin and Brussels. I did not care for McVicar's camp extravaganza but was impressed by how easily Zazzo's Ottone carried in a theatre known for its difficult acoustics.
It is a rich, beefy sound, which his wife once called "ballsy". Zazzo himself says he tries to find a middle sound between "churchy and brassy". "I have the low notes for the alto castrato roles Handel wrote for Senesino. I've got enough of the beef now to carry in modern houses. My voice is getting louder, perhaps because I've been able to rest it and keep it in shape."
His training was untypical. After an English degree at Yale, he won a scholarship to read music at King's College, Cambridge. "Cambridge gave me the best musical training anywhere: singing every day, sight-reading and focused, practical studies."
It also threw him in at the deep end. After his first supervision, he was asked to bring a string quartet the following week. Schubert? Brahms? asked Zazzo. "No, no, my dear boy," came the reply, "one you've written yourself." Panic.
But now he feels this rigorous approach has paid off. "American singers have great, polished voices but they tend to be flashy on stage. I find that in Europe it's much more about theatre. Singers here take risks vocally and dramatically."
Zazzo first sang on stage while a student at the Royal College, singing Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. His only previous solo performance had been as a boy magician, appearing as "The Great Zazzini" at children's birthday parties.
For anyone in Paris, Liebermann's Medea in 2002 at the Paris Opéra revealed an entirely different actor. His Creon was a grippingly raw performance. "Creon is a wild, insane character. I did a crazy dance but it's all in the music. The impulse has to come from the music and countertenors don't often get to do a mad scene."
A new interest in baroque opera was behind the revival in the countertenor voice but contemporary composers have consolidated the trend. What, in his opinion, draws modern composers to this voice?
"Mikhail Bakhtine talked about 'defamiliarisation' in literature; the reader is put into a different world where normal boundaries don't apply. Opera is already a different world. Perhaps using the countertenor voice adds a new layer and a new colour."
This baroque/modern axis has served Zazzo's versatility well. He has sung Masha in two very different productions of Peter Eötvös' Three Sisters, first for Stanislas Nordey, who had the three countertenors playing the sisters as men, then in a revival of Ushio Amagatsu's highly stylised production.
He sang in Sciarrino's Luci mie traditrici at La Monnaie in Brussels and Adès' Tempest at Covent Garden and will appear in Jonathan Dove's Flight next season for Glyndebourne Festival Opera.
Now and for the foreseeable future, it is mainly Handel: Saul, in a new recording with Ren Jacobs, Partenope for Chandos Records, Lotario and Belshazzar in Paris, Xerxes at English National Opera and Giulio Cesare (Tolomeo) in 2006 at Glyndebourne.
Zazzo is a good example of the US singer getting to the top in Europe while performing only infrequently at home: everything essential in baroque and modern opera goes on in Europe.
Now 33, he has sung with the best since starting out seven years ago; but it is no thanks to the behemoth agency that rashly dispensed with his services at the beginning. Zazzo is now with a smaller outfit, without the churn and burn obsession with the bottom line that is a singer's worst enemy.
"The danger is 15 minutes of fame. My current manager is interested in building my career and my long-term welfare. It's important to prepare properly."
Preparation is a word Zazzo uses a lot. His reputation as the "nice guy from next door" is tempered by his irritation when a singer or conductor comes unprepared: "I don't suffer fools gladly," he says.
This explains his refusal to dash from contract to contract. He spent the summer working on Poppea and Lotario. "Yes, of course I need to make money but there's a trade-off with singing well, keeping your voice in trim and having a life."