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Male soprano sings at Royal Opera House

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 15 September 2010

Jacek Laszczkowski is a fortysomething opera singer whose career has just received a major shot in the arm, writes Channel 4 News culture editor Matthew Cain. Next week he'll be singing for the first time at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in a new production of Niobe, Regina di Tebe by Agostino Steffani.  And he'll be singing as a male soprano.

Opera singer  Jacek Laszczkowski signs at the Royal Opera House as a male soprano

Our admiration for male singers with high voices is nothing new. In pop music, Freddie Mercury, Mika, Jimmy Somerville, the Bee Gees and the Beach Boys have all caught our attention over the years with their falsetto flutterings. But now the phenomenon is spreading to the opera world. On the international stage in 2010, there are three or four professional opera singers performing as male sopranos. 

For many Brits who aren't so familiar with opera, the phenomenon was thrust into the spotlight last year when Greg Pritchard, a 24 year old waiter from South Wales, auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent singing Nessun Dorma and calling himself a male soprano. But now the ultimate stamp of legitimacy has arrived with this first performance by a male soprano on the stage of the Royal Opera House.

Jacek Laszczkowski will be singing the lead male role in Niobe, which was written in 1688. His role would originally have been played by a castrato, a male signer castrated before puberty. This practice was common in 17th and 18th century Italy and at the height of its popularity an estimated 4,000 boys were being castrated each year.

The result of the operation was a voice that lay within the soprano range of a young boy, but was delivered with the respiratory power of an adult male chest. And by all accounts, the sound was astonishing. Castrati were the superstars of their day with the most florid, flamboyant material written especially for them.

But despite their popularity, the practice began to die out during the course of the 19th century until it was eventually made illegal in 1903. And at that point, whole areas of the operatic repertoire originally written for castrati quickly became obsolete.

Alfred Deller
Fast forward five or six decades to the late 1950s and early 60s, when a singer emerged in Britain whose popularity would lead to a gradual re-discovery of some of these works. Alfred Deller first caught the public’s imagination with a recording of Henry Purcell’s Come ye Sons of Art.  He went on to dedicate his career to re-popularising the countertenor voice, which at the time survived only in a handful of all-male cathedral choirs.

Deller soon became the doyen of countertenor voice and re-established the Baroque and Renaissance music of Dowland, Purcell, Bach and Handel in opera houses around world.

Since Deller’s death in 1979, teaching techniques have improved dramatically and male voices have reached new heights. Step forward Jacek Laszczkowski and a handful of others, who have upped the ante to its logical extreme by reaching the range of a soprano.

Some of these male sopranos are able to hit the high notes because of physical idiosyncrasies; one or two of them have a hormone deficiency while another has a larynx that didn't develop properly. But what's special about Jacek is that he possesses no such idiosyncrasy. As he explained to me when I met him in rehearsal recently, his voice is 100 per cent natural and exists merely by a happy accident.

Male sopranos
But the classification of singers like Jacek as male sopranos is controversial. Some opera lovers are even muttering that the Royal Opera House is using the term male soprano as a mere marketing gimmick.  Many believe that singers like Jacek are just counter tenors singing falsetto to hit the higher notes.

As Ashutosh Khandekar, editor of Opera Now magazine, explains. "They're sopranos in the sense that it explains the range of the voice, the height of the voice. But it's not like a female soprano. If you have a big operatic female soprano they'll be supporting their voice right from the bottom of their diaphragm through their chest.  With male sopranos you're normally just using a head voice. It's a false voice, it's not really a natural voice."

And men singing falsetto is hardly a new development. Freddie Mercury et al fit into this category. But even singing falsetto, men have never before been able to hit the notes of a soprano. And, more to the point, sometimes the falsetto can sound shrill and isn’t remotely pleasant to listen to – it certainly isn't a sound you'd pay good money to listen to for a whole opera.

But Jacek's voice is different. As I discovered in rehearsal, it produces a beautiful sound with a sweetness and brightness to it that has much more assuredness than your average falsetto.

But despite this extraordinary talent, the majority of Jacek's professional engagements continue to be as a tenor. If next week's production of Niobe is a success, then this might all change. And music originally written for castrati might come back into fashion for the first time in hundreds of years.

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