Rene Jacobs has been highly successful in a unique dual career as a countertenor and conductor, specializing in vocal music of the Baroque period. He was a chorister in the Cathedral of his hometown of Ghent. Also the home of conductor Philippe Herreweghe, Ghent was a center of the movement to restore older music to the repertoire in authentic style performances. Jacobs studied classical philology at the University of Ghent while continuing his studies of singing in Brussels. He became acquainted with the Kuijken brothers (leading Baroque instrumentalists), Gustav Leonhardt (a top conductor on the authentic instruments scene), and Alfred Deller (a pioneering countertenor). They advised him to continue preparing for a singing career and correctly analyzed his voice as suitable for extension into the countertenor range. Jacobs' interest in Baroque music stems in part from his vocal type: many leading Baroque operatic roles were written for high male voices, either natural altos (countertenors) or artificial (castrati). Jacobs' growing fame as a countertenor led him to become a scholar of Baroque vocal music.
In 1977 he began an association with the Harmonia Mundi France record company, starting with performances with the Concerto Vocale. His early Harmonia Mundi records included vocal chamber music by Cesti, d'India, Ferrari, Marenzio, Lambert, Guédron, and others.
Soon afterwards his studies led him to conducting. Among his recordings and live performances, many of which were the first performances of these works in centuries, are Cesti's Orontea, Cavalli's Xerse and Giasone, Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea and Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, Handel's Flavio and Giulio Cesare, Gluck's Le cinesi and Echo et Narcisse, Mozart's La finta semplice, and Conti's Don Chisciotte in Sierra Morena. He performed in the complete operas of Monteverdi for the Salzburg Festival. As a conductor, he frequently appears with the Concerto Köln, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Akademie für alte Musik Berlin, the Nederlands Kamerkoor, and the RIAS-Kammerchor.
He has made over 100 recordings and won many of the major classical music record awards as both conductor and singer, including the Edison Award, Vivaldi Prize, the Gramophone Award, the Deutscher Schallplattenpreis, and the International Record Critics Award. In 1991 he was appointed artistic director of the opera programs of the Festwochen der Alten Musik of Innsbruck and teaches Baroque interpretation at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis.