Reclaim the high notes

To many modern listeners, the idea of castrated male singers singing soprano roles in 17th- and 18th-century operas, generally as male characters, seems perplexing. As a result, today’s male sopranos – a voice that is very rare but does occur naturally – are seldom used in English opera. Whereas directors will happily cast counter tenors, or male altos, to sing roles that were originally created for alto castrati, their default choice when casting a soprano castrato role is a female soprano or a mezzo. Yet numerous roles were created by baroque composers for soprano castrati – there were around 4,000 castrati created each year in 18th-century Italy. Male lungs were better able to perform some of the virtuosic ornaments and flourishes in the soprano register; what’s more, female singers were not allowed in churches. Some operatic castrati, such as Farinelli and Caffarelli, became superstars in 18th-century Italy.

“We have to remember that when those operas were composed, male sopranos were not a rarity, but really the focal point of those operas, and had a huge following,” says Lada Valesová, a professor of vocal studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Next weekend, there will be a rare opportunity for a London audience to appreciate the unique vocal qualities of a male soprano when the South African Calvin Wells and the opera company he founded, Ensemble Serse, perform Johann Adolph Hasse’s Lucio Papirio Dittatore for the first time since 1742, the year of its premiere.

Hasse, who in his day was more famous than Handel as a composer of operas, wrote roles for four castrati in Lucio Papirio, and Wells will be singing the soprano castrato role of Quinto Fabio, composed for Ventura Rocchetti, while the other castrati parts will be sung by counter tenors (altos) and a female soprano.

Wells was born in Cape Town in 1974. His father was a Cape coloured bus driver and his mother, who was of Irish extraction, was obliged to declassify herself in order to marry his father. Wells saw his first opera at the age of 13, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and immediately wanted to sing the Queen of the Night’s famous coloratura aria. Indeed, he was able to sing it on pitch by the time he attended Stellenbosch University, only a few years after restrictions against coloured students were relaxed.

Wells’s normal speaking and singing voice is a tenor, but it is nothing like as colourful as his falsetto, which is close to what a castrato’s voice would have sounded like in the 18th century, as is his interpretation. “The castrati, especially from the 1730s onwards, wanted to show off their extreme range,” he explains. “A lot of their arias were intended to show the bravery or resolution of the character, and so they had these wide leaps from high notes to low notes.”

Wells is able to equal the highest notes sung by 18th-century soprano castrati. “The highest note I’ve ever seen written for a castrato is a top E flat, and that’s in Mozart’s Ascanio in Alba, written for the castrato Adamo Solzi. The highest note I’ve sung in concert is a top D flat, and that’s a baroque top D, so the difference between my sung range and Solzi’s range is a semitone. In Lucio Papirio, in my first aria there are at least four or five top Ds that I’m interpolating into the performance. The role is only three arias long, but what arias! They were written for Rocchetti and they are deceptively easy on the eye, but when you actually start singing them it’s a different story.”

Castrati went out of fashion in the 19th century – the last, Alessandro Moreschi, was born in 1858 – partly because their image of sexual danger sat uneasily alongside rapidly constricting notions of sexual morality and partly because composers started writing high C arias for heroic tenors. The association of the soprano voice with characters of noble birth also dissipated. In one of the earliest operas, Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1651), there were originally three soprano castrati, two alto castrati, two female sopranos, two tenors and two basses. In modern productions of this opera it is rare to cast one male soprano, let alone two, as William Christie did in his 2010 Madrid Teatro Real production, with Philippe Jaroussky and Max Emanuel Cencic.

Because there is a limited pool of male sopranos – fewer than a dozen on the international circuit – they are often overlooked when casting soprano castrati roles; and because so few roles are made available to them, some true male sopranos are often obliged to sing male alto roles in order to obtain work. But attitudes are thawing at some major English houses. Garsington Opera cast a male soprano for the first time when it chose Michael Maniaci for its production of Vivaldi’s L’Olimpiade last year. He was “so totally right in every way, in the part,” says Garsington’s director of opera planning, Susan Hamilton, who adds that “we have no hard and fast rule”. At the Royal Opera House, which cast the Polish male soprano Jacek Laszczkowski in Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe in 2010, director of casting Peter Katona believes “there are now more and more significant and outstanding male sopranos of high quality and they will at least partly reclaim some or all of those roles in our and other houses’ planning in the future.”

According to Calvin Wells, there are several mainstream houses in Germany that will happily employ male sopranos, but it is harder in London. “Right now there’s definitely a prejudice against male sopranos in the UK and the US. A friend of mine was introducing himself in an audition at a music school and he said he was a male soprano, to which the lecturer said, ‘No, actually what you are is unemployable’. Well, up until now it’s been true – but I think in the next generation it will change.” If operatic fashions do change, the dedication of this Cape Town bus driver’s son in reviving operatic castrati roles will be one of the reasons why.

‘Lucio Papirio Dittatore’, Grosvenor Chapel, London, on April 6

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