Hitting the High Notes
Carmel Bach Festival features young opera stars this week.
Thursday, July 29, 2004
The sound of a man singing falsetto fills seats—just ask the multitudes who fork over serious cash to ogle Prince in concert. No question about it—today’s androgynous pop stars are revered for their vocal gymnastics in the higher range. But this is nothing new. The same thing happened during J.S. Bach’s time in the 18th century—only then the objects of everyone’s attention were castrated teenage boys, known as castrati.
Today the concept of the castrati is unthinkable, but traditional Baroque music still needs men who can sing high. (Back in those dark days, women weren’t allowed to sing in the church, and much of the music of the day was written with this in mind.)
Castrati were popular in Italy and later England, but not in Germany where Bach used countertenors, fully intact males who sing high.
The tradition of the countertenor lives on with performers like Dan Bubeck, one of this season’s Carmel Bach Festival’s apprentice singers. He’ll strut his stuff along with soprano Emily Sinclair, tenor Nathan Davis, and baritone Tim Kroll at the Virginia Best Adams Master Class Showcase next Saturday, August 7, at 2pm at the Sunset Center in Carmel. The estate of Virginia Best Adams (the widow of Ansel Adams) funds the apprentice program.
Bubeck, 28, holds a masters degree in Early Music Vocal Performance from Indiana University, and has performed all over the world. He started out as a tenor but was never crazy about his deeper vocal range.
“I didn’t have low notes at all,” he says. “I sort of thought it was pretty swallowed, and so I heard a countertenor and I was like, is that a man? And then I just started messing around and lo and behold I had this gift of just being able to sing in falsetto very easily.
“I was a boy soprano through eighth grade and I probably could have continued singing it, but in my high school I was just sort of requested to sing tenor because that’s what guys do in high school. You don’t want to be rubbing against the grain too much.”
Despite the Adams Fellows’ accomplished resumés, all are looking to improve their skills during the five-week course. That doesn’t come easily. Twice a week, the performers present the five-to eight-minute arias they’re working on to the knowing eyes and ears of David Gordon, the Festival’s Education Director, and baritone extraordinaire Sanford Sylvan. Together, the two critique the singer’s diction, performance, and breathing.
“We sing it once through and then they tear us apart,” Bubeck says. “They’re going to tell us the truth and just start working on what needs to be worked on. It’s very nitty gritty. They really break it down.”
For Bubeck, this process includes dissecting his performance of a piece by 17th century Italian composer Monteverdi about Nero, emperor of Rome from 54 to 68 AD. Bubeck plays Nero in the opera, which documents the emperor’s affair with the beautiful Poppaea, played by soprano Sinclair. In the end, Poppaea takes Nero’s infertile wife’s place at the throne.
“It’s a very scandalous opera where evil wins out,” Bubeck says. “You would think from the setting of this aria that these two people are saints, ‘cause it’s so beautiful. But really they’re just these two deceitful, evil people. That’s where the opera ends. But in history Nero ends up kicking the wife [Poppaea] down the stairs while she’s pregnant and she dies. That’s not in the opera.”
If you’d like to see what an up and coming classical music singer goes through, attend the Adams Fellows Master Classes Thursday, Monday and next Thursday from noon to 2pm at the Carmel Presbyterian Church. Admission is free.