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Handel's 'Julius Caesar,' Politics And Passion

Opera has always worked its magic by combining a variety of elements: music, stagecraft, narrative, and theater. But really, opera's true stars have always been the singers.

Today's operatic superstars — such as Renée Fleming or Placido Domingo — tend to be either sopranos or tenors. Even a hundred years ago, the reigning mega-stars were Enrico Caruso, the great tenor from Naples, and Nellie Melba, the famed Australian soprano whose name was attached to those hard little crackers called Melba toast.

But tenors and sopranos didn't always exert such sovereign power. In fact, back in George Frideric Handel's day, opera's greatest roles were generally written for a very different type of singer — the castrato, a young male who had a particular incision before reaching puberty, thus keeping the voice high and strong as it developed.

Handel cast two of the greatest superstar castratos for the 1724 premiere of his extravagant opera Julius Caesar. The famed Senesino sang the title role, while Gaetano Berenstadt played his rival, Tolomeo.

Long gone are the days when boys went under the knife in exchange for powerful high voices. Many of those flamboyant roles were picked up by women, but increasingly, the great castrato parts are being sung by yet another type of high male voice — the countertenor.

In this edition of World of Opera, with host Lisa Simeone, there are — count them — four countertenors, including one of the best in the business, Andreas Scholl. He takes on the lead role in Julius Caesar, in a production from the Metropolitan Theatre of Lausanne, in Switzerland.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

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