Castrato Voices and Cuba’s Countertenor Festival

Irina Pino

The entrance to Havana's Marti Theater, one of the stages for the recent Countertenor Festival.
The entrance to Havana’s Marti Theater, one of the stages for the recent Countertenor Festival.

HAVANA TIMES — When they premiered the movie Farinelli, a friend told me, telling me that it was about a gay singer who didn’t have any balls… and that made me burst out in laughter. However, I soon became interested and went to see it. I was struck by the story, but especially by the voice – which had been created specifically for the film – which was created by joining the voices of a mezzo-soprano and a contaltro.  And of course, the castrati weren’t necessarily associated with gay people.

In real life, the singers with these unique voices were the result of castration, so that they could maintain their high tessitura, which changed with puberty and became deeper. I have read that these practices began in the times of the Roman Empire in the East, in Constantinople, and that the practice then increased greatly in the 16th century, when a large number of poor boys were castrated as a way to bring their families out of poverty. Many of these Castrati became very famous and earned a lot of money, such as Carlos Broschi (Farinelli) who lived in the 18th century.

It was just a few days ago that the World Counter-tenor Festival held in Havana, from September 30th to October 8th, ended. It was the first edition that gathered performers with this vocal register together. The festival’s organizer, maestro Leo Brouwer, counted on the support of embassies and friends in order to put on this event, which originated at the Countertenor competition, forming part of the 2015 Les Voix Humaines Festival.

Many different art forms were featured, just like at the previous edition, such as comedy, film, conferences, competitive contests and master classes.

The chosen pieces were written by Pourcell, Handel, Porpora, Vivaldi, Mozart, Manuel de Falla, Portuguese and Brazilian composers, Spirituals, musical songs from Broadway, including the beautiful Someone to Watch Over me, by Gershwin.

This event allowed many people to enjoy melodies from centuries past, which are real jewels at a time where there is so much indecent assault on our ears, when reggaeton and other musical scourges invade us, if we travel on the public bus, or in a collective taxi (the 50’s US cars), without being able to defend ourselves from its brutal beating.

I went and saw several performances, all of them were excellent, but the performance given by the Italian Countertenor Riccardo Angelo Strano took me back to Farinelli’s time, capable of doing wonders with his voice, as if he were a singing lark.

One interesting option was the conference: Michael Jackson: from philanthropist to narcissist, given by Leo Brouwer and the musicologist Isabelle Fernandez, where they spoke about the Countertenor voice that the pop singer had as well as his contributions to dance and his choreography. Moreover, they read some of the lyrics from his songs, translated to Spanish, where he spoke about racial equality, the care we must take with the environment and global peace, followed by his music videos.

I think that all of the projects that Brouwer has are really great, just like him, his way of summoning people, he’s easygoing: he doesn’t give demagogic talks, insisting, or stupid speeches but brings people together in the best way he knows how: with music. In his own words: “Art is a lifestyle.”

One thought on “Castrato Voices and Cuba’s Countertenor Festival

  • As a “foreigner” with a supportive attitude toward Cuba, I appreciate articles like this, giving an insight to Cuba. More columns like this would be appreciated! It would be nice to have an opinion abo9ut how supported or popular such events are in Cuba amongs the population.

    Thank you.

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