By Deborah Morrow
Our 2018 production of The Magic Flute prominently features three young boys who have a great deal to do in this opera. We thought it would be interesting to sleuth out a bit more information about children in opera.
Opera composers have created a long tradition of utilizing the voices of children in their works. Sometimes the usage is character driven, but certainly not always; in fact, adults may portray children in some operas, as in Hansel and Gretel. The addition of children’s voices to the operatic mix gives sonic contrast – a lighter, sweeter sound than adult voices; or may add realism to a scene, as in the Sacristan’s interaction with the boy choir in the Te Deum scene of Tosca, or the children’s chorus mobbing the Toy Seller on Christmas Eve in La bohème. The street urchins taunting the soldiers in Carmen adds a note of authenticity and contrasts the darkness to come in that opera.
Benjamin Britten included children in many of his operas – the fairy chorus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the haunted Miles and his sister in The Turn of the Screw, the midshipmen in Billy Budd (watch for them in Central City Opera’s production next summer) and a silent apprentice in Peter Grimes. He even wrote two operas for and featuring children – The Little Sweep and Noye’s Fludde (Noah’s Flood).
Traditionally, boys appear in solo roles far more often than girls, for example: Amahl in Amahl and the Night Visitors, the Three Boys in The Magic Flute, Miles in The Turn of the Screw, the Shepherd Boy in Tosca. This may be because boy choirs were more common than girl or mixed children’s choirs up until the mid-20th century; more boys got vocal training and opportunities to perform. That was probably a result of the fact that in earlier centuries women and girls were barred from singing in church settings (unless they were in a convent) which, in turn gave rise to the tradition of castrati – male singers castrated before their voices changed to keep the high “pure” sound of boys. That practice, in turn, created a type of opera that featured male sopranos and countertenors – but, we digress.
In modern times, girls often sing boy roles in opera. Boy’s voices become unreliable as they go through growth spurts at the start of puberty; starting as young as age 10. While girl’s voices change too, the female larynx doesn’t usually grow as much as a male’s, so the change is much smaller and less noticeable.
The Colorado Children’s Chorale has been Central City Opera’s go-to source for young singers ever since their formation in 1974. In fact, Maestro Duain Wolfe, Central City Opera’s Artistic Administrator and Associate Conductor at the time, founded the Chorale after he had difficulty finding young singers to appear in a production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He saw the need and opportunity to build a strong children’s chorus in the Denver metro area. The rest, as we often say about our own company, is history. Today the Chorale tours all over the world and partners with many other arts organizations in Colorado and beyond, including Opera Colorado, Colorado Ballet, Colorado Symphony, El Sistema and the Aspen Music Festival.