Singing Out Loud

'Julius Caesar' Star David Daniels On The Opera Closet

By Michael H. Margolin


It began with castration: In the 17th and 18th centuries, young boys with exceptional voices were castrated so when they hit puberty, the nasty hormones would be inhibited and the high, sweet voice would be retained but with adult lung power. They were called castrati and sang opera in high, womanly voices.

They were the rock stars of their time, and this was the Baroque period in opera.

In Handel operas, castrati sang the heroic men's parts and, in parts of Italy where women were not allowed to perform on the stage, sometimes in the role of women. Michigan Opera Theatre's "Julius Caesar" ("Giulio Cesare") dates from 1724 and is the first time that MOT has ventured into this epic operatic form now a staple in the great opera houses. (It will be sung in Italian with supertitles.)

But the practice fell out of favor, and young men kept their integrity and mezzo-sopranos took over the roles

In the 20th century, the countertenor voice - sometimes compared to castrati - began to be heard in the land. These high, often fluted and sometimes thin voices were not engineered by medical intervention but very high tenors who sang more in head tones - a kind of falsetto voice.

But at the end of the century came a new voice.

In the 1990s, David Daniels completed his study at the Cincinnati Conservatory and came to the University of Michigan. He studied with George Shirley, one of the few African-American tenors to achieve an international reputation. "He came to study with me as a tenor; he had a good quality voice," says Shirley by phone from Ann Arbor.

But Daniels was not content. "It was a disaster technically," Daniels says between rehearsals of "Julius Caesar" at the Detroit Opera House, in which he sings the role of the Roman General in the time of Cleopatra's Egypt."I was not happy how it felt technically."

"A month before graduation he came in for a lesson," remembers Shirley. "He was morose. He said to me, 'Listen to this piece,'" a recording made at a party the night before of a mezzo-soprano aria. As Daniels recalls, he said that the recording was of "a friend of mine, see what you think of her." Shirley recalls that listening to the recording, he recognized Daniels and said: "Sing in that voice." And so the world's preeminent countertenor emerged.

Before he committed, he called his parents. Born in South Carolina to two singing teachers, Daniels recalls, "I wanted to sing since I was born."

In his new voice, according to Shirley, Daniels gave "a stunning graduation recital (in 1993)...and came back as a guest artist" a few years later to sing the role of Oberon in Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." I saw one of those performances and was non-plussed: Here was a virile, handsome, husky man singing in a glorious high voice with power - something I had never heard before. Wife Linda agreed.

When he did a concert for David DiChiera, MOT's general director, Shirley was in the audience and reports that "They were shocked to hear a full grown man with the voice of a woman."

To clarify: Usually, in the 20th century, the roles of men in the Baroque works were sung by mezzo sopranos; there were just a few countertenors, but without the full equivalent of a dramatic voice. Daniels, though, according to Shirley, "sang with a vibrato and dramatic instinct," vibrato being the term used to describe the variation in pitch of a musical note, unlike the child-like, unwavering tone of the castrati. The vibrato is part and parcel of operatic singing in the subsequent operatic periods - Classical, Romantic, Verismo and, generally, on today's operatic stage.

So Daniels brought modern singing to a nearly moribund category and then some: "The gold standard among countertenors," according to the Chicago Tribune.

Daniels has been singing in that voice for some 20 years and has been a sensation around the world in the operas of the Baroque period. And, as he said with confidence of the comparison to the countertenor sound and a woman's voice, "There is no such thing as a female countertenor."

Daniels, with his shock of dark hair, beard and eyeglasses, is one of a kind; he came out of the tenor closet just as "he makes no bones about the fact he's gay," Shirley says. One reason he is happy to be rehearsing and singing here in Detroit is to stay in Ann Arbor with his partner Scott, who is studying chorale conducting at the University of Michigan. When not performing or studying, he and his partner live in Atlanta.

"Not a whole lot of guys would have the courage to" base a career on singing in a "female" sounding voice, says Shirley. "He's got balls." (No pun intended.)

Recently, rising young tenor Noah Stewart made his third appearance with MOT. He, too, is out of the closet and sang the virile tenor role in "The Pearl Fishers" in April 2012. He acknowledged that some male opera singers who are gay do not acknowledge it publicly. Says Daniels, "There are singers who feel that the closet is necessary for their career - singing the dark-voiced roles" associated in the public's mind with masculinity. There is no judgment made, but as Oscar Wilde famously said: "Be yourself, the others are taken."

Julius Caesar

7:30 p.m. Nov. 10, 14, 16, 17; and 2:30 p.m. Nov. 18

Michigan Opera Theatre at Detroit Opera House

1526 Broadway St., Detroit.

$25-125. 313-237-SING.

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