Monday, March 2, 2009

Upcoming Productions at Opera Vivente; High-Register Male Voices

I bought my tickets on line yesterday for upcoming productions by Opera Vivente in Baltimore: Monteverdi's "The Coronation of Poppea" (sung in English) coming up this week and next, then Britten's "Albert Herring" (sung in the original English!) in May. Britten's comedy will give us a look at a different side of this composer after the heavy stuff of "Peter Grimes" at Washington National Opera earlier in the spring.

I've seen a production of Poppea only once before, also in English, back in the late 1990's at the University of Maryland's Clarice Center. Do you remember that one? It was updated to modern Washington, DC, and portrayed Nero as a modern-day world leader. Nero was sung by a Greek countertenor, who I believe was the subject of a short feature in a recent issue of Opera News (or Gramophone?). That production was billed as one of the weekend's best bets for entertainment on the front page of the Post's Weekend section, so I think there were a lot of audience members attracted by that recommendation but unprepared for certain aspects of the show. For one, I recall an audible gasp among the audience when the countertenor first opened his mouth. I continue to meet music lovers who are not used to the concept of the high-register male voice, but I like to say, "Once you've heard a good high-register male voice, you'll never go back." (But I'm still a fan of Slavonic basses.)

Now we have male sopranos gaining recognition in recent years. Opera Vivente's upcoming Poppea will be my first time hearing any male soprano, and I am looking forward to hearing this singer, David Korn, as Nero opposite soprano Ah Hong as Poppea. As I understand the difference, countertenors train their voices to sing consistently falsetto, but a male soprano sings naturally in that range without modifying his voice. It could be a little more complicated than that, because a few countertenors claim they are singing naturally, as opposed to falsetto, in their register. Russell Oberlin, whose collection of Handel arias was remastered recently in Deutsche Grammophon's Spotlight series, was one such countertenor. Considering the variety among singing voices, it could, indeed, be true of some countertenors, but whatever is really happening inside the singer, the results we hear are astounding.

I rambled on here longer than planned, but I have been so excited by this area of singing and continue to be awed by it and intrigued by the difference in voice types even within this range. Some fine countertenors, including Peter Wen-Chih Lee, have studied at the Peabody Institute recently, and my opera and recital disc collection now includes the likes of David Daniels and Philippe Jaroussky.

Here is a link to Opera Vivente's current season page with cast and production details and hot buttons for buying tickets on line. (There is also a phone number, if you prefer that option.) I note that Harmonious Blacksmith's Joseph Gascho is conducting Poppea, and JoAnn Kulesza, who has conducted previous Britten opera productions at Vivente and Peabody, is conducting Herring.