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Saturday, October 31, 2009


[Dear readers: This is the first of what I hope will be several guest articles from our faithful and very knowledgeable correspondents. I am privileged to count, among my acquaintances, many distinguished connoisseurs of great music. Regular readers of our comments section will recognize today's author by his nom de plume JING, which I respect here. Let me say only that I have known our author since our university days together, lo these many years (half a century!), and we share more than a few happy memories. A distinguished theologian and discriminating lover of great music, he shares with us today his singular insights into the art of his friend David Daniels, the internationally recognized alto whose work will be familiar to all my readers --Edmund St. Austell]

Full disclosure on a personal note: My wife and I have, for the last fourteen years, been close personal friends of the great countertenor David Daniels, and I confess that we are adoring and shameless fans. As a person, David is extraordinarily appealing. He is one of those “what you see is what you get” people. He is utterly incapable of striking poses or being a different person to different people. The fact that he is a world-renowned opera star is still something that somehow seems new and incredible to him. He is down-to-earth and plainspoken, and while he may sometimes appear nonchalant, he is, in fact, amazingly focused. He is a totally devoted artist of incredible integrity.

I have seen Daniels in numerous opera productions, from his first appearances in the musical world through his Met debut and first Carnegie Hall performance (the first solo recital ever for a countertenor at that venue). On the opera stage, he is an excellent actor and projects his voice and personality with great confidence. In the recital setting, whether it be a large hall or intimate space, he is personally charming, relaxed and in utter command of his art. His first CD established him as an authoritative interpreter of Handel. But over the years he has ranged widely beyond this, refusing to allow himself to be pigeon-holed as solely a Baroque or period singer.

David grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Both his parents were singers and his late father was a college voice teacher and professor of music. His family was and is extremely close and supportive. He dreamed, from an early age, of being an opera singer. In high school he excelled in sports, especially basketball. He later attended the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and pursued his not untypical dream of being the next Franco Corelli; but, try as he might, he did not have the vocal characteristics of the tenore robusto. Transferring to the University of Michigan, he kept at it. But he never told any of the faculty about his “other voice.” In the shower, at parties, or wherever, this other voice would sing soprano or alto arias. One day, when he felt he had finally hit the wall as a tenor, he made a cassette recording of the other voice, played it for his voice teacher and said, “Tell me what you think of this singer.” After listening for a few minutes, the teacher said, “That’s you. And it’s beautiful.” And from that moment forward, David Daniels was a countertenor, and an extremely good one; he was in fact the first countertenor ever to be awarded the Richard Tucker Prize. Here he sings at the award gala. (The recitative is long, and the aria proper begins at 3:35. Feel free to move the radio button forward when you can, if you wish.)

I think his story is significant because it illuminates Daniel’s role as a pioneer. Artists like Marilyn Horne (his great friend and early champion), had been leading the revival of Baroque opera, but there were simply no males to be cast in the castrato roles. Singers like Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin were attracting audiences, but they always tended to remain musical curiosities to all but a small following. In this regard, the performance history of Guilio Cesare, generally regarded as Handel’s greatest opera, is telling. The role of Caesar was originally composed for the castrato Senesino, but when the popularity of Baroque opera and the castrati declined, Giulio Cesare was rarely performed. In the sixties, a staged revival took place at the New York City Opera (there had been two concert performances at Town Hall prior to that), but Caesar was played by the great bass-baritone Norman Treigle. Later productions then featured female stars singing and acting the role of Caesar. Daniels debuted in this opera at the Met, but in the role of Sesto. Jennifer Larmore was Caesar. His duet with contralto Stephanie Blythe (“Son nata a lagrimar”) was acclaimed by the New York Times as the most beautiful few moments of the entire Met opera season. Last year we attended the Chicago Lyric Opera production of Giulio Cesare with Daniels in the title role. He had performed it earlier at the Glyndebourne Festival in England, with Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra. The opera was staged in the setting of British Empire India. The performance lasted nearly five hours! But, amazingly, so brilliant was the production that there was never a single dull moment: not one. There were none of the odd time-filling, useless stage movements to accommodate the da capo style, and none of the planting of the singer on stage just to sing. My wife and I were blown away, and at dinner afterwards, David was passionate about how it really is possible to have Baroque opera that is well-sung, interesting, entertaining and great drama. And the same was the case in a production of Tamerlano, at the Washington National Opera, with Daniels in the title role.

