[Soprano and/or countertenor? – Philippe Jaroussky (2008). – Photo via 176…; Photo Credit: Marco Borggreve]
Watching Vivaldi’s “Orlando furioso” with a strictly cisgendered, heteronormative casting approach (and no high male voices – not higher than tenor, at least) got me thinking about casting practices and the limits companies face when they want to stage pre-1750 opera within standard opera troupes that are usually focused on 19th century repertory.
Above all, it made me ponder the gendered, heteronormative limits we still – various decades into the mainstream Early Music revival – put onto voices, not just as an audience, but also as performers. Why does the male voice in the contralto/mezzo/soprano range still so readily invite questions on masculinity and femininity, about maleness and otherness? And why – as Dr T. pointed out in the “Orlando furioso” discussion – do we more readily accept female singers in male roles, while male singers in heroic female roles (not the buffo wet nurses or witches) are still the rare exception?
The underlying notion remains the old misogynist concept of a woman as a man meaning an upgrade, while the idea of man as woman denotes a downgrade: man is better than woman. A woman portraying a man (especially a young man – with the framework of Halberstam and Connell: a concept of inferior, non-dominant masculinity) thus offers no danger of serious transgression because, since we define bodies as biologically gender-fixed (post 1800, give or take), there is a barrier the biologically female supposedly cannot cross. Western culture (and not just Western culture) does still predominantly link masculinity to biological maleness (usually of the born, cisgendered kind).
This pattern of thought puts all – or nearly all – of our beloved trouser roles in a “harmless kitten” box, despite the voices that embody those characters in opera often telling a far different story: Connolly’s Cesare, Kasarova’s Sesto, Coote’s Ruggiero or DiDonato’s Romeo (to just name a few examples) are easily blurring lines of femininity and masculinity, and also concepts of maleness and femaleness, regardless of being cisgendered women offstage.
And there is an echo to that “rattling of the gendered vocal cage”: in the case of the queer-oriented opera audience (i.e. our case), it’s cheering and swooning, in case of the mainstream gender debate, it’s the concept of “a female singer eventually grows out of trouser roles”, which is employed by singers as much as by audiences.
Now it is one thing to say as a singer “I’m old enough to relate more to Marie-Theres’ than to Octavian”, as Fassbaender eventually did, or von Otter with saying that she was tired of portraying “all those young male hotheads” – both quotes relate more to a question of age than to a question of gender (although the ‘male’ hotheads do raise gender issues again). Would either of them have sung the role of an older man if offered to them? I like to think so. Even if I still think that being older doesn’t necessarily stop you from portraying someone younger in a very convincing way. And does upping on the parts of older women automatically have to mean letting go of younger men (and women)?
Then there’s the more recent case of Elīna Garanča that Intermezzo chronicled back in June, referring to this interview where Garanča went on record with the following quote on what her plans are for after the birth of her second child (due in December):
“I want to give up trouser roles. I am 36, those roles don’t fit my age. As an opera singer, it’s important to be realistic about what your voice is cut out for. After giving birth, I want to move more towards soprano range. In my early 40s, I want to sing more Verdi and try more for just the dramatic repertory.”
Well, first of all: ungh. Yes, there are two mitigating factors: Garanča stems from Latvian culture, which tends to drive a more gender-conservative line, and a lot of trouser roles are portrayals of young men, written to be inoffensive and titillating. But still, ungh. What does age have to do with gender on stage? Isn’t that just as absurd as saying “I think I shouldn’t be singing Caucasian parts any longer, since they don’t fit my age?” Or what about “I think I shouldn’t be singing maidens anymore, since those roles don’t fit my age/voice/status?” Actually, that last one would make some sense, but nobody is asking for naturalism on that account. And we’d never manage to cast a single Isolde or Brünnhilde.
I still recall a sizzling Cherubino by Teresa Berganza at the age of 58. Her voice wasn’t 58. Her voice was transcending borders, and her physique followed suit. Why does tiptoeing that border still scare the living daylights out of some people?
