News and Features

Singing Handel's High Notes

It’s been a week of firsts for the Fort Worth Opera. Tuesday saw the opening of Hydrogen Jukebox, the company’s first show by composer Philip Glass. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports that Saturday brings the company’s first Baroque opera – as well as its first production with roles originated by castrati.

  • Dallas Morning News review (subs. req.)
  • Dallas Morning News interview with Ava Pine (subs. req.)
  • KERA radio story:
  • Expanded online story:

[overture to Julius Caesar]

Baroque operas sound different – even to someone who knows the popular 19th-century operas of Verdi or Puccini. For one thing, Baroque operas often use instruments more common in the 1700s. This is the overture to Julius Caesar by George Frideric Handel. You hear the harpsichord? It’s played throughout the Fort Worth Opera’s production by conductor Daniel Beckwith (as he says, that’s because he likes to be part of the show).

But there’s a different vocal sound as well.

Randall Scotting stars as Julius Caesar and he’s a countertenor, a male singer who uses a falsetto or “head” voice to sing in what’s normally considered a female range. You know this sound from doo-wop and soul singers or especially from Frankie Valli, who has had one of most powerful falsettos in pop music:

[“Walk Like a Man” excerpt]

When Scotting does it, it sounds like this from Handel’s opera Orlando

[Excerpt from Orlando]

And that’s from a man who originally trained as a baritone.

Scotting: “And one day I was just singing along with the sopranos in choir, thought everybody can do that. And I mentioned it to my voice teacher, and he took me over to a piano and started to work with that part of the voice and realized that there was something there, something special.”

Scotting eventually realized he’d be an average baritone. But as a countertenor, he could have a career. It should be noted that countertenors are nothing new — the term (“hautcontre” in French) — began with sacred medieval music. And countertenors, like all opera singers, have different voices in their range (there are baritone countertenors, for instance, as well “male sopranos” or “sopranists.”)

Countertenors primarily remain “specialty” singers who are jobbed in.  Scotting says his career is spent almost entirely on the road. But for two generations now — since Alfred Deller pioneered their return in the early-music revival of the ’50s — countertenors have had real careers because modern composers like Benjamin Britten have written for them (most famously, his Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he composed for Deller). More significantly, perhaps, in terms of regular work, countertenors have taken on the operatic roles that Handel and Monteverdi  originally wrote — for castrati.

The title role in Julius Caesar was first sung by a castrated male. In fact, Handel’s opera has three roles for such singers. In the 18th century, castrati were big audience draws — and it wasn’t entirely out of prurient curiosity. In the musical thinking of the day, their high, pure voices connoted heroic virtue. So they got starring roles.

The practice of castration was hideous, of course, but doing it to a boy before puberty meant his voice didn’t change.

Conductor David Beckwith: “What you ended up with was a female voice – with the power of a man. They had a man’s body, they had a man’s lung capacity and power in the sound.”

Italy banned the practice more than 140 years ago — well after musical tastes and social attitudes had changed. Handel’s Italian operas happened to fall out of favor during the 19th century as well. But they were rediscovered in the 1950s and ‘60s. This time, sopranos — even famous ones like Beverly Sills, early in her career — sang the roles, dressed as men.

Although “pants roles” (or “breeches” or “trousers” roles) occur in such famous operas as The Marriage of Figaro, they’re often “young boys”  or sidekicks (the Count’s “page”) and not the leading male. So some people haven’t been completely happy with the soprano-in-pants solution. Instead, the parts have often been transposed downward for baritones to sing them — like Bryn Terfel. Who can blame them? As Beckwith points out, Julius Caesar has been Handel’s most popular opera partly because it has the biggest collection of splendid arias.

But he adds, transposing those arias for a baritone can lead to a muddy sound.

Beckwith: “For instance, Caesar sings a very famous aria in the first act that has a French horn. And the baritone voice duets with the horn, and they’re in the same musical register. It just makes it confusing for the ear to sort out.”

So countertenors have stepped in — and with training becoming more prevalent, there have been increasing numbers of them performing for opera companies around the world (when he began, in contrast, Alfred Deller was pretty much self-taught).

Ava Pine, the Texas-born soprano who’s making her debut as Cleopatra, couldn’t be happier. [Ava Pine singing]

Pine: “When I get to sing duets with countertenors, it’s so much fun because the timbre of their voice is so unique. And it really blends well with the soprano voice. It’s a different kind of blend than two female voices singing together.”

In real life, when they had their famous meeting in Alexandria in 48 B.C., Caesar was 52 and Cleopatra 21. In Handel’s opera, they’re both young. Which is to say, operas can have a long distance relationship with reality. Scotting calls Julius Caesar a “fantasy based on history.”  Still, it may be a fantasy, but he recognizes that for contemporary operagoers, seeing him play a commanding male hero who sings like a girl can be … disconcerting.

When he first starts to sing, Scotting says, he can actually feel the audience sit up.

Scotting: “As I open my mouth, sometimes I smile you know, because I know it’s going to happen. And it’s just funny to me. It does take just that moment [laughs]. But then they settle in. They understand what they’re hearing. And then they go along for the story and they’re a part of everything that’s happening. Which is great.”

[close with excerpt from Orlando]