Here is the aria “Furibondo” from a live performance of Partenope. (Perhaps not the most elegant staging or quality recording, but you are sure to sense Daniels’ stage energy.)

Talent and timing are both critical, and the opera world was ready for the emergence of male singers capable of performing these classic roles. But it was Daniels, above anyone else, who was the one who effected the breakthrough, especially in the United States. The excellent Andreas Scholl was gaining popularity in Europe at more or less the same time, but his focus was less on opera performance and much more on oratorio and some of the dustier corners of the Baroque repertoire. I still find it a bit odd that despite an established career in European opera houses and concert halls, the European critics still tend to refer to The “American Countertenor Daniels,” and are among the loudest to complain when he has the audacity to range beyond what they consider his “proper place” in the Baroque, eschewing the “proper sound” of the countertenor – “eerie, vibrato-less, and uncanny.” Listen to something from the album “A Quiet Thing.” One of my favorites, yet one least appreciated by some critics.

In fact, there are some wonderful roles for the male alto beyond the Baroque; the title role in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and Oberon in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, to mention only two.

Daniel’s success has made it much easier for new countertenors to emerge. And many of them are quite good, in America and Europe. We are now entering a time in which, as with other voice types, there will be great debates about “who is the greatest.” (You know my opinion about that!) So be it. Daniels’ career is now secure and established, and I am convinced he will continue to expand his musical horizons. His superb vocal gifts and brilliant artistry stand on their own. I believe that David Daniels will always occupy a unique place of his own in the world of opera – that of an authentic and courageous pathfinder.


JD Hobbes said...

Thanks for an interesting comment. Yes, we all know about European bias toward American singers, but let that be as it may.

I have not read about the emergence of the castrati in European history. I do realize that men often sang the roles of women, and perhaps that was a reason for the early use of high-voiced males. Perhaps people liked the high voices of boys and therefore continued the tradition by surgical procedures? Perhaps my question is naive, but I am interested in your take on why the castrati and countertenor voices originally evolved? Is there a reason or did it just happen?

Chloe Hannah said...

Thank you for the interesting article and fantastic clips (I'm always curious to hear interpretations of the difficult Partenope aria!)

I have a question: if counter tenors have become more populous in recent years, do you think they will (and can vocally) start taking on trouser roles like Cherubino, Hänsel or Oktavian? We are so used to hearing counter tenors singing either Baroque or late 20th century music that I would be interested to experience a man singing these roles.

Anonymous said...

How pleasant to read an intelligent and honest appreciation of this great singer. As a Europe-based fan of many years I can assure the writer that his reception in London is always terrific - loud applause and cheers whenever he walks on stage for his recitals and concerts. He is also a great favourite in Munich, although perhaps France has always been (typically one might say!) a trifle xenophobic. There is a well documented and sensible Yahoo Groups fan site open to anyone who wants to learn more about David Daniels' career (past and future)and which publicises articles and reviews of his work.

Anonymous said...

Good point about Daniels and Scholl. Like you, I appreciate Scholl, but he is not as dynamic on stage as Daniels.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Such a good piece, my friend! Thank you very much! You can write here any time you like!

Note to those commenting: Our writer will be responding to your comments personally when he is able to get back to the computer. He is currently in demand as a speaker within his church federation, so do check in periodically, today and the next few days, as he will I know want to respond to your comments. Thanks!

Edmund St. Autell

Edmund St. Austell said...

