Bespoke Opera: Handel, Fach, and Gender

By: Andrew Dell’Antonio (University of Texas at Austin) //

Twenty-first century opera singers obtain—and train for—principal roles in “warhorse” works worldwide according to a system of voice-types, widely known as the “fach” system (using a German word that means “classification”). Casting directors, teachers, and the stars themselves have become accustomed to linking singers to roles by these voice-types, so that a singer might think of herself as a “dramatic soprano” (associated, for example, with the roles of Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs and Aïda in Verdi’s opera of that name) or of himself as a “lyric baritone” (associated with the roles of Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute and Figaro in Rossini’s Barber of Seville).

When George Frideric Handel wrote his operatic roles in the early 1700s, by contrast, he wrote them specifically for individual singers who had been hired to star in his shows; he tailored the specific musical details of the parts to those star singers’ vocal strengths. If Handel chose to reprise an opera, and the singer for whom he had created the role was not available, he changed the music to suit the new singer’s vocal apparatus, just as a high-end clothing designer today might be expected to shorten or lengthen a dress so that it would fit perfectly, or add details that would create the best effect for the high-paying customer.

This approach rested on the idea that each voice is absolutely unique and idiosyncratic—never a “type.” Indeed, today each star lyric soprano sounds different, and real fans can tell one from another from just a few notes, but young operatic singers seek to emulate a consistent vocal sound in a way that would be as incomprehensible to a rising Nashville star as it would have been in Handel’s time.

The ideal of individual vocal quality is especially intriguing from a contemporary perspective because almost all of Handel’s leading operatic singers had roughly the same range: some of them could reach a bit higher and liked to display that stratospheric ability, others preferred to show off their lower, richer tessitura. But by and large every Handelian leading role can be sung by what the twenty-first Fach system might call a “coloratura soprano” or “coloratura mezzo-soprano.”

Some of Handel’s singers were born female, others born male. The latter (we now call these men castrati, though they preferred the less sensationalized musici, “music-men”) had received extensive training after being identified for their vocal prowess as young boys and prevented from reaching puberty by procedures that were probably fairly safe by the surgical standards of the time. The Catholic church built substantial demand for skilled male sopranos to populate choirs—well into the 1800s women were generally forbidden from singing in public Catholic rituals—so even those who were not fortunate enough to “make it big” in a theatrical career would have substantial lifelong employment opportunities (not a small thing in a society where working-class folks had little job security of any sort). And those who did gain significant stage experience as leading men would likely have enough money to live comfortably after only a couple of decades’ work, and the opportunity to help their families and friends in the process.

There’s plenty—both fiction and more or less lurid historical narrative—for one to read about these men and their lives. Perhaps more interesting to those of us seeking to engage with their musical roles is the question of how nuances of characterization (both in terms of gender and in broader dramatic ways) played out when all of the leading roles were singing in the same range, and how Handel’s operas might still be made dramatically powerful and convincing today, when the Fach system has led audiences to expect a mix of ranges in a fairly standard binary-gender configuration.

While voices were expected to be unique, Handelian dramatic roles were very stereotypical: the leading male character could always be expected to behave in certain ways, the plot itself was entirely predictable (many scripts were set again and again by different composers, with minor changes in the dramatic flow, and only changes in the musical material given to the lead singers). Male characters usually sang about battle and warfare, but sometimes the leading female character (if she were a queen, for example) might also sing of getting revenge over her enemies; female and male leads sang of unrequited love and jealousy; and while female leads often bemoaned their captivity and abjection, male leads were also imprisoned and had similar opportunities to emote to their fans’ delight. A character’s social role (leader/prince and follower/servant, or good guy/gal and bad guy/gal) would more likely determine the topic of song (and time in the spotlight) than her/his/hir gender. 

Gender ambiguity is thus both a challenge and an opportunity for modern productions of Handel opera—and indeed of the entire tradition of opera seria that spanned more than a century from just before Handel through Mozart and into Rossini’s early career. In performance as well as scholarly and public writing, transgender mezzo-soprano CN Lester has emphasized the gender-flexible potential of eighteenth-century operatic roles; however, this outlook has yet to resonate widely in an operatic world that is still grounded in diametrically opposed gender binaries.

