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Home :: Archive :: 1993 :: July ::
Re: Boys Playing Women (Boys' Voices)
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 461.  Wednesday, 28 July 1993.
 
(1)     From:   Phyllis Rackin <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 27 Jul 1993 12:40:13 +22306256 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 4.0460  Re: Boys Playing Women
 
(2)     From:   Antony Hammond <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 27 Jul 1993 12:40:35 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Boys' voices
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Phyllis Rackin <
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Date:           Tuesday, 27 Jul 1993 12:40:13 +22306256 (EST)
Subject: 4.0460  Re: Boys Playing Women
Comment:        Re: SHK 4.0460  Re: Boys Playing Women
 
Coriolanus doesn't seem that sure about the differences between the voices
of eunuchs, women, and boys.  See III.ii. 111-117, where he worries about
the prospect that his "throat of war" will "be turn'd. . . into a
pipe/Small as an eunuch, or the virgin voice/ That babies lull asleep" and
his sight will be obscured by "schoolboys' tears."  I think there's always
a danger when we speculate about these matters and invoke
post-Shakespearean examples like the Vienna Boy's Choir as evidence for
our speculations that we'll mistake contemporary cultural constructions
for universal and "natural" differences.
 
>So far as boys playing women go, it was not only a convention in the theatre at
>the time, but also was very common in the church choir to have boys singing in
>a separate vocal-range. I am somewhat amused by the question "how a boy's
>natural voice could differ from that of a woman's"--as one could certainly not
>mistake the sound of the Vienna Boy's Choir for a group of women singing.  Of
>course it was a long-standing (albeit melancholy) tradition to keep a
>countertenor's voice in that high vocal range throughout the performer's life
>through an unreversible surgical procedure (I don't think one could say "he's
>come from a long line of _castrati_").  So the quality of sound was certainly
>something heard often and not only in the theatre.
>
>[paragraph deleted]
>
>John Mucci
>GTE VisNet/Stamford CT
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Antony Hammond <
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Date:           Tuesday, 27 Jul 1993 12:40:35 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Boys' voices
 
A few points on the boy/female voice business.  First, to endorse
wholeheartedly Tom Loughlin's admirable contribution of 23 July.  Getting
actors and students to abandon the conventions of realism is perhaps the
single most important challenge in modern Shakespearian production and
study.
 
Secondly, I do not know either of any firm evidence that major roles were
played by adult female impersonators.  It's a notion hard to square with,
for example, Ben Jonson's extended praise of Richard Robinson in *The Divel
is an Asse* act 2 scene 8, or Pepys's famous encomium on Kynaston
(*Diary*,7 January 1661).  But anyway, the fact that the Witches in
Macbeth are bearded hardly means that they had to be played by adults, as
Bill Godshalk says; false beards are common enough in theatres.
 
Thirdly, I think John Mucci has muddied the waters a little with his
contribution posted on 27 July, through some confusions in musical
terminology.  Since I teach and write on opera as well as Shakespeare, may
I have a go at straightening this out?
 
Point 1: The castrato voice was created, as the name makes clear, by
castrating boys before puberty.  The resulting sound was affirmed by
eighteenth-century writers on singing to be quite different from the
female soprano or alto: to be bigger and brighter in sound, with a more
penetrating timbre.  There are useful books that give accounts of the
written evidence; and there is also audible evidence. Alessandro Moreschi,
the last castrato soprano of the Sistine Chapel choir, actually made a few
(very bad) recordings in about 1905.  These have been reissued on CD, and
while one may be reasonably baffled by Moreschi's poor musicianship
and worse taste, the sounds are not those that a female soprano would have
made, recorded by the acoustic process at the same time.
 
Point 2: The male counter-tenor (the subject of endless confusion) is
properly what would be called a falsettist.  (John Mucci says castration
was undertaken "to keep a counter-tenor's voice in that high vocal range",
thereby adding to the confusion: unbroken boy's voices are soprano or
alto; the counter-tenor is an *adult* voice.) In other words, a
counter-tenor has trained his falsetto register rather than his `normal'
voice.  Falsettists are common (and highly acomplished) in the music in
Russian Orthodox Churches, and since Alfred Deller re-popularized the
vocal type, have become common in performances of western baroque music.
Another odd vocal type is the French *haut-contre* which perhaps, but I'm
still not certain, was the French equivalent of counter-tenor; yet in
Rameau's operas some of the roles for haut-contre can betaken by a very
high-voiced regular tenor (the title-role of *Platee* is a case in point).
Castrati did not appear in French opera, and the haut-contre seems to have
had something of an equivalent function. When Gluck revised his *Orfeo ed
Euridice* for Paris, Orfeo was converted from an alto castrato role to one
for haut-contre.
 
A counter-tenor does not have to have been a boy soprano or alto, though
that is a frequent career path. But no-one with any experience would be
likely to mistake the relatively thin, bodiless quality of the
counter-tenor for a female singer in the same range (there are exceptions,
but let's not get carried away into too much detail).
 
So: three different sounds: the boy soprano or alto, singing naturally in
his unbroken voice; the counter-tenor using falsetto to make, as an adult,
something like the sounds of the unbroken voice, and the castrato, whose
vocal timbre, range, volume, were all substantially greater and different
from the others. And the castrato (poor chap) has nothing whatever to do
with the debate in question!
 
None of this says much about what boys sounded like in female roles on the
Elizabethan stage!  Except insofar as the boys of the important London
schools who became members of the children's companies would undoubtedly
have been trained in their school choirs as well as in their dramatic
performances.  In other words, they would presumably have learned how to
project and support the voice, no doubt a useful accomplishment in a
crowded Elizabethan theatre.
 

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