Mr. Hobbes, your question is not naive, it is basic, and if I may, I can give you the simple answer. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Catholic countries in particular did not permit women to sing either in church or on the stage. The need for the high voiced male was therefore pronounced, and certain choir boys with high voices were selected for castration. That term should be understood for what it really was not so bloody,brutal and repellant a procedure as the name suggests. It consisted simply of a small cut, large enough to permit the entry of a fine knife to clip the vas deferens. It often(depending upon how carefully it was done) did not produce sterilty. It did, hower, impede the swelling or thickening of the vocal cords at puberty. There was a saying about the procedure at the time that "the vas deferens makes a vast difference." We have proved, in the 20th and 21st centuries, that technique easily trumps surgery in this regard. I think it very unlikely that the touted castrati of past centuries, such as Senesino or even Farinelli, could come close to matching Daniels, Scholl or Jaroussky. There may well be a golden age of male alto and male soprano singing just beyond the horizon. All it takes is the audience. Edmund

Anonymous said...

I have never heard a countertenor iN person. Can you hear them in the audience or does the orchestra drown them out?


Jing said...

Let me respond to Rick. It's a good question and, in fact, I've heard this discussed in more than one review of opera performances. A quick answer might be: for some countertenors, sometimes, yes. Edmund has written very perceptively on this blog in the past about the relationship between voice size and the capacity of any particular singer to "cut through" the sound of a sizeable ensemble. Voices that sound enormous up close are not necessarily the voices that carry over the footlights. A voice that is focused and resonant that may sound unimpressive nearby, yet carry to the last row. It really is remarkable, especially when you consider singing over several rows of brass!(And, of course, you can never know from a studio recording.)

All this said, I have never had difficulty hearing David Daniels in live stage performances. The duet from Guilio Cesare I mentioned, that teamed Daniels with Stephanie Blythe is a good example. She really does have a huge voice - but yet the singing is perfectly balanced throughout. Once, believe it or not, I had great difficulty hearing Placido Domingo sing over a full opera house orchestra. When a modern orchestra lets go with full force at some dramatic climax, what chance does any human voice have? And if you can hear the singer, can one even say it's beautiful? In many ways the baroque orchestra traditionally deployed for a Handel operas is, in my opinion, ideal for the countertenor voice. All the instruments are to be played, except rarely, with speed, flexibility, and precision. This permits the singer's (any voice type) bravura passages to be heard clearly and fully appreciated. In some ways, a chamber orchestra is ideal, for such singing, especially for countertenors. And, while perhaps the castrati did, most countenors have less of a "chest" quality voice, which provides for a kind of bite that can carry. A male alto voice (like Daniels', which has deepened over the years) reminds me of a cello. It carries very well, but carries with a roundness and fullness of sound. You are aware of its beauty, not just that you can hear it (if that makes any sense!) I'd appreciate Edmund's thoughts on this, since I am here only giving personal opinions.

I once asked Daniels if he ever thought about performing Brahms's Alto Rhapsody. He just looked at me and laughed. I love that piece - but it is dark, burnished, lush and loud. I think I got his point.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Excellent comment, JING. I have nothing to add to that--you sum it up very well. It is always the finer edges of the vocal cords that do the job. They cut like a knife through the orchestra. Lily Pons was very aware of this. She once told a fellow singer, "Do not be alarmed if I seem to be making a very small sound. They will hear it out there." And they did. Tito Schipa knew this very well, as did Amelita Galli-Curci. Daniels sings in the same way. The cords are likely to thicken somewhat with use over time, but this is not so much a problem for altos because of the relatively restricted range (unless one is Bartoli, determined to sing high C sharps) as it would be for sopranos. This is something Jaroussky is going to have to watch out for. He is smart to do the repertoire he is doing while he is young, because it is not likely to be available to him in 10 years.

JING said...

