Classical Music
12:59 pm
Thu May 15, 2014

Male Soprano Soars In World's Smallest Vocal Category

Originally published on Thu May 15, 2014 2:31 pm

Robert Crowe is a member of “the world’s smallest vocal category”: male sopranos. There are relatively few of them performing professionally worldwide, and he’s one of them.

Crowe is pursuing a doctoral degree at Boston University and will be researching and performing in Europe this summer.

He sings for Here & Now’s Sacha Pfeiffer in the studio, demonstrating his multi-octave range and hitting some gravity-defying notes.

He also recounts the history of the castrati, the boys who were castrated before puberty to keep them sounding young, a practice that was banned in Italy in 1870.

Male sopranos are sometimes referred to as countertenors, but Crowe makes a distinction because he sings higher than a countertenor. To compare the two, watch him singing with professional countertenor Brian Asawa:

[Youtube]

Guest

  • Robert Crowe, male soprano and PhD student in historical musicology at Boston University, specializing in the history of the castrati.
Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. And let's listen now to a piece of classical music with an unusual twist. This is Handel's "Rinaldo" being sung at a concert in Amsterdam.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "RINALDO")

ROBERT CROWE: (Singing in foreign language)

PFEIFFER: That's a soprano singing, but the name of this soprano may surprise you. He is Robert Crowe, a male soprano. It's the world's smallest vocal category, with very few male sopranos singing professionally worldwide. Crowe is working on a doctoral degree at Boston University, and he'll spend the summer performing and researching in Europe. We invited him to our studios before he heads overseas, and we began by asking him for a layman's definition of what it takes for a man to be considered a soprano.

CROWE: It's the highest voice category of the adult male that occurs naturally, let's say. It's where the man, for whatever reason, has kept part of the voice of the boy. And to be considered a male soprano, I think you have to be able, as a man, to sing more or less the same range as a female soprano. So it's quite high.

PFEIFFER: You talked about a voice that naturally reaches those highs, because of course, in the old days, many centuries ago, this voice could be achieved, but not necessarily naturally. This would be the castrato, or the castrati.

CROWE: They're the castrato, which of course is Italian for a castrated male. Boys were castrated between the ages of six and eight if they had promising voices, and then they hoped that the voice would mature into a castrato soprano. And then the very lucky few would have enormous careers and earned amazing amounts of money. But most of them actually didn't end up with good voices. So it was a pretty risky gamble.

But the church, because of course they didn't allow women to sing in the church, the church tolerated this. By this, I mean Rome.

PFEIFFER: Male sopranos are sometimes referred to as countertenors, but you make a distinction because you sing higher than a countertenor. We have a recording of you singing a duet with a famous countertenor named Brian Asawa. So let's listen to a portion of that, as the two of you go back and forth, to get a sense of how your soprano voice differs from his countertenor voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRIAN ASAWA: (Singing in foreign language)

PFEIFFER: This is Brian Assawa, countertenor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ASAWA: (Singing in foreign language)

CROWE: (Singing in foreign language)

PFEIFFER: And this is you.

CROWE: This is me, sort of sneaking in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CROWE: (Singing in foreign language)

You hear, we're singing in almost - very close range, but it's a very different sound. My voice, because it sits much higher than Brian's, it must be a bit lighter and more of a slender sound. Brian has a dark, rich sound, and quite a bit a lower voice.

PFEIFFER: So for you as a professional singer, do you find that it's difficult to find parts that match your voice, or do you have such a unique voice that you have quite a niche that makes you very in demand?

CROWE: I think there are as many positives as negatives. If they want a male soprano, then there are very, very few people to go to. But if they don't want a male soprano, then our modern classical musical taste - very much late 19th century and early 20th century, things like Verdi, Puccini, Wagner - and there's no room for male sopranos in that, or very little room.

PFEIFFER: Some men can hit high notes, but in a way that gets labeled falsetto. And, in fact, there's a character on the TV show "Glee," the character is Kurt Hummel, and he's played by the actor Chris Colfer, who has a very high singing voice. Here he is singing "Defying Gravity" from the musical "Wicked," with the character Rachel Berry, who's played by Lea Michele.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEFYING GRAVITY")

CHRIS COLFER: (As Kurt Hummel) (Singing) To late to go back to sleep. It's time to trust my instincts...

PFEIFFER: Again this is the character Kurt, played by Chris Colfer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEFYING GRAVITY")

COLFER: (As Kurt) (Singing) Close my eyes and leave.

LEA MICHELE: (As Rachel Berry) It's time to try defying gravity.

