I’m a bit late this week, but I would be remiss if I did not share with you Andrew’s newest essay at The Avid Listener called “Bespoke Opera: Handel, Fach, and Gender.” Andrew takes us back to the 18th century, when composers wrote not for particular voice types–those in the know use the German term “fach” for voice type–but for individual singers with particular skills. There’s a good comparison to be made here if you know something about jazz. Duke Ellington used to fill his ensemble with skilled players. It was less important for him to just find a tenor sax player, for example, and more important to find a player like Ben Webster who had an individual, easily recognized sound. When bands play tunes by Ellington that Ben Webster made famous, such as “Cottontail,” whoever does the tenor sax part has to decide whether to play Webster’s actual part or create something new, because Webster’s sound is forever associated with the tune.
But I digress. Handel, as Andrew tells us, created tailor-made operas, and it’s difficult to revive those operas now because singers are trained into voice types. Here’s a teaser: “When George Frideric Handel wrote his operatic roles in the early 1700s, by contrast, he wrote them specifically for individual singers who had been hired to star in his shows; he tailored the specific musical details of the parts to those star singers’ vocal strengths. If Handel chose to reprise an opera, and the singer for whom he had created the role was not available, he changed the music to suit the new singer’s vocal apparatus, just as a high-end clothing designer today might be expected to shorten or lengthen a dress so that it would fit perfectly, or add details that would create the best effect for the high-paying customer.”
Handel’s not around today to tailor his operas, so revivals are fraught with WWHD (What Would Handel Do?) questions. And then, of course, there’s the issue of gender, which complicates this story even more. but I won’t spoil it for you. Read the full essay here.
I have it on good authority that Andrew will be following up with additional posts about bodies, gender, opera, and ability / disability. In the meantime, we’ve got two more essays by Travis Stimeling coming your way over the next two weeks. Stay tuned!