Chloe Hannah’s question intrigues me. Edmund had an excellent recent post on the history of the development of voice types, a process that can be seen proceeding independent of gender. In a fundamental way a soprano is a soprano, male or female, boy or girl. An alto is an alto, male or female, and so forth. (Many tenor sections in church choirs these days are happily enriched by the addition of female singers). But on the operatic stage it gets more complicated - and more interesting. Of course, Shakespeare was the great master of gender-bending. A female character disguises herself as a man, and then falls in love with a man who thinks she’s a woman, and so on (and, of course, in Elizabethan theatre all the women were played by young men). But I suspect the tradition of the “trouser role” must have arisen through a composer’s wish to simply have the best voices available sing in a production. Were some parts tweaked to accommodate this? The other way around? I once performed the role of Count Orlovsky in Die Fledermaus – a part “traditionally” performed by a woman. I have no idea whether this was Strauss’s original intention or not. I wonder, however, if on the stage there is a kind of uncanniness (for want of a better word) about a female actor playing the role of a man, especially when her gender simply cannot escape our notice. Is the composer interested in conveying something uncanny about the character himself? Is there something about Cherubino that a female singer somehow can express about the masculinity of this boy, even when the “boy” is masquerading as a girl?
And what about the character of Baba Turk, the Bearded Circus Lady in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”? The part is written for mezzo-soprano (Jennie Tourel played this in the original cast). Some years back, there was a very good made-for-television production in which the countertenor Brian Asawa was cast in the role of Baba. It was, well, uncanny. The Baba always has a beard, of course. When a woman plays this role, you naturally assume her beard is artificial. When a man plays the role, the beard is obviously real; which makes the character somehow more believable and thus even stranger.
And to return to the era of the castrati, it has been estimated that 70% of male singers of that period had undergone castration. The great castrati were both admired for the voices and mocked for their appearance. They were referred to as “singing capons.” What must audiences really have felt about the great Senesino? As Julius Caesar? At one level, opera is about the obvious – heroism, melodrama, farce. Yet at another level – what ambivalence!

corax said...

i was intrigued to read of daniels's friendship with marilyn horne. even before seeing that, i noted some similarities in their modes of delivery. [that may just be coincidence, i know.]

i think it's helpful [and i thought this the first time that i saw as well as heard him] that daniels is masculine-looking. i don't mean to say that i would approve of or like him less if he were more androgynous; i very much admire philippe jaroussky, who has already been written about in these pages, and jaroussky is much less stereotypically 'masculine' in his self-presentation. what i do mean is that i think that some of the public's reluctance to accept countertenors, or male sopranos and altos, comes from a hidebound notion of gender roles: what is 'appropriate' [or worse, 'natural' or 'unnatural'] for men and for women. consider the sentence, 'he throws like a girl!,' and you will instantly see what i mean. [i think there is a lot of actual misogyny coded into that sort of gender stereotypy; if men truly valued and honored women, as opposed to just desiring them, it would be a tremendous compliment to utter such a sentence. but that is a separate conversation.]

in any case, daniels is personally robusto, if not tenorically, and conventionally masculine in his appearance and demeanor. i imagine that this has helped him overcome some people's resistance. but more immediately obvious, his ability as a singer is so beyond question that complainers, at this point, will only look churlish.

he has, as you say, blazed a brilliant trail. he will be remembered for that. but most of all, he's a terrific singer, a genuine artist.

thank you jin for this lovely contribution to GREAT OPERA SINGERS.

JING said...