But before grinding my teeth, then there are singers like Sarah Connolly and Joyce DiDonato, both a bit older than Garanča, and both with no qualms whatsoever to sing male and female roles, of variying age groups. Connolly and her dashing silver fox Cesare may be the best example for a female singer portraying older masculinity in a very convincing (not to mention very hot) fashion. I had the same thought when Joyce DiDonato graced the Berlin AIDS gala last night, in a tux outfit of sorts, and gave a “La tremenda ultrice spada” that couldn’t have been more fierce or hotheaded, and the fact DiDonato herself is older than Romeo did not take from the experience in the slightest.
The “age excuse” – apart from voices changing and becoming darker or heavier or sharper, and thus a little less apt for portraying giggly ingenues – always reeks of being just a fake argument that takes away from the apparent discomfort that gender transgression still seems to cause.
Now that high male voices have kicked the door to a gender-neutral tonal space wide open (i.e. singing high doesn’t necessarily link back to femaleness any longer), is there even more insecurity, or do we finally embrace the chances of transcending and creating gendered bodies in sound (again)?
The conflicted position is very well documented in a few recent interviews of Philippe Jaroussky, arguably the male soprano who embued the ‘countertenor’ sound with a sweetness in timbre that was previsouly seen as too feminine by the largely pure-sounded English sacred music tradition.
I was a bit crabby after reading the last ZEIT interview, although I do blame the framing of the interviewer for it, too. The headline alone – “The countertenor is a new kind of man” – ticked me off. Why do we immediately have to defend the maleness of the countertenor? Shouldn’t it be a given? All it shows it that, underneath, the use of mezzo/soprano range still is seem as feminine. Then there’s the subheader with the question “Is he superating masculinity that way?” To which I say: Huh?!
I don’t even know what is meant here – transpassing gender bias in sound? Looking for an excuse because it’s still not ‘real’ (or dominant) masculinity if you sing this way?
Why do we still need to discuss masculinity when we discuss countertenors? Actually, why do we call them countertenors – just so that it sounds a bit more masculine, as bit more like “tenor”? Why don’t we call them mezzo-sopranos and sopranos, after their range?
Jaroussky himself offers a few very relaxed and thoughtful replies on voice/gender topics. I still disagree with his rejection of female parts, period, but as I stated in the comments of the “Orlando” discussion – as an out singer in a still queer-perceived voice genre, Jaroussky faces a lot of inane questions and prejudice, so it may simply be a way to try and not get pushed farther into the queer corner.
Two questions of the interviewer seemed especially telling – for one, the opinion of “love duets between a high male voice and a female soprano often cause irritation because the visual impression doesn’t match the acustic one”. What normative pattern indicates that this “doesn’t match”? 19th century gender bias, that’s what. And we should be beyond that. The second question I didn’t like was, “As a countertenor, does one automatically think about a male role model?” Now why would the masculinity embodied by a male soprano (or a female soprano, in fact) need a special MALE role model? Because there’s not enough innate masulinity in it? Because it differs so much from traditional, dominant masculinity? Is that really still the prevalent pattern of thought?
I also find Jaroussky’s reply a little problematic since he links being a male soprano to being a woman earning her own living, marking them both as special occasions, which they shouldn’t be. Being just a kind of man (but different from others through the voice?) is an eloquent reply, very reminiscent of Julie Andrews in “Victor/Victoria”, but he follows up immediately with saying the countertenor can discover his feminine side and express more emotions, and then gives the counter example of the brave hero riding into battle.
And yes, perhaps it is easier to break gender stereotypes in a queer-associated field, but isn’t every man, cisgendered or not, capable of expressing stereotypically feminine-related traits? And isn’t a lot of the Baroque heroism of the castrati parts precisely about riding off into battle as the brave hero – with the high voice being no hindrance? Again: why the excuses?