CROWE: And that's her.

PFEIFFER: The female actress. Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEFYING GRAVITY")

MICHELE: (As Rachel) (Singing) I think I'll try defying gravity.

COLFER: (As Kurt) (Singing) Kiss me goodbye, I'm defying gravity.

CROWE: That's Kurt.

PFEIFFER: Back to the male.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEFYING GRAVITY")

COLFER: (As Kurt) (Singing) And you won't bring me down.

CROWE: He's very young, and it's - the differences are not as strong, but I think you do hear the difference between the male and the female singing in the same range.

PFEIFFER: And as you hear those two, do you consider Kurt's voice a falsetto, a countertenor? Do you hear a male soprano?

CROWE: I don't hear a male soprano, because he's not quite high enough. He has the quality of a soprano, but he is singing in the range of a normal countertenor.

PFEIFFER: And based on where you heard him singing, could you reach higher highs than that?

CROWE: Oh, yes. A male soprano has to.

PFEIFFER: Could you demonstrate for us some examples?

CROWE: I'm going to need to back up from the mic.

PFEIFFER: For fear of blowing the mic out?

CROWE: (Singing) Oh.

That was about the highest note they sang. So...

(Singing) Oh.

So you could hear, I went up five notes. That high note that I sang, you have to be able to sing all night long in a performance to be a male soprano.

PFEIFFER: Be able to sustain it.

CROWE: Mm-hmm. Not just once, 30, 40, 50 seconds, but to be able to sing it again and again.

PFEIFFER: We also have a recording of you singing even higher than you just did in the studio. You're hitting some high D notes?

CROWE: High D, yeah.

PFEIFFER: And this recording is from where?

CROWE: That's one note above the famous soprano high C. This recording is - it's a live recording in Munich quite some time ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

CROWE: (Singing in foreign language)

PFEIFFER: I think anybody just listening to this out of the blue, with no context, would think they were hearing a female.

CROWE: Without anything to measure it against, that would be the obvious inference, yeah.

PFEIFFER: When I first watched an online video of you singing, there is a certain shock to see a person who is very clearly a man sing onstage, and his mouth opens up, and this beautiful female voice seems to come trilling out. There is a certain adjustment of the mind, I think, that it takes to hear that sound come out of that face.

CROWE: Well, I had that, too, at first, but I got over it about 20 years ago.

(LAUGHTER)

CROWE: But there was probably a year or so that I was shocked, on some level, to hear the voice coming out of me that was.

PFEIFFER: Really, your own voice shocked you?

CROWE: My own voice. I mean, I knew I could do it, but it didn't sound like me for a while. So I understand this weird dislocation feel that you have.

PFEIFFER: When you tell people that you're a soprano, what kind of reactions do you get?

CROWE: Incomprehension.

PFEIFFER: Incomprehension? Is that because you find that most people automatically assume that if you're a soprano, you have to be a woman?

CROWE: I think people who know something about music would assume that it has to be a woman. People who know nothing about music, they tend to be less judgmental. And when I have sung for audiences with almost no musical background or no classical Western musical background, there's not been a problem of acceptance.

It's when there some knowledge, but not compendious knowledge of opera that it's difficult, because then you have these set ideas about what voices are.

PFEIFFER: Was there a point in your life where you sort of realized my singing voice is a soprano, and had to sort of come to terms with that yourself?

CROWE: Well, I wanted to be a romantic tenor for a long time, and I was a terrible tenor for quite some time, and then when I...

PFEIFFER: Because it wasn't your natural voice.

CROWE: Not my natural voice, and I cracked all over the place. I sort of reluctantly accepted that I was a countertenor, and then a couple years later, when everyone told me that I was simply too high for a countertenor and I needed to sing lower, I just decided not to sing lower, and as I was singing soprano parts, I decided to call myself a male soprano.

I guess I knew there were a couple of male sopranos in the world. I just decided to take a leap of faith and call myself what I was actually singing.

PFEIFFER: Robert Crowe is one of just a handful of professional male sopranos worldwide. He's now working on a doctorate at Boston University, and he'll be performing in Europe for much of the summer. Robert, thanks for coming in.

CROWE: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CROWE: (Singing in foreign language)

PFEIFFER: And Robin, we have on the HERE AND NOW website some video of Rob singing alongside this famous countertenor, Brian Asawa. And it really is amazing, as I said, to see him open his mouth, and out comes this traditionally female-sounding voice. It's quite amazing.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

Hereandnow.org. You've got to check it out.

PFEIFFER: Exactly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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