Walter Meyer wrote:
>"OK, cut! What's a sopranist? Flavio, from his picture, as well as his
name, is male. His voice sounds like a woman's. He's not a countertenor.
Is he a boy soprano?"
You didn't indicate Mr Oliver's age, so it's difficult to comment on
whether he's a boy soprano or not, though it seems highly unlikely to
me that Tolemeo would be sung by a pre-pubescent boy! (But you never
know!) In any event, a number of terms are currently used to label men who
perform exclusively in their falsetto range, e.g., countertenor, male alto,
falsettist, sopranist, haute-contre, etc. In the not-to-distant past, some
folks argued that the term "counter-tenor" should be reserved for men who
sang somewhat higher than the normal tenor range, but not in falsetto.
(Russell Oberlin was usually offered as an example.) Today, however, the
term is usually applied to men who sing falsetto.
Mr Meyer went on to ask:
>"Why did male roles in Handel's time have to be written for castrati
Chalk this one up to the way in which tastes and artistic conventions
always change over time! In Handel's day, and especially in the realm of
Italian opera (which is what Handel wrote), it was a generally held belief
that only the highest voices were appropriate for the expression of the
noblest sentiments and emotions - which is of course what heroic male leads
were all about. I think that virtually all of Handel's heroic male leads
were written in the soprano / alto range. (By the way, Handel wrote some
of these roles expressly for his favorite women singers, and would often
cast women in them if a good castrato wasn't available. He didn't use
countertenors in opera and he didn't transpose heroic roles down so that
they could be sung by tenors or basses. It was more important for the role
to be sung by someone of the right voice type than for the role to be sung
by someone of the "right" gender. Gluck, Mozart, and Rossini wrote heroic
roles for the highest voice categories also - Orfeo, Idamante, and
Tancredi, respectively - so the practice didn't stop with Handel and his
contemporaries. I don't think that French baroque opera made much use, if
any, of castrati. For a while, castrati sang all female roles in operas
performed in some parts of Italy because women were banned from the stage.)
In addition, the castrati were (Italian) baroque opera's equivalent of
today's rock stars - fashionable, adored, and sure box office draws! It's
not surprising that a composer would want to take advantage of that fact
by writing leading roles for castrati. People liked them and the way
they sounded. (And since the most popular castrati could pick and choose
what and where to sing, you can bet that they insisted on lead roles!)
Modern audiences' tastes have been conditioned differently, of course, and
I think in general an audience today expects that a male role - especially
a "heroic" one - will be performed by a (suitably manly) male unless there
is some specific point to be made by having the role performed by a female.
It's hard to imagine a composer today choosing as a matter of course to
write a male lead to be performed by either a female or male alto.
(However, given the wealth of available and popular countertenors, I CAN
imagine a composer writing a male lead specifically for a *male* alto -
though in this case the gender would matter more than the voice type.)
In fact, some opera-goers are so disturbed / disoriented by women singing
male roles in performances of baroque opera that they only want to see
countertenors perform these roles, even though it's in no way "authentic"
and even though some would argue that few countertenors are really equal
to the task vocally! Amusingly enough, even though Handel specifically
wrote the role of (the adolescent) Sesto in Giulio Cesare for Margherita
Durastani, one of his favorite sopranos, today that role is often sung by
a (heavily bearded) countertenor. Baroque audiences might find that bit
of casting wholly "unrealistic" by their standards!