In other interviews, Jaroussky links the high male voice not only to a feminine sound (citing that same “special thrill” that would stem from the overlay of male appearance and feminine-sounding voice – *insert facepalm of the gender theorist*), but, as an alternative, to the wish to remain child-like. It’s another popular trope (in fact, a contemporary trope) when it comes to castrato voices: the desire to preserve prepubescent youth. Jaroussky, as a child of the 20th century, links it to psychology, which I personally find problematic – he states that being a countertenor is a lot about psychology, but not about the desire to become a woman or at least sound like one (a statement that gives pause since it implies that he has had to listen to that kind of idiocies a lot), though rather to preserve the spirit of childhood, citing that many of his colleagues would be “young in mind and spirit”.
And I wonder: Do we still need these excuses? Do we need a voice to be gendered, and to be tied to the singer’s psyche? Cannot a man simply sing in soprano range without having to deflect assumptions about wanting to be a woman or sound like a woman, and without having to defend his masculinity as a ‘particular’ or ‘different’ kind of masculinity? And cannot a female singer simply take on roles depending on voice type, not depending on gender, without having to be a afraid of the stigma of (age-inapropriate) gender transgression?
Below, I translate most of Jaroussky’s recent ZEIT interview, plus various additional interview snippets of his. All sources (originally in German) are linked, if you want to take a look at the original context, although I am not sure in what language the interviews were initially conducted – it’s probable that the German is already derived from French or English.
Soprano Philippe Jaroussky: „The countertenor is a new kind of man“
Philippe Jaroussky is one of the best sopranos in the world. Now he’s daring to approach the arias of the castrato Farinelli. Is he superating masculinity that way?
An interview be Rabea Weihser
ZEIT: Monsieur Jaroussky, you’ve just released an Album with arias of the great Farinelli. His story is well-known because of the movie – the essential castrato opera stereotype. Isn’t that a little too easy for a choice?
PJ: I was always afraid to record a Farinelli program. But then I realized that his repertory isn’t all that bad for my voice. I liked the idea to discover another composer through it. I use the name of Farinelli to talk about Nicola Porpora. And I wanted to show with this project that castrato voices are no miracles. The singers had to work hard.
ZEIT: How does your voice differ from Farinelli’s?
PJ: He could sing a very high soprano and, in the same opera, take on an aria for contralto. And he used his chest register much more often than I do. I can’t sing all of Farinelli’s repertory. But I found many touching arias in Popora’s oeuvre, and that’s the most important thing about this project: I want the audience to feel what Porpora felt for Farinelli.
ZEIT: Porpora wrote the most artistic arias for Farinelli. How did you manage to master them?
PJ: It’s gymnastics. To sing this music, you need to train, just like for Verdi, Puccini or Wagner. You need to sing these high parts fifty times a day to hold your own on stage.
ZEIT: There is most likely no other genre within classical music that puts that much emphasis on the artistry of the artist. You step in front of the audience and show how to cross human and also masculine borders. Do you, at times, feel like a circus horse that’s merely showing a few artistic tricks?
PJ: During the concerts, the audience does of course react mostly to the virtuoso arias. The people scream, lose their minds. But when I talk to them afterwards, they speak of the emotional arias, not the artistic onces.
ZEIT: That’s an effect also present in the big pop business.
PJ: Yes, people have an odd relationship with castrato operas. Of course they don’t want to see real castrati any longer, that’s over. But there is this desire to yet hear them again. These concerts with castrato repertory are something very special.
ZEIT: Especially love duets between a high male voice and a female soprano often cause irritation because the visual impression doesn’t match the acustic one. On the other hand, there’s probably no better analogy of intimacy than lovers singing with the close distance of a third.
PJ: That’s correct. There’s this fantastic duet at the en d of L’incoronazione di Poppea by Monteverdi…
ZEIT: Emperor Nero is a mezzo and his lover Poppea a soprano.
PJ: And the two are always very closely together. There are many productions with tenor and soprano, and there it does make a very different impression.
ZEIT: As a countertenor, does one automatically think about a male role model?
PJ: To be a countertenor is one way to express what a man can be. He can discover his feminine side and express a large variety of emotions. The romantic idea of the brave hero who rides into battle has long since been overcome. I can be a man and sing high. Where’s the issue? I can just as well be a woman and go work.
