July/August 2012
Anthony Heilbut

The Male Soprano

A History of the Quixotic and Nature-Defying Feats of the Men Who Soar Higher Than Maria Callas and Mariah Carey

Discussed: Lauren Bacall, A Bold Confession of Male Insufficiency, Head Tones, The Androgyny of the Angels, Obscurantist Folkies, An Illumination of Moshing, Gospelization, Daddy Grace, A Breathtaking Entrance, Those Girls, The Reign of the Castrati, Jack Black’s Laugh, Pig Squealing


We love him because he defies nature. Because manhood roars in a bass-baritone, and the Adam’s apple is supposed to swallow the pure, high voice of babes. Yet male voices are always leaping octaves. Rebel yells, farm-boy hollers, broken-voiced shrieks, dog-whistle laughs sound virile enough to their listeners. For most of their teen years, some boys can squeal as high and loud as before their voices changed. And an artfully cultivated falsetto, crooned by an Al Green or BeeGee, has become a vocalized foreplay. That women swoon to such voices has long been apparent, just as men consider Lauren Bacall’s the archetypal bedroom voice. Both sexes are enthralled to hear their natural pitches claimed by a foreign power.

Yet there are some men who dream of notes far higher than Smokey Robinson or David Daniels. They dream of soaring higher than Maria Callas, higher than Mariah Carey. They don’t imagine themselves women; they call themselves male sopranos. Their quixotic attempt, rarely lovely but often thrilling, makes rigid distinctions of gender and culture, biology and physiology, most problematic. For what so boldly confesses male insufficiency as the need to reclaim the vocal birthright of a boy or a woman? In other words, to complete yourself by becoming what you transparently are not?

The soprano voice has never been exclusively female. During the age of the castrato, which sputtered out in the late nineteenth century, throat and chest combined, so that a capon’s range would have a bulldog’s volume. Sopranists (the classical term for male sopranos) have limited themselves to an archaic repertoire: the baroque and early classical eras when roles were composed for their range. But outside of classical music, more-casual attitudes prevailed. To many unsophisticated listeners, the whole apparatus of classical singing is thoroughly artificial, the soprano being only the most extreme version. Thus, the soul singer Wilson Pickett could insist that his falsetto shriek was an “opera note”—it was a soprano high C—and a YouTube clown will summon up “my opera voice,” one three octaves above that in which he speaks.

In the nineteenth century, an American man could hear falsetto coming from all directions: from the touring opera companies that provided a national entertainment, as well as from blacks and Indians. By the early twentieth century, ballad singing had become the province of sweet-voiced high tenors. John McCormack had the most memorable head tones; later singers, like Donald Novis or Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, couldn’t match his technique, and their top notes were lighter with more of a feminine sweetness. Extreme ranges were cultivated. One of the earliest record stars was Charles Kellogg, a naturalist on the order of John Muir, who cultivated the vocal range of some American Indians, one that allowed him to sing bird songs with an open throat, supposedly granting him a ten-octave range. The biggest star in vaudeville was a female impersonator who packed them in with his F above high C. Alas, we’re not informed whether that was an F 5, which would have made him a Beach Boy, or an F 6, which would have made him a Queen of the Night.

In all these instances, the sound was identified as genteel and consoling, a lover’s cry as opposed to a bully’s taunt. Perhaps because of the prevalence of castrato singers in the Catholic church, or perhaps because the notes seemed other-worldly and desexualized (a bewhiskered man with a female voice), the sound also became identified as “angelic.” This may have been an echo of the angels’ androgyny, or a forecast of heaven, where neither men nor women exist. The angelic sound wasn’t sexual, except when it was.

Falsetto was embraced most completely in black music. Moans and hollers were often pitched in yodel territory. Alfred Lewis, in 1930, reached notes almost as high as a lyric soprano, but he combined them with his harmonica playing so that harp and voice completed each other’s lines. Falsetto was sent out to astonish and delight; it required agility and singing sense.

While an occasional entertainer like Cab Calloway might send out a chilling note, the sound became a convention of church singing, probably because it had always been so adventurous (if not theatrical). Perhaps the first male gospel soloist—he recorded a year before the spectacular guitar evangelist Blind Willie Johnson—was a tenor named Homer Quincy Smith. His intonation was almost academic, except that his falsetto soared well beyond that of an Irish tenor, into the range of a mezzo-soprano. His singing of spirituals like “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” was expressive and stark, enough so to fascinate obscurantist folkies, who have discovered him in an anthology of American Primitives. Yet his technique was highly sophisticated—he’s the first gospel singer I’ve heard to employ the bluesy melisma (convoluted note bending), later perfected by Mahalia Jackson. His falsetto gifts later earned him a spot in the Southernaires, a vastly influential male quartet with its own weekly radio program. With that quartet, he would inspire the falsetto specialist Billy Williams (an early star of Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows), who would in turn inspire gospel-quartet stars like Ira Tucker and Claude Jeter. Since Al Green claims Jeter as his inspiration, you can draw a clear line from the so-called primitive Homer Smith to the insidiously calculated Al Green. (To make the appellation “primitive” more risible, Smith was no country bumpkin but the nephew of W. C. Handy, the blues popularizer disdained by country blues fans.)

Smith probably had his own models, men who employed a semi-operatic falsetto to raise church-members from their seats and out of their pews. Certainly high notes have become a time-honored way of wrecking a church—and, after rock and roll secularized gospel, a proven way of getting pop fans to shriek, half in mimetic response, half in mindless bliss. But high notes have often made strong men weak. According to David Huron, a professor of music and cognitive science at Ohio State University, “When singers sing high and loud, the brain releases the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, causing a general increase in psychological arousal—higher heart rate, faster respiration, increased perspiration, and greater attentiveness.” This illuminates the ways church members fall out and rockers mosh—and also why Lord Byron and Walt Whitman were both known to faint during the solos of their favorite sopranos.

Though Homer Smith’s falsetto was redolent of female sopranos and Irish tenors, his descendants commanded a technique that was as high but neither Irish nor womanish. Claude Jeter, lead singer for the Swan Silvertones and my nominee for the Father of Falsetto, once told me, “Nobody ever said I sing like a lady. They say I sing like a cat.” It would be a good twenty years before male gospel singers would proudly draw their inspiration from women. After that, the male soprano became a pioneer, the avatar of rock, and a figure to be celebrated on all continents, from Asia to South America: not a freak but a champion.

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Anthony Heilbut’s books include Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature and The Fan Who Knew Too Much (just published by Knopf), from which this essay is adapted. Albums he produced have won the Grand Prix du Disque and Grammy Award.

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