Approximate Running Time: 3 hours and 30 minutes, with 2 intermissions
In Italian with English captions
High Voices: Guys in Handel’s Operas
By Jonathan Dean
Seattle Opera’s production of Giulio Cesare features four characters—Cesare, Sesto, Tolomeo, and Nireno—who can easily plunge a modern audience into hopeless gender confusion. Who’s a boy? Who’s a girl? And why is it so hard to tell? In the story, all four of these characters are male. In the opera house, all four will sing with high voices. And if you go in the dressing rooms to double check, you’ll find that Caesar and Sextus are being performed by women, Tolomeo and Nireno by men who sing in the women’s mezzo and soprano range.
In Handel’s theater, female characters were always played by female singers (sopranos and mezzos), but male characters could be played by men with deep voices, women with deep voices, countertenors, and castrati.
The age of castrati, thankfully, is long past: Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato, died in 1922. He had been castrated before the practice was finally outlawed in the brand-new nation of Italy, in 1870, and his singing was recorded in 1903. (This recording can be heard on The Last Castrato, released on CD by Opal Records in 1993). The castrati were snipped before the onset of puberty, in order to preserve the short length of a boy’s vocal cords; that’s how Moreschi is able to make those high notes.
Modern-day male performers who sing in the higher register, however, use a carefully trained falsetto voice. Their vocal cords are full length, but they don’t vibrate the entire cord. String players who understand harmonics know how this works. Falsetto singers like Brian Asawa, who plays Tolomeo at Seattle Opera, are countertenors, with a range equivalent to a contralto (like Ewa Podles, who plays Cesare); singers like David Korn, who plays Nireno, are male sopranos and sing in a higher range, comparable to that of a high mezzo or a soprano.
— Jonathan Dean is Seattle Opera’s Education Artistic Administrator. Since 1997, he has written the English captions projected above Seattle Opera’s stage as well as introduced thousands of students to opera each year through the Education Department’s programs.