The Story of 'Julius Caesar in Egypt'

Pictured Sonia Prina (Julius Caesar) and Jud Perry (Tolomeo) in Hadel's Julius Caesar performed at the Royal Theater, Turin. Photo by: Ramella & Giannese, Teatro Regio Torino.For centuries, opera has worked its magic by combining a variety of elements: music, stagecraft, narrative and theater. And, these days, opera stages also boast a variety of different voices -- from the highest coloratura soprano, to the lowest basso profondo. Yet, that hasn't always been the case.

Music's Baroque era gave birth to some of history's finest operas, including a slew of great dramas by George Frederic Handel -- mainly Italian operas written in London, where opera singers were genuine superstars. Back then, it was customary for just about all of an opera's major roles to be sung by high voices -- sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and altos. Tenors and basses were few and far between.

Yet it was also customary for most of those major roles to be sung by men. Having women on stage, acting and singing, was still seen by some as "untoward." So there were plenty of heroic, male characters that had to be sung by high voices -- and putting female singers on stage, especially dressed as men, wasn't acceptable.

That conundrum led to extreme solutions. The castrato, for example; it may have been the "Age of Enlightenment," but it seems things weren't all that enlightened. Fortunately, things have changed since then.

The days when young males went under the knife in exchange for powerful high voices are long gone. Today, when it comes to filling the brilliant, heroic roles in Baroque operas, casting directors have a wide range of choices. Often, those roles are filled by countertenors -- men who sing in high ranges generally associated with women. And, as we no longer balk at having women play male roles, there are many fine female singers who specialize in doing exactly that.

In the production featured here of Handel's Julius Caesar in Egypt, both solutions are heard. The opera's two romantic leads are sung by women: contralto Sonia Prina as Julius Caesar, originally a castrato role, and soprano Jessica Pratt as Cleopatra. Two of Handel's other castrato roles are taken by countertenor Jud Perry as Tolomeo, and mezzo-soprano Samantha Korbey as Nireno. Host Lisa Simeone brings us the opera from the Royal Theater in Turin, Italy, in a performance led by conductor Alessandro de Marchi.