Corax, thank you for your kind comments and for your wise and insightful observations. I have very little to add beyond saying how fully I agree with all you have written. The masculinity with which Daniels presents himself onstage is precisely the way he presents himself in person, i.e. it is simply an authentic expression of who he is. As I think about this (and here, please all forgive me for a personal ramble), David has a kind of impish, boyish, playfulness about him. When we lived in the same area, every now and then there would be a knock on my office door, David would enter and say, “Want to go to a baseball game – I’ve got two tickets.” (Or it could be “Wanna hear Bryn Terfel? His concert starts in a couple of hours.”) I would look at the pile of work on my desk, realizing that I just must get it done, and say, “Well….” “Aw, c’mon. It’ll be great!” “Well, okay.” And off we’d go. And it would be great. And next day. Guess what? All that work was still sitting on my desk. Like those friends back in junior high who would happily lure me away for an afternoon, leaving homework behind. But I would never regret it. Perhaps everybody needs a Tom Sawyer in his life.

Your comments on gender and misogyny are quite right. Though I had to chuckle over your comment ‘he throws like a girl’, since we have a niece who is a champion softball player and coach – and that girl has quite an arm. Matters of gender and role, outward expression and personal identity, sexual personae, etc., are so complex as to be mystifying, to me at least. I have been watching a retrospective on the British Monty Python group. I confess to wonder why it seems to me so funny when grown men dress up and act like women? And not really funny when women dress up like men? Yet both seem slyly subversive or cultural norms of values, class, and so forth? Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful response.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Dear Corax: Let me hop in here a moment if I may to once again congratulate you on a stellar comment that goes to the heart of a crucially important issue; the male alto and his public. I am optimistic in this regard. One needs, I think, to remember that the public for classical singing *in general* is more refined these days than it was, let us say, in the mid-20th century. Verismo, while not dead, is staggering on its feet, and the presence of operas such as Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda, Europa Riconosciuta, Orfeo ed Euridice, Tamerlano, and many others, on the stages of the world's great opera houses, is, I am beginning to hope, a wonderful harbinger of what may be coming. No guarantees, but the signs are good. That takes care of a large part of the *gender problem* right there. It could, possibly, become a commonplace to see large numbers of male altos in opera, and possibly even a great soprano one day. Also, there is the historical precedent of the 18th century. Many of the castrati were not only the most popular singers of their day, but some were at least reported to be serious womanizers. And even if the above were not the case, one has the impression that it was a matter of small consequence to the audience of the day (which was aristocratic) as in fact is virtually the case now (when the audience is becoming more refined in its taste.) Does anybody really *care* any more? In my world at least (the arts and the academy) it is certainly the case that no one does, and I suspect that is typical of most people who care about the fine arts. Even among the general public, I have noticed that women, for example, are generally fascinated by male altos, and think their voices are simply beautiful. I'm sure there are more than a few old boys out there who are bothered by the seeming perceptual clash of man and high voice, but I think there are fewer than ever, especially when I stop to think that Jaroussky is a very popular TV star in France at the moment. I could of course be mistaken, but I see clear sailing ahead.

John Yohalem said...

Not to be pedantic or anything, but the article states "in the fifties, a famous revival of [Giulio Cesare] at the Met starred the bass-baritone Norman Treigle." Ahem?
The Met did not stage any Handel opera until 1985, and it was Rinaldo for Marilyn Horne. They did not stage Giulio Cesare until 1987, for Troyanos - one of the few singers ever to sing both Cesare and Cleopatra.

The production you refer to was presented in 1966 (ah, the fifties!) at the New York City Opera, in a charming if highly corrupt edition. Before that there were two concert performances of the opera at Town Hall, at least one of them with Cesare Siepi in the title role; one starred Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Cleopatra, the other Leontyne Price - in both cases I believe the ladies' only performances as Cleopatra. (Four of Price's arias from that performance survive.)

For me, much as I admire Janet Baker and Tatiana Troyanos, the role of Julius Caesar requires a male presence if the opera is to make any kind of sense. That said, Treigle is the only entirely satisfying Caesar of my experience. Daniels, though too old to play the adolescent Sesto convincingly (bearded!), and though singing like a god the music of the role that fits him like a glove (I went six times during his two seasons performing it at the Met), has never seemed comfortable in the arias of Act I. (His recit, Ombra del grand' Pompeo, on the other hand, was something to treasure when I first heard him take the part in Amsterdam in 2001.) He does not really warm up until the aria with violin obbligato in Act II, and he has stated that he does not find the role satisfying on dramatic grounds.

