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Does a voice have a sex? - Michael Church [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Michael Church

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Does a voice have a sex? [May. 21st, 2009|10:30 am]
Michael Church

Every voice has its own colour, but sometimes they’re hard to tell apart – and when the singers are not of the same sex, things get interesting. On successive days I heard counter-tenor Iestyn Davies in the Lufthansa Festival performance of Handel’s ‘Athalia’, and mezzo Marijana Mijanovic singing in Handel’s ‘Agrippina’ - and I could have sworn it was the same voice. They both have a wonderfully resonant tone, with the same tensile strength and carrying quality: I can’t compare their audiograms, but the character of their two voices is essentially one. Listening to Mijanovic with closed eyes, it was easy to imagine that it was not she, but Davies, who was singing.
This is a curious echo of a historical conundrum.

Both these singers were doing parts written for castrati - whose voices transcended both sex and gender. Over the past three centuries, those parts have been colonised by basses, tenors, and above all by women: giving them back to the high-voiced men they were written for, as has happened following the counter-tenor explosion, is a sort of justice. (Though one can hardly complain about the wonderful frisson created by modern mezzos and contraltos in castrato roles, in a distinguished line stretching from Kathleen Ferrier to Sarah Connolly.)
But this question of the sex of a voice is always lurking in the background. When you’re listening to the swashbuckling James Bowman, who first launched the counter-tenor voice as a weapon in the stage armoury – the masculinity in that burnished clarion sound is overwhelming. But I once asked the American counter-tenor David Daniels – possessor of a voice often described as ‘gender-bending’ - how he felt about the comparisons made between his tone and that of Katherine Ferrier, and whether he perceived any fundamental difference between her voice and his. ‘Yes.’ In what way? ‘She’s a woman.’ But if he was listening blind? ‘I would still know.’ How? ‘I don’t know.’ Quite so - he wouldn’t. ‘In some ways,’ he then added, ‘it’s crazy to talk about femininity in my voice, but it would be ridiculous to say that it doesn’t sound feminine at all, because it obviously does.’
There’s nothing ‘feminine’ in Iestyn Davies’s voice – nor, I would suggest, in Marijana Mijanovic’s: but nor is there anything which could be described as crudely ‘masculine’. And neither singer’s sound remotely resembles what we know castrato voices to have been like (or rather, imagine, since the one extant recording - of Moreschi, ‘Angel of Rome’ - is risibly distorted). The castrato voice was a unique product of a cruel society plus a barbarous operation; Davies, Mijanovic, and singers like them embody a voice which is perfectly ambiguous, and unique to our more civilised times.
Technical coda
When the soundtrack to ‘Farinelli’ was made in 1994, the voices of soprano Ewa Mallas-Godlewska and counter-tenor Derek Lee Ragin were electronically spliced together: only thus could the full castrato range (seem to) be covered by one voice. Counter-tenor technique has now developed so much that one singer might manage the whole thing.
But range was only part of the castrato phenomenon. One anatomical effect of pre-pubertal castration was to prevent the larynx from growing: the castrato’s vocal cords were thus smaller and finer-textured than those of an adult male – more like a female soprano’s, in fact. And with this soft and flexible apparatus, the singer could perform exceptional vocal acrobatics. Counter-tenor Nicholas Clapton, who has impersonated Farinelli and written a book about Moreschi, has done a study. ‘We can see from Farinelli’s scores,’ he says, ‘that the things he could do were jaw-dropping. I recently worked out that well over a thousand notes a minute were sometimes going past his larynx. And during that whole minute, he might not take a breath.’
So history hasn’t come full circle - and with luck it never will.