People want to know what they're listening to, the why and wherefore of it. Audience development and education are positive things. I won't dispute that. So to pre-performance talks, I say a hearty yes. But talks during the performance? Must we? I support pre-performance talks, but I've never been to one. I know what I want to know (and what I don't want to know) about the music I'm about to hear, and I go in search of it myself if necessary. That works for me. It doesn't work for other people, and that's fine. However, assuming there are others in the world like me (and I concede that this can't necessarily be assumed...), making the talk part and parcel of the concert seems to me ever so slightly unfair, not to mention a bit of a moodkiller.
I've been at a concert by Andreas Scholl and the Brandenburg Orchestra. He's gorgeous, the orchestra is totally fantastic and their director Paul Dyer is one of my very favourite Australian musicians. Paul tends to introduce the concerts, and that part I love. In fact, if he wanted to provide commentary throughout, I dare say I'd be happy with that. However, what this concert presented (along with a few baroque concerti and a new setting of the Stabat Mater by Marco Rosano) was a selection of arias for Senesino, interpersed with commentary on the life and career of Senesino and castrati in general. The speaker, musicologist Alan Maddox, is charming, intelligent and articulate. I'm sure he could give a fascinating pre-concert talk. But in the midst of Handelian fabulousness I was not in the mood for Britney Spears jokes or assurances of Andreas Scholl's, shall we say, anatomical completeness. Frankly, I was not even in the mood for informed analysis or fascinating historical fact. I just wanted to listen to the damn music.
Besides which, for all his appeal and obviously vast knowledge, Maddox — probably unwittingly — did a pretty good job of perpetuating all the fallacies, half-truths, myths and misconceptions which exist about castrati, countertenors and who can and should sing what.
Am I alone in objecting to the use of the word "falsetto" in explaining the countertenor voice? Whether it's meant to or not, it implies artificiality. Which as far as I'm concerned is not the case. Years ago, I used to think that it was; I've since found evidence only to the contrary. You cannot (or at least, I cannot) listen to a singer like Philippe Jaroussky, or Michael Chance, or Graham Pushee, or Scholl himself, and think that there's anything fake or artificial about it. An artificially produced voice surely would not have the resonance, expressive capacity or longevity of these and other voices. I suspect the word is used to give a broadly understood impression of the sound itself, rather than of its method of production — but the connotation remains.
Then there's this idea that the act of castration somehow produced or guaranteed the extraordinary voice. It didn't, of course, and I'm sure Alan Maddox knows this; but conversations I've overheard and read and even participated on the edges of suggest that many people don't, and his words on the subject did nothing to correct them. Castration, as I understand, was performed almost on the off-chance. If the boy proved to be a magnificent singer, castration ensured a continued career in the treble register. If he didn't, too bad — and for many boys, the latter fate proved true.
I take issue, too, with his suggestion that, among the three options for modern day casting, both tenor/bass transpositions and mezzo sopranos fail to provide satisfactory "sound quality". It's true they can't come near the fabled castrato sound, but countertenors themselves would point out to you that they can't either. They're both men singing in the soprano register, but the production and "sound quality" (as Maddox himself pointed out elsewhere) are quite different. There are various arguments for casting a countertenor in a castrato role, but I don't believe the "sound quality" one really stands up.
And neither, if it comes to that, does the "believability" argument. I cannot agree with Alan Maddox that a mezzo soprano or contralto singing the role en travesti necessarily lacks the correct stage presence. I have seen women in those roles who were far more persuasive than some of their male counterparts. Sarah Connolly's Xerxes and Cesare are both of them extraordinary; Ashley Putnam is a totally boyish Sifare; Bernadette Manca di Nissa has all the swagger you could ask for as Tancredi. It is not all about having the right facial hair or body parts, or a John Wayne walk. Acting and so-called believability have to do with a penetrating, insightful portrayal which gets to the heart of the character and makes that character live. Being A Man does not necessarily make one the perfect choice for every male role. If we want the part beautifully acted as well as beautifully sung, it should go to the person best able to act it within the pool of those qualified to sing it — in Verdi, Puccini, Wagner et al we are usually confined to one fach and one gender. In the baroque repertoire we have a far more varied and fascinating array from which to choose, so let us take advantage.
Don't misunderstand me. I have no quarrel with Alan Maddox himself, nor do I doubt his knowledge or passion. I wouldn't dare. I hope the above doesn't read as a tirade against him, because it isn't. I was in no state of mind to enjoy his commentary tonight, but it obviously appealed to many, and while I am absolutely and unabashedly an elitist (in a positive sense), I bow to the majority. However, his comments and the response to them have reminded me of issues over which I've been stewing for quite some time. Wherever there's a countertenor, or a castrato role, I hear and/or read the same comments; the same troubling, misguided or downright irritating ideas held by some (possibly many) on all these related subjects.
This isn't a manifesto or a declaration of war. Just a plea for fairness, truth, informed opinions and openness to beauty in its infinite variety, really. Not much to ask, is it?
PS: Happy Mardi Gras, Sydney.