On the more vexed question of whether countertenors or mezzos should sing Handel's heroes, any true opera lover deals with far more unreality than these compromises entail, and what the composers don't impose, the stage director can be counted upon to invent.

John Yohalem said...

P.S. Marilyn Horne never sang Giulio Cesare at the Met; I'm not sure she ever sang it anywhere.

Elsie said...

Note from a fan: I have no credentials to support adding a comment to this blog as I have little real knowledge of opera. My husband introduced me to opera, and my appreciation comes from awe at the beauty of operatic music rather than knowledge of artists or the art form. In fact, I know David Daniels as a friend as much as I know his art. (Full disclosure – I am JING’s wife.) David is charming, funny and a perfect gentleman. Novice that I am, I find his singing transformative, in particular his arias. To hear his “Cara Sposa” (Rinaldo) leaves me breathless, eyes brimming with tears, at this angelic, poignant expression of marital love.

JING said...

I humbly defer on faith to John Yohalem's corrections regarding the dates and details of the revivals of Julius Caesar in the decades of the sixties to the eighties - in concert, at City Opera, and at the Met. I was ignorant that Siepi performed Caesar, but would have found it fascinating to see him in the role.

Edmund St. Austell said...

For John Yohalem: Thank you, my friend, for dropping by my blog. I have seen your review blog, and it is extremely impresssive. Your erudition is very welcome here, and I invite you to drop by any time you wish. Your comments would be valued and appreciated. I try to get an issue out every week, or two weeks if my schedule is pressing, so Sundays and Mondays are a good time to drop by if you are so inclined, to see what is going on. My best regards, Edmund

JD Hobbes said...

It is off the subject, but several comments above about "Shakespeare," "impish characters," "highvoiced males," etc. brought to mind an astonishingly good version of "Midsummer Night's Dream," done in 1935 by Warner Brothers. The roles were filled by the likes of the young James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Olivia DeHaviland, Dick Powell, Arthur Treacher, and Mickey Rooney. One may chuckle, but Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Cary Grant and others valued Mickey Rooney as the greatest actor of the time. It is worth watching not only for the acting, music, and special effects, but also for the clear delivery of Shakespearean English so that it can be understood. Well worth watching.

JING said...

How right you are! The best version ever.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to JING for this excellent article. I didn’t know this singer before.
What I like in his voice is that it doesn’t sound “sweet”, though it’s a real male alto with beautiful, warm timbre. His style and acting are very masculine, even “heroic”,( if this word is suitable for this repertoire). Of course, he is a wonderful musician, a real master.

I like to read articles written by true fans, because they are attentive to their favorite artists, and usually can analyze performances better than many critics. His performance of the folk song is great. Not every operatic singer can perform folk songs. They require perfect sense of style and sometimes singers with powerful voices and lack of style sound in lighter repertoire like “bulls in China shop”:)
Daniels is perfect; critics are wrong.

Also it’s great to know about his personal qualities


JING said...

Dear Anonymous - Thank you so much for such a lovely response. As a "true fan" (as you rightly say), I had some hesitation in writing about David Daniels, feeling that my thoughts and feelings would not be objective, even off-putting to others. But Edmund was consistently encouraging. So your response is very reassuring to me. And now I am especially delighted to learn that Daniels is new to you! The freshness and clarity of your observations are very moving to me. I so much agree with what you say about his rendition of the folk song - and how not every singer can do that so well. How true! And isn't it amazing how masculine a male alto voice can be. It's wonderful how the horizons of music and our own consciousness can be ever expanding -thanks to such singers. So thank you so much - and to Edmund for the opportunity to write something for this excellent website. I hope he continues to encourage others to as well.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Большое спасибо вам обоим! Edmund