One solution—historically chosen by many large opera houses who hire Fach singers for a season—is to adapt/transpose Handel’s male roles to tenors and baritones. Since most Fach-related male roles require more vigor and volume than vocal flexibility, when such singers take on this unfamiliar style, the results can be confusing during fast-note passages, as in this example from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, the aria “Al lampo dell’armi” (in which Caesar sings of seeking vengeance among flashing weapons, and his strength keeping his sword in his hand):

The rich sound quality of the voice of great mid-twentieth-century dramatic baritone Cesare Siepi is evident in this rendition, but it’s hard to tell if all of the quickly-moving notes are entirely in tune (or maybe even quite in rhythm).

On the same aria the renowned dramatic baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau here also provides a sound that is full on the long notes, and very expressive, but the shorter and faster ones seem rather labored and perhaps not quite precise. The fast notes in Fischer-Dieskau’s performance become even more “blurred” when the recording is sped up a bit.

Both Siepi and Fischer-Dieskau convey the title character, Julius Caesar, with the kind of sonic masculinity that they effectively deploy for the nineteenth-century heroic roles that are their primary specialization. Contemporary opera-going audiences are used to hearing their male heroes sound like this.

Another approach that has become increasingly common is to keep male roles assigned to men and female roles to women, but to have the men sing the roles in their original ranges. This might result in an incongruous effect for modern audiences, with the great Caesar sounding less typically “masculine” by contemporary standards: https://www.youtube.com/embed/yk8QZsKAuMI

The same aria is here sung by counter-tenor Andreas Scholl, who has specialized in learning roles originally taken by the great castrato Senesino for whom Handel had originally written the role of Caesar; Scholl demonstrates his ability to articulate notes very clearly and quickly by singing it at quite a clip.

This approach is complicated by the lack of “natural male soprano” voices in the twenty-first century. There are certainly many people who do not conform to gender binaries (whether from birth or through later-life developments), and some of them are also singers. However, there are no prominent professional opera singers today whose bodily configuration match that of the musici, whose physical form was shaped by male growth without puberty, resulting in adult-size chests and child-size voiceboxes.

Natural sopranist Michael Maniaci is perhaps one exception to the lack of modern-day musici, since he did not undergo standard puberty, though as he himself points out in this video, his body is not entirely analogous to that of the Handelian male superstars, and his professional success has been limited.

Men who take on Handel’s leading roles thus often specialize in singing falsetto; these artists are  sometimes called “counter-tenors,” though the terminology is constantly under debate. Rising sopranist Robert Crowe, for example, considers his own voice different from the counter-tenor norm, though he does not claim to have avoided puberty. Furthermore, hiring counter-tenors can be a complicated proposition for opera houses since that voice is not a Fach that is used in the more standard repertory from Mozart to the present. (Mozart did write roles for castrati in his serious operas, but most modern-day opera houses tend to program his comic operas, a tradition that castrati never embraced.) Thus if an opera house hires a counter-tenor, it’s likely to be for only one of several productions in a season.

Another solution is to keep the Fach-trained leads and assign women to all of the roles (except for the requisite bass-bad-guy, a redshirt role that appears in just about every Handel opera). But it might be all the more difficult for twenty-first audiences to comprehend the great Roman warrior in an ostensibly female body.

Regardless of solution, it’s a challenge for modern singers to express emotionally believable characters within a tradition of roles that embody ideal types rather than depicting realistic individuals. While such hyper-reality is true to some degree of all opera, Handel’s works can seem especially foreign to modern audiences in that respect. But the allure of his music continues to bring both singers and listeners to grapple with how it might communicate authentically almost four centuries after it was first performed.

For Discussion

  1. How would you describe the differences between the vocal qualities of the four singers playing Caesar in the examples above? How does each convey masculine determination and warlike spirit?
  2. What does forceful masculinity “sound like” in the musical repertories you know and love best? Can singers who have high ranges sound masculine, and if so, in what ways? What aspects of masculinity can be conveyed through sound?

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