‘Why don't you sing like a man?’: the return of the male soprano

·10 min read
‘I might borrow one thing from Joyce DiDonato and something else from Anna Netrebko’: Venezuelan male soprano Samuel Mariño - diana gomez
‘I might borrow one thing from Joyce DiDonato and something else from Anna Netrebko’: Venezuelan male soprano Samuel Mariño - diana gomez

The high male voice has always been an object of fascination, speculation, and sometimes disgust. At various points in history it has seemed worryingly effeminate, attractively androgynous, and even the perfect expression of male heroism. Now, as more and more people call themselves “gender fluid” and traditional gender roles are increasingly perceived as oppressive, the high male voice has taken on a new fascination – as is proved by the release of two new albums by male sopranos, a voice type many thought had disappeared from the planet.

The topic is shrouded in misunderstanding because it cuts across the familiar distinction between nature and nurture. We assume female voices are naturally high and male ones naturally low, corresponding to what we hear when we talk to a man or a woman. In the classical and operatic worlds, female voices are divided into bright burnished sopranos, who can produce top Cs or even higher; mezzo-sopranos, who can also ascend high, but are more at home – and sound fuller and rounder – in the mid and low ranges; and contraltos, who can sing very low, with a near-masculine, chesty quality.

And yet, of course, male voices can be high, too: think of soul singers such as Al Green, or pop singers like Prince, Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake. In classical music and opera, there is a positive craze for singers in the high voice known as the countertenor.

These are men whose speaking voices have broken, but who produce high notes as an act of will, by singing with the edge of the vocal cords, rather than the full length. This technique, known as falsetto, enables a male singer to match the range of a contralto or, at a pinch, a mezzo-soprano. But using falsetto does not allow a male singer to soar as high as a true soprano. To do that requires an unusual physiology.

Sometimes nature provides this, but the sad fact is that, for 300 years, a ready supply of male sopranos was ensured by the castration of boy trebles to prevent their voices from breaking, a horrifying practice that began in the Church in Italy and other Catholic countries in the late 16th century, and eventually spread to the opera house.

Breaking the mould: Brazilian male soprano Bruno de Sá - diana gomez
Breaking the mould: Brazilian male soprano Bruno de Sá - diana gomez

The incredible power, virtuosity and brilliance of the best castrati meant they were specially favoured in heroic roles. One of the most renowned, Giovanni Francesco Grossi, was known as “Siface” for his famous role as the Numidian warrior Siface in Cavalli’s opera Scipione in 1671. The best known castrati were stars in all the capitals of Europe, and earned fabulous fees, but by the early 19th century, they had disappeared from the opera stage, and from the church by the early 20th. The last castrato of the Sistine Choir, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1922.

You might imagine that would have been the end of the male soprano, but no. Very occasionally, a gifted boy singer is able to continue singing soprano into adulthood, because his voice never breaks. One is the Moldovan soprano Radu Marian, nicknamed “the baroque nightingale”; another is the American Michael Maniaci.

Given that a man cannot sing soprano without a rare physiological or hormonal condition, there will never be many on the operatic stage. So it is notable that two new male sopranos have burst onto the scene at once. Interestingly, they both come from Latin America, a continent not known for its love of baroque opera. Both are already making impressive careers in the opera houses of Europe, and this year are releasing new recordings, determined to break the historic mould of the male soprano.

In some respects, the stories of Venezuelan Samuel Mariño and Brazilian Bruno de Sá are similar. Both started singing very young, both had a lucky encounter with a teacher who encouraged their unusual talent. “My voice never broke, so I just carried on singing high,” de Sá tells me. “And I had no teacher at that time so I had to work by myself. I listened to Brazilian pop songs, especially the pop duo Sandy & Junior. The girl sang very high and I used to imitate her and also American singers like Michael Jackson.”

Did his singing cause any social problems at school? “Well, yes, I was this very small guy, a bit fat in those days,” (de Sá is now razor-thin), “with a very high speaking voice. So, yes, there was lots of bullying. People would say ‘Why don’t you sing like a man?’ and I would say, well, it’s just the way it comes out. Fortunately, everyone was very kind to me in the church, and they gave me a lot of solo roles. Nobody in school knew about this – it was a secret parallel life.”

De Sá had no thought of being a professional musician, until the harpsichordist Nicolau de Figueiredo heard him sing, and burst into tears, telling him that he could not waste such a divine voice, and had to study in Europe. De Sá took his advice, moved to Basel, and within a few years was winning top prizes.

De Sá has an extraordinarily focused, agile, tremulously beautiful but quite small voice. Mariño’s is more rounded, but recognisably different from a female soprano’s in much the same way. Mariño is much more personally flamboyant than de Sá, and his wide-brimmed hat, high heels and teenage girl’s crop top certainly turn a few heads when we meet in a hotel lobby. But there’s nothing self-indulgent about him. “I don’t believe in talent,” he tells me. “I think the real talent I have is I love working on my voice and on music. I work all the time.”

