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Susanne Mentzer Headshot

How High Can He Go?

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It is late August 2012 and that means for some it is time to watch the Republican Convention, and for others to enjoy the last vestiges of summer. It is also time for the America's Got Talent show semi-finals. Yes, folks, once again we have a pseudo opera singer: Andrew De Leon, a Marilyn Manson look-alike with eerie blue contact lenses right out of the vampire flicks, and an unusually high voice...

... unusual to some. To others it is a common voice type known as a countertenor. We have them in opera all the time. We could reverse the clock to the 18th century to the era of the castrato. Does anyone remember the film Farinelli? Boys, often from poor families but with beautiful voices, were castrated to keep their voices sounding female. The author Ann Rice wrote about it her book Cry to Heaven. It was a brutal trend but it created men with powerful soprano voices for whom much music was written.

Fast forward to more humane times(?!).
Countertenors replaced this custom -- totally intact male singer who happen to sing in the female range. I am not implying Mr. De Leon is a castrato by any means. It is hard, though, to discern if he is singing in falsetto or that his voice is indeed a male soprano or countertenor. He is singing with a mic. That distorts everything.

Opera has some amazing counter tenors. Most sing what we call early music or works from the Baroque era, the early days of opera. Some can venture to other styles. Some of the ones out there today are Brian Asawa, David Daniels, Bejun Mehta, Andreas Scholl to name a few. (We mezzos joke that they are taking away our roles.)

By the way, did you know that women have been playing male roles in opera forever? That is how I paid my bills, so to speak. The trouser parts were the bread and butter of my career. Yet, one would think sometimes it was a novelty or a rarity when a film or stage actress gets to portray a man on film as though it were revolutionary.

How many nights did I smash down my breasts with a band, ace bandage, sports bra supreme, to play a young man. (I am fortunate to not be too well-endowed.) It became something so common for me that I probably sang four trouser roles to each female part. I know to many this sounds bizarre. I am straight, too, not that it matters, but it is indeed a feat of acting to kiss and fondle a woman onstage. However, one gets into the mindset of the character and you forget about the here and now.

One of the biggies is Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. Octavian IS the Rosenkavalier-Rose Cavalier. I would say it is the granddaddy of all pants roles. The fun is when you are playing Octavian but then at times have to imitate being a woman to flirt with an old man. You are a woman playing a man playing a woman. Got your mind around that one?

Back to Mr. De Leon who seems like a nice, sweet fellow, not brash or arrogant, and seems genuinely committed to what he is doing. Great. More power to him. He has gotten this far and he is apparently "speaking" to some of the fans of AGT.

But here we go... hold me down... I want to yell, " He is not an opera singer!

He has a great package with a unique look, and he is getting attention because of his high male voice. I am kind of amazed that the judges are so stunned by the very idea. But hey, I live in the fantasy world of opera where everything is possible. Maybe they need to get out more, or maybe I need to get more in touch with how little the general public really knows about what I and many others do for a living.

Maybe the reason few know what true opera is and opera singers are is that it is not a part of popular culture. Gee... ya think?

There needs to be a reality show of people competing to "survive" not only the nerves to get in front of thousands, but to also learn at least four languages, how to walk and sing at the same time, how to project sans mic, act, make music and above all move people emotionally.

Come on out there you producers and writers. I challenge you to make opera into popular culture. How about another stab at a sitcom or made-for-TV series? This time have it be realistic as opposed to the fake imagery of the fat lady or the over-the-top, temperamental diva/divo. The opera world and its intrigue are quite interesting. Really. As the old Life cereal commercial said: Try it, you'll like it.