When I started to think about this new post, the idea of doing a piece about a neglected vocal category came to mind. I had recently written about the Basso Buffo and about the Contralto, so I thought I’d do a piece about the Countertenor.
That’s when I opened a Pandora’s Box of singers, not all that well known – dozens and dozens of them – all countertenors. All working professionals. All very good singers. Mostly Europeans, by the way. Does anybody need to be reminded of the existence of David Daniels or Max Emmanuel Cencic or Andreas Scholl?
Well, I thought, nothing neglected about that vocal category, thank goodness. So I forged ahead still thinking I’d focus on a handful of well-known countertenors. But I wanted to dig deeper, so I searched further, limiting my focus to Baroque specialists who undertake the male leads in any one of Handel’s forty-two or Vivaldi’s forty-six or the several dozen operas that the Scarlatti brand (father and son) penned.
Those would be manageable parameters, I thought. Here was a field of over one hundred-fifty plus stage works, most written during a period of 60 years that straddled the Naples-Venice-London heyday of Baroque Opera.
And who were the singers for whom Vivaldi and the Scarlatti family in Italy and Handel in London wrote? Castrati would be the answer: the legendary, larger-than-life superstars of the 18th century who commanded fees and perks equaled in today’s world of Opera by a very chosen few if any.
There are obviously no recordings of the great Castrati of the 18th century. We can only read contemporary descriptions that defy one to keep a straight face given the over-the-top praise lavished on these vocal phenomena.
But go past all the lavish praise and the questionable critical writings of the time and you will unearth some valuable details.
The castrato was subjected to a brutal surgical procedure that allowed him to retain some of the physical characteristics of his pre-pubescent vocal apparatus, along with the loss of some of his male genitalia.
Those characteristics – range and flexibility uppermost – would be retained as the castrato grew to be a man. Throughout those years of maturation the castrato singer would undergo a rigorous regimen of voice lessons, dance movement, calisthenics, theory and solfeggio, repertory studies and gradually be groomed for a career as a singer.
By age 18 or shortly thereafter, the typical castrato was good to go on to a career.
The physical characteristics of the typical castrato were just about the same as those of many an operatic singer of our time.
Senesino (Handel’s Radamisto and Giulio Cesare) and Bernacchi (Scarlatti’s go-to castrato) were large, tall, heavy-set, barrel-chested men. Bernacchi was praised for his singing but was described by a wag of his time “as big as a Spanish friar.” Senesino was frequently caricatured by the London press for his girth.
The castrati were in no way effeminate men, and their physical appearance, along with big voices equipped them to portray warriors and kings and lovers in the dramma per musica of Vivaldi, Handel and Scarlatti’s time. Many of the great castrati sang in a range comparable to that of the contralto of our day and age.
When today we set out to cast the many Baroque operas that have entered the “bread and butter” repertory of European Opera houses and that (at a glacial pace) is beginning to enter the repertory of American opera houses, we see managements in a quandary.
If the rolodex of General Director XYZ is long enough to cast a production of Giulio Cesare without breaking into a sweat, he or she may prefer to cast a singer who will look like Cesar did when he wooed the Queen of the Nile. Mind you, this is not the aging Cesar of Shakespeare’s Julius Cesar but rather the virile warrior who would lead his army by the day and conquer in the bedroom at night.
Who do we cast? When the New York City Opera decided to pair up Beverly Sills and bass-baritone Norman Treigle in the central roles of Handel’s Giulio Cesare it did so not with an eye on the artistic sparrow but with both eyes with glasses on the nose, on the box office. Treigle and Sills, not Handel were the big draws.
Today, no opera impresario would risk casting his Handel with any other than vocally-appropriate singers. There are many counter-tenors who could take on Handel’s warrior-lover. But I will not mention any names, but note that the color of the voice that sings the role of Cesare should contrast with the color of the voices of the singers who undertake the other counter-tenor roles in that opera. And that vocal hue should tend towards the darker end of the spectrum.
There’s Ptolemy, a villain, There’s the young Sesto, originally sung by the soprano Margherita Durastanti, but singable by a countertenor. There’s Nireno, a supporting counter-tenor role. Achilla is a nice bass role, Curio a comprimario one. And there is Cesar.
The put upon impresario who has programmed Giulio Cesare for next season and has four countertenor roles to cast twice – once for real, twice for covers – better start working that rolodex now.
If I were on the driver’s seat and had to cast from the American regional ranks and I had a budget with which to splurge, I would fly myself economy-class to Paris or Milan and try to hunt down Nathalie Stutzmann or Sonia Prina and build my production around either one of those two formidable singers.
Get in touch with any number of artist managements that have a good number of singers in their rosters and you will have no difficulty in finding terrific American singers of both sexes who will happily agree to undertake Cleopatra, Cornelia, Sesto, Achilla and Ptolemy.
Just in my neck of the woods I know of a terrific Cleopatra. Her name is Katherine Jolly and she is on the Voice faculty at Indiana University. Leah Marie, a young dramatic mezzo with agility and the legato to play the captive Cornelia would be my first choice. Kayleigh Decker, based in Cincinnati would be my perfect Sesto.
All of these are beautifully-trained American singers who have talent, voice and acting chops. Hire Americans and you will have a great show. And if you are fortunate enough to find even one countertenor for your production of Giulio Cesare, hire him on the spot. In our country, music training institutions are just starting to legitimize the countertenor voice as another important member of the operatic family.
Rafael de Acha