Andreas Scholl tells Peter Culshaw how he has been inspired by Handel's favourite singer
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Andreas Scholl is no longer a minority taste. For many years
now, fans of Baroque music have adored his wonderfully pure
counter-tenor voice and outstanding interpretations. But with his
appearance at the Last Night of the Proms this year, and the release of
a new CD, his appeal appears to have gone mainstream.
called Arias for Senesino, is a collection of the music
written for the 18th-century alto castrato superstar of the title.
Critically acclaimed, it went straight to the top of the classical
charts on its recent release, beating the usual compilations and
secured his place in history through his association with
Handel, who, after hearing him