Like de Sá, he grew up in a ­middle-class household with parents who had high aspirations for their children, and like de Sá he was bullied at school, “Though I did not tell my parents, because I was ashamed to be bullied. I only told them recently. But it wasn’t only because I was gay, it was because I was always in trouble, and I also liked to defend other boys who were bullied.”

After a brief flirtation with ballet, Mariño settled on singing, but he admits that the refusal of his voice to break was a torment. “My speaking voice was exactly as it is now, and my parents wanted to know why, and they took me to a doctor. He said that my larynx did not come down completely, and suggested an operation, but this was really scary to me. I was 100 per cent des­perate, I didn’t know what to do. We went to several other doctors and one said to me, ‘Why don’t you become a singer?’ ”

Permission to soar: Mariño used singing to escape his bullying schoolmates - Dianna Gomez
Permission to soar: Mariño used singing to escape his bullying schoolmates - Dianna Gomez

That permission to think about his voice in a positive way was a revelation. He moved to Paris to study singing, but had a tough few years. “I had to work in Disneyland to earn money, and I remember I had to catch the first train there from Paris at about 5am,” he recalls. Eventually, after a few lessons with famed soprano Barbara Bonney, Mariño found the proper male soprano voice he had been looking for. He won prizes at the Opéra de Marseille competition and the Neue Stimmen competition, and offers of roles began to flood in.

But which roles, in which gender? Talking to both singers, it soon becomes clear that neither is willing simply to revive the figure of the 18th-century castrato by strutting about the stage in the uniform of a Greek god or a Roman general.

De Sá says about his new album, “I told my manager I don’t want to record what people expect me to record. I don’t want to be put in a baroque box, because my entire career is about not being in a box.”

However, he’s shrewd enough to realise that he can’t change people’s expectations overnight. “Some people still want to call me a counter-tenor, and it doesn’t bother me any more. And they still expect me to sing baroque, and OK, I will do that a little. I realise I have to follow the rules a little to break the rules. But, honestly, I prefer Mozart and also Bellini [the 19th-century composer of bel canto opera] to Handel.”

The problem is that, by Bellini’s day, the “heroic” castrato had vanished from the scene. So, which post-baroque roles could de Sá play? Does he imagine himself taking the female lead? “Of course! I have done that already. I have created female roles written specially for me. And in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, I took the role of the First Lady. So, of course, I had to wear a long dress, and I had to shave my beard.”

When I ask whether what he does is an expression of contemporary “gender fluidity”, his answer is a firm no. “It’s just the magic of theatre. In the theatre, I can transform myself into an old man or a young lady. If I have to play the part of a woman, I have to learn how to do that by observing all the women around me – my mum, my grandma, the girl at the cash desk – and vocally I might borrow one thing from Joyce DiDonato and something else from Anna Netrebko. But this is not because I am a male soprano. Any singer has to do the same, whichever gender they are.”

But the fact that de Sá airily says he can play any character of any gender, provided it fits his voice, is itself a remarkable assertion, one opera singers of a previous generation would never have made, and suggests that he really is a child of our times. Mariño, as befits his more trenchant, rebellious nature, is more forthright. Like de Sá, Mariño felt he had to play the game with his first album, but with his second, he is branching out into music never before recorded by male singers, such as arias by Mozart and Gluck. And next summer he’ll play the role of Iris, the rainbow goddess, in Handel’s Semele at Glyndebourne.

“I really don’t want to be a singer who just recreates a past style, like a museum,” he says. “And I do think the stage is the place to express ideas of gender fluidity, because it has always been the place for that. Think of Shakespeare, where boys played women, think of the trouser roles in opera, like Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro.

“I think if the voice is right, any singer can take on any role. Because, in the end, opera is about human beings, and we need to see every kind of human being on the stage. I think about my father, who has MS and is in a wheelchair. Why do we not see disabled people on the opera stage, why do we not see LGBTQ+ people? This is why I want to work with composers to create new operas, because opera should be a living form. OK, my voice is interesting, maybe, but I don’t like to talk about it too much, because opera should be about people and their feelings, not just about beautiful sounds.”

Clearly, these two singers believe the whole operatic world is their oyster, but does the operatic world agree? Stephen Langridge, artistic director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera, is certainly open to the idea of a male soprano taking female roles. Could he even foresee a male Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata?

“Well, why not?” he says. “Throughout the history of opera there’s been a fabulous freedom to play with gender, from the very beginning. Maybe now with the arrival of male sopranos and trans singers such as [transgender Norwegian mezzo-soprano] Adrian Angelico, opera is getting back to its historical roots. So, yes, I would say the more, the merrier.”

Samuel Mariño’s Sopranista (Decca) is out now. Bruno de Sá’s Roma Travestita (Warner Classics/Erato) is out on Sept 22