LE FIGARO, the French daily, recently paid an extravagant but by no means undeserved tribute to a French singer with a very un-French sounding name, Philippe Jaroussky.
At age 34, Jaroussky is today undoubtedly the most accomplished and most admired counter-tenor in the world. But for heaven’s sake, you might ask, what on earth is a counter-tenor? The word only came into use in the mid- 20th century and describes men who are able to sing in high notes typical of female vocal strings.
But that hardly means sweet-voiced male singers didn’t exist in the western musical tradition before. As a matter of fact, they were a very essential part of the Italian church music as women in the past were not allowed by the Vatican to join religious choirs. The popular expression that described such artistes from the 16th right up to the beginning of the 20th century was ‘castrato’ (or ‘castrati’ in its plural form).The miracle of making a man sing like a woman was achieved by castrating talented boy singers before they could achieve puberty; in other words in their 12th or 13th year. This prevented the ‘castrati’ from developing deeper, male voices and they retained for the rest of their lives this surgically preserved lighter timbre.
But then the ‘castrati’ had an advantage over women artistes who sang in soprano, mezzo-soprano and alto voices. Being born as males, they developed, as they grew up, bigger rib cages, stronger lungs and a higher breathing capacity and used these qualities to sing in a woman’s voice, but in a much more powerful way.
By the middle of the 17th century Italy had its own set of ‘castrati’ who could very easily be imagined as equivalents of today’s pop stars. Certainly they must have made a lot of money with their talent. Pacchierotti, Ferri, Farinelli and Senesino were the celebrities of the Italian opera in those days. The castrating practice only stopped when, given modern values, it was made illegal in Italy in 1870, but by that time women were being admitted to the religious singing groups in any case.
Curiously enough, a few recordings have survived of the last Italian ‘castrato’, Alessandro Moreschi, who had a long career and died in 1922. (You can reach Moreschi’s performance through YouTube. Of course it’s a falsetto voice and its quality belongs to the earliest stages of the recording technology, but it is instructive as well as fun to watch).
HAPPY DISCOVERY: By the middle of the last century came the happy discovery that by rigorous training a young boy can be taught to produce the voice of a female mezzo-soprano or even an alto and that there was no need to deprive the poor fellow of his masculinity, even for high art’s sake.
The vocal timbre of a counter-tenor, by the way, is not the same as the falsetto of a castrato whose performance makes it immediately evident that the singer is a man with a high-pitched voice. But when artistes like Philippe Jaroussky perform, their voices reach unattainable heights seemingly effortlessly simply because they are perfectly trained without need of any surgical intervention. Today classical music fans are discovering with stupor that many of the opera roles that they had always thought were originally written for women’s mezzo-soprano and alto voices by composers like Haendel, Verdi and Vivaldi were only taken over by female singers following the ban on castration. These roles are today increasingly being claimed back by the counter-tenors.
The most remarkable feature of Jaroussky’s success, as he himself explains, is not his own career but the way it has allowed many other talented young men to come into the limelight. “By singing professionally in 1999 for the first time at age 21 in Haendel’s opera Julius Caesar”, he told Le Figaro “I unwittingly ushered in a whole generation of counter-tenors.”
Today the word ‘castrato’ is a pejorative that can only mean a 'eunuch' or a 'sissy'. But the expression 'counter-tenor' is fast becoming a respected and highly admired genre in opera singing, thanks in large measure to Philippe Jaroussky.
Physically exhausted after a ruthless routine that has made him travel days and nights for opera performances all over the world for the past 13 years, Jaroussky is taking an eight-month break, thus willingly and generously opening the door to young competitors like Franco Fagioli, Yuriy Mynenko, David Qyu Lee and Bejun Mehta, nephew of the Indian-born orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta.
The writer is a journalist based in Paris (ZafMasud@gmail.com)