The mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre, member of the Jupiter Ensemble, makes no distinction between the baroque and the rock ‘n’ roll era.
“We grew up with this music,” she said via video call from Montreal. “Just like we grew up with the Beatles and Amy Winehouse.”
The 28-year-old has established herself as one of the most exciting voices in early music performance today. She also cultivates 18th- and 19th-century operatic repertoire from Mozart to Meyerbeer, at prominent houses such as the Zurich Opera and the Paris Opera.
The singer can be seen annually at the Salzburger Festspiele since 2018, both on the opera and on the concert stages. On Saturday, she and musicians from Jupiter arrive at the Stiftung Mozarteum with the program “Lettres amoureuses” (“Love Letters”). The concert of 17th-century Italian music – which the group has performed in France and the Netherlands to date – juxtaposes arias and instrumental music by renowned composers such as Monteverdi and Handel with exciting discoveries such as Tarquinio Merula and Andrea Falconieri.
Ms. Desandre has a kind of symbiotic relationship with the ensemble, which was founded in 2018 by the lutenist Thomas Dunford. Last year they joined forces for her first solo album, ‘Amazone’, which explored French and Italian repertoire written about the female warriors. from Greek myth known as Amazons. Their next recording, slated for release this fall, is a lineup of songs from Handel’s oratorios entitled ‘Eternal Heaven’.
Mr. Dunford, 34, promotes a democratic spirit and takes suggestions from members of the ensemble when putting together programs. “It’s kind of like a jazz group that way,” he said by phone from Montreal, where he and Ms. Desandre were touring with the Les Arts Florissants ensemble (the two met with that group in 2015 and maintain a close relationship with his founder, William Christie). “They are people who love to spend time together and work on the music.”
For Jupiter’s first album, ‘Vivaldi’, members started a poll on Facebook asking about their friends’ favorite arias. In another surprising twist, each Jupiter album ends with a newly composed surprise song: For “Amazone,” Mr. Dunford contributed “Amazons,” a song that addresses the importance of environmental awareness.
Mr. Dunford, a Frenchman with American roots, referred to Jordi Savall, a player of the viola da gamba (with whom both his parents studied), and Mr. Christie as one of the pioneers who set the stage for the current generation of players. “The best lesson we can learn is to be authentic and passionate,” he said. “Because we don’t really know what Vivaldi sounded like [in his time] – we can just understand his music in a logical way and put our personalities in it.”
Mrs. Desandre has a special affinity with Italian Baroque music. The singer, who is of French-Italian descent, left the conservatory to study with the alto Sara Mingardo in Venice, who had access to unpublished manuscripts by Vivaldi, along with works by seldom heard composers.
Tarquinio Merula’s spiritual songs soon became the starting point for ‘Lettres amoureuses’. In “Hor ch’è tempo di dormire” (“Now it’s time to sleep”), the lyrics hover between tenderness and violence when the Virgin Mary has a vision of Jesus’ crucifixion as she cradles him as a baby.
Ms. Desandre likened the music to “a beating heart” or a kind of spiral. “She says ‘sleep peacefully,’ but she knows something tragic is going to happen,” she explained.
Her studies with Ms. Mingardo were based on a holistic, rather than technical, approach to vocal studies. At one point, Ms Desandre said, she was advised to “go out and have fun, find a friend and live — so you can convey this experience on stage.”
Further singer mentors include Natalie Dessay (who inspired Ms. Desandre to enter the profession when she saw her on television at the age of 12), Vivica Genaux, Véronique Gens and Cecilia Bartoli. The last two singers perform on “Amazon”; mr. Christie also plays an instrumental work by the French composer Louis Couperin.
“The album is like a tribute to the most important people in my life,” said Ms. Desandre. The singer also personally chose the photographer, Julien Benhamou, who works with dancers at the Paris Opera, to create the cover art.
This is also a nod to Mrs. Desandre’s training as a ballerina, which she says allows her to let loose physically on stage. “It’s one of the best ingredients for singing,” she said. “To be anchored and not get mentally stressed.”
For her Salzburg Festival debut in 2018, director Jan Lauwers gave her complete artistic freedom to dance on stage while singing the comprimario roles of Amore and Valleto in Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea”. The singer said that if Paris was the city where she was born and raised, Salzburg would have become “a city of the heart, because I found a kind of family there – people who are willing to take risks with me.”
As a nature lover, she also pointed out the inspiring landscape of the city. “To leave rehearsals and be in front of a mountain and surrounded by greenery in five minutes is extremely nourishing,” she said. “These are moments of community that allow us to connect with our energy, center ourselves and be very focused.”
Singing the role of Despina in a production of Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” that took place at a scaled-down Salzburg Festival in August 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic, remains a particularly strong memory. “There was an intensity during rehearsals,” she recalls. “To remember why we love making music and being together.”
A similar spirit drives the Jupiter Ensemble. The members of the group take the time to work on a program until it comes to full maturity, and they always live in the moment.
“There are also the experiences we share offstage,” Ms Desandre said. “That means when we perform, we trust each other, listen to each other, worship each other. We want to share this happiness with the public.”