Ouch! Handel With Care

by Charles Alexander

Parting Glances

A musical staple of many a yuletide season is George Frederick Handel's "The Messiah," an oratorio performed with varying success by both amateur and professional musicians.

Handel (1685-1759) was in his day the foremost composer in England, where he relocated from his native Germany. He was lionized by royalty and was the darling of those who attended the opera for whatever reason of love of music, social conviviality, or foppish mingling.

Handel never married, nor did he show any observed amourous interest in women, apart from the vocal divas of his oratorios and operas, upon whom he lavished exquisite music of extraordinary beauty and breathtaking melismatic passages.

Little wonder then that some gay historians have sought to recruit him as homosexual (although the term itself wasn't coined until 1868). To do so, some speculators have gone to convoluted lengths to label Handel as a "warmer bruder," to use the current German slang.

One such historian, by a stretch of imagination, suggests that the monumental statue of Handel in Westminister Abby by 18-century French sculptor Louis-Francois Roubilac makes, by its positioning of Handel's robe, a sly commentary on perhaps the composer's sex life.

A historian who blogs The Teh-Drinking Musicologist observes, "Handel's scholarly gown is garishly pulled to one side, granting the viewer a full gaze of Handel's nether regions. Of course, this is purely suggestive, as Handel is safely fully garbed beneath his robe; however, the viewer is left with a sense of curiosity as to what invisible force might be tugging (disrobing) the figure of Handel."

It's all speculation, somewhat silly to be sure, much along the lines that because Ring Cycle composer Richard Wagner had a passion for wearing silk dressing gowns and writing gushing letters to his patron "Mad King" Ludwig ll of Bavaria (who was gay), that Wagner was himself gay or bisexual. He was neither.

The recent Michigan Opera Theater's production of "Julius Caesar" however certainly has its gay production moments. Three of the soloists are countertenors (male contraltos) and the mid-opera debut of soprano Cleopatra is high camp, Busby Berkley staging, with vamping Cleo looking every bit like Jean Harlow at her Hollywood, 1930s platinum blond seductive best.

The role of Julius Caesar is sung heroically -- if not always even vocally -- by David Daniels, who is gay and identified himself as such in a recent BTL interview.

In Handel's day countertenor roles were sung by castratos. These were vocalists who were castrated in the interest of preserving their prepubescent soprano voices. The practice was common for talented boys in Roman Catholic choirs, the last such castrato, Alesandro Moreschi dying about 1922.

The boy candidate for such musical honor, as it was once deemed to be, was given liquor to drink, submerged in a hot tub to numb his balls, cut to the quick, and -- adding incense to injury -- prayed over for good measure. Many castrati achieved fame and fortune.

In passing: the MOT's 11th anniversary production of "Too Hot to Handel." December 1st, is first rate. A mixture of classical and jazz improv idioms, it's gloriously cutting edge. (Musically speaking.)


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