Monday, June 28, 2021


Seattle Opera Celebrates Pride Month, Post 3 of 3

Julianne Gearhart (Sophie von Faninal) and Alice Coote (Octavian) in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, 2006. © Wah Lui

From the very beginning of the art form, opera has offered expansive possibilities for gender, sexuality, and beauty. A newcomer to the world of early opera—also known as “opera before Mozart”—will often encounter situations that transgress heteronormativity and cisnormativity.

A work like Gluck’s famous old (1762, revised 1774) opera about Orpheus for example, was written with enough space for different voice types, bodies, and genders to tell the story. At Seattle Opera, we’ve presented this piece as a love story between a man and a woman—and most recently between two women. Next year, when we give Gluck’s masterpiece, it’ll star a countertenor—a male artist who sings in a high vocal range usually associated with women.

High notes are the most exciting. Our ears are designed to collect only a certain range of pitches, and the higher a note is, the more easily we can hear it. That’s why violins are always playing the melody, while instruments like bass, tuba, and timpani support from below with harmony. This fact of acoustics explains why sopranos are so important and ubiquitous in opera today. But in the early days of opera, it was the male soprano, or castrato, who was the lead attraction.

Portrait of Farinelli by Bartolomeo Nazari (1734). Farinelli, also known as Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi, a celebrated Italian castrato singer of the 18th century and one of the greatest singers in the history of opera. Farinelli has been described as having soprano vocal range and sang the highest note customary at the time, C6.

When western opera was pioneered, during the Italian Renaissance, castratos made the leap from church music to become the first charismatic superstars in our cultural tradition. They were male singers who’d been castrated, usually before age 12, to preserve the high piping notes of a boy soprano; but they produced those notes with the heft and power of an adult male body. (Flamboyant costumes and over-the-top lyrics added to the effect.) Opera audiences went berserk for them—it was the eighteenth-century’s answer to “Beatles”-mania—and many of the greatest roles in Baroque opera were written for these voices. They played virile, heroic male characters such as Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar or the paladin Orlando. Offstage, they were much sought-after as lovers, because they couldn’t impregnate female partners. Some seem to have preferred male lovers.

Thank goodness, the days of the castrati are now the distant past. Instruments changed, other voice types developed, and eventually (by 1870) the violent, abusive practice of cutting boys became illegal.

Still, lots of great music was written for the castrati. Nowadays, since castrati no longer exist, their roles are typically sung by mezzo-sopranos or by countertenors, male singers who’ve trained their falsetto range. They’re singing those same high notes; but to do so they use only part of their vocal cords, unlike the castrati, who would have been using their whole cords. (A castrato’s vocal cords were short and thin, like those of a child. A countertenor’s cords are like those of any adult man; typically, when they aren’t singing way up in treble clef, they sound like baritones.)

What this means, for today’s opera-goer, is that when you go to a Baroque opera and see two women playing a passionate love scene, or a man singing in an other-worldly high voice—you are witnessing a part of our history and tradition in action.

Seattle Opera's O+E, 2018: O (Magda Gartner) cradles her wife E (Tess Altiveros). Philip Newton photo


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