ZEIT: It’s been said that we live in a post-gender-era. Is this related to the success of the countertenors?
PJ: Of course. And there is a completely new school, many young colleagues. A few of them are just as good as mezzo sopranos are. Perhaps that’s a bit pretentious, but I believe that most of the new school of male sopranos have listened to my voice. I believe I’ve contributed across the past decade to move the countertenor voice into another direction. Not towards the contralto repertory, but towards the mezzo and soprano repertory. Today I hear singers with a bigger range than I have. A few years ago, that wasn’t the case.
ZEIT: Who were your role models?
PJ: We have to be grateful to singers like Alfred Deller. They came out of nowhere and decided to sing a repertory that nobody cared about. When I started out, I listened to Andreas Scholl, David Daniels, James Bowman. And I wouldn’t have thought so, but it’s really easier to sing with those examples in your mind’s ear.
ZEIT: Has the audience changed?
PJ: Yes. It isn’t content with hearing a countertenor. He has to sing clear and loud. Now there is a veritable competition among countertenors, different timbres and personalities. That is very good. Some do their best work in sacred music. Others have developed a technique for [19th century] belcanto.
ZEIT: And where is your personal spot? Eternally within baroque opera?
PJ: I took an 8-months-break and thought about what I want to sing in the future. This Farinelli project might be my last venture into the castrato repertory. I’m not that athletic, sometimes I don’t feel like gymnastics. Also for that reason I’d like to sing something else. There are so many interesting parts for countertenors in the sacred music of Bach, Purcell or Dowland. They’re not about artistics, but about interpreting a text. That is becoming more important to me.
I could have sworn there was a bit about taking on women’s roles in the ZEIT interview, but I couldn’t find it, so I dug around other interviews to find the quote I was looking for. Take, for example, this bit from an interview with the WA (Hamm)…:
Your voice teacher had you practice as if you were a woman…
PJ: That’s right, I take lessons from a woman. She uses the same exercises she would use for a female singer. She says it doesn’t make a difference since we are moving within the same vocal range. In the end, we need to tackle the same difficulties in a score. Most of all she taught me to maintain my voice as natural. She said: Don’t make your voice bigger than it is. In opera, I sing male roles with my high voice and am a man, in my appearance, in my demeanor. But there is the difference between my physical appearance and my feminine-sounding voce. That is a special thrill.
… or this bit from ARTE magazine (interview by Teresa Pieschacón Raphael):
PJ: […] Some patterns need to be automatized, only then a voice will sound free – and, that way, fresher and younger.
ARTE: It’s experience that makes your voice young?
PJ: Yes. That may sound odd, but every day, I hope that the voice sounds younger.
ARTE: That sounds a bit like Peter Pan syndrome.
PJ:Yes. A countertenor doesn’t merely define himself by his vocal capacities. There is a lot of psychology behind it. Many people believe that one sings this way because one absolutely wants to be a woman, or at least sound like one. I believe it is the desire to remain a child. Many of my colleagues are very young at heart. We want to keep our ingenuity, conserve our childhood.
ARTE: What’s your take on the theory that it was Michael Jackson who made countertenors socially acceptable?
PJ: I don’t believe that, that’s much too short-lived. There were others before him him popular music, e.g. the BeeGees who were successful with their falsetto singing. There are different reasons for us classical singers. Bit by bit, many traditions disappeared, in modern music just as well as in Early Music. Much has changed in the relationship between man and woman. Today, men are allowed to be more honest, to cry and express their emotions. A countertenor does find a spot here far more easily.
…or this bit (I think this is the snippet I remember) from concerti.de:
“…Singing in women’s costumes:
I’ve never done that, I think I would find it uncomfortable. Last year, we did Artasere by Leonardo Vinci, with five countertenors, and I was offered a woman’s role, but I preferred to take on one of the male parts. The countertenor voice, to me, is not about portraying a woman. I never try to imitate a woman, either. I have chosen this voice because I can sing if comfortably, it’s simply easier for me than singing bass or tenor.”