Michael Maniaci (Photo: Lake, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
The Rise of the Male Soprano?
Michael Maniaci has a fight on his hands. In the world of baroque opera he’s a young singer who seems to have it all: he’s intelligent, immensely talented, well-trained, committed and surprisingly wise for his 29 years. On top of that he’s already been successful in the USA winning prestigious competitions, and recently gaining significant roles at such proving grounds as Glimmerglass, New York City Opera and Santa Fe.
So what’s the difficulty? The problem — and it’s perhaps only one for the more conservative of baroque directors — is that Maniaci is a true male soprano. He is not a countertenor with a falsetto head voice above a tenor or baritone chest voice, and the roles he wants to make his own are the great Handelian ones which were written for that most high-flying of long-lost vocal types, the soprano castrato, and normally sung by female mezzos or sopranos today: Xerxes, Ariodante, Sesto, Tirinto, not to mention Mozart’s “pants” role of Cherubino which Maniaci has already performed with critical success at Pittsburgh Opera working with Christopher Alden in a ground-breaking production of Figaro. Phrases such as “thrilling agility and musicianship” and “pure tone, perfect trills and exquisite legato in the soprano range” abound in his press clippings.
I caught up with Michael Maniaci in Copenhagen, where he was dipping his toe into mainstream European waters with the small but significant role of Nireno in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare”, alongside the likes of Andreas Scholl, Inger dam Jensen and Christopher Robson. I was intrigued to hear more from the man himself, and to find out just how much of a fight might lie ahead for him before he gains his vocal goals.
Coming from the Midwest of America, his Baptist parents had hoped that he might join his sister in becoming a teacher and although happy enough to encourage the young Michael at school choir and in church singing, they were not a musical family in the accepted sense and were worried about him following a career in music, let alone one in the high octane world of opera. But a love of singing, and of the theatre, was in his blood from somewhere, and from high school he progressed to college in Cincinnati and then on to the renowned Juilliard School in New York where 5 years scholarship study brought him to a place on their elite Opera Centre programme.
However, it hasn’t all been quite as simple or easy as that may sound. From his teenage years he has fought to be accepted at all these places because, simply, he sings in the soprano range and heard over and over again from directors and teachers “you don’t fit any of our programs”. He explained to me how his voice came about in a natural, if unusual way: “During puberty my voice just stayed where it was; it didn’t change with the rest of me, although it’s got stronger and fuller. Doctors examining my throat found that the larynx and vocal cords had not lengthened and thickened in the normal way; I don’t have an Adams apple, and yet in every other way I’m a normal male”. On top of that, this young man has also had to cope with another problematic “spin” ball, as he was born with a slight facial palsy. However, in the same way that he has capitalised on his unusual vocal gift, he has also overcome any minor disadvantage of this potential difficulty by putting even more effort into the dramatic side of his art — and his ability to hold the eye, to inhabit his mainly non-singing but ever-present character of Nireno in “Cesare” was as admirable as his effortless, full-toned and dramatic single aria. He found the part rewarding: “It’s been extremely challenging, but I’ve learned a lot here”. The Royal Danish Opera was obviously convinced as to his potential as they restored his character’s one aria in their revival of “Cesare” in order to ensure his acceptance of the role. In his turn Maniaci gave up the, on the face of it, much more attractive role of Medoro in NYC Opera’s “Orlando” in order to sing here. “I was willing to turn down the Medoro, knowing that the opera would be a huge success in Lincoln Centre, because I was thrilled to come here and do something very small and work with these people, get my feet wet, and of course benefit from the upcoming DVD exposure. I’m convinced I made the right choice”.
Taking that sort of calculated risk comes naturally to Maniaci and he did the same when he recently took on the role of Cherubino, with Christopher Alden directing, at Pittsburgh Opera. “It’s a fascinating experiment” said Alden before the first night, and of course there were a few voices raised against Maniaci taking on a role written by Mozart for a female soprano to sing dressed as a boy. However, the local, usually conservative, press were warm in their praise on first night and Maniaci defends his decision, saying “it was right for me, and you have to remember I’m not going to put myself up for anything that I feel I can’t fully serve”. He also admits to harbouring a desire to sing Octavian and the Composer, although they might be a further into the future, and will probably take second place to the Handel roles in major houses that he covets more immediately.
If Michael Maniaci no longer has to sing auditions in his native country, and will shortly be singing the “secondo uomo” role of Lucio Cinna to Susan Graham’s Cecilio in Mozart’s “Lucio Silla” at Santa Fe Opera this summer, his profile this side of the Atlantic is not so defined. Also, he is quite aware that he will have a struggle on his hands to get accepted by some of the big guns of European baroque opera — the likes of Jacobs, Minkowski and Christie on the musical side and the more conservative opera intendants who have scarcely yet admitted to the pulling power of the countertenor revolution in the past ten years, let alone to the existence of a true male soprano. He has already auditioned for Rene Jacobs and found that although the much-feted conductor and ex-countertenor praised his musicianship and technical expertise, the very fact of his voice’s soprano range “confused” Jacobs entirely. It will take daring and far-sighted musical directors to pick up the reins of Maniaci’s European career and run with a voice that must be a unique embellishment to the Baroque revival over here. Luckily for him there are already just such people who do have that faith, and Maniaci is grateful to them for as he says “I started singing and performing so young …… I love it, I’m thankful for it and — frankly — when I don’t have the chance to communicate with people on stage I can feel it affecting me in a negative way, and I do feel that is what I must be doing. I am based in New York City at the moment but I have a feeling that I could easily become an ex-patriot!” Judging by what I have heard and seen of Michael Maniaci to date, it would be our gain, and America’s loss.
© S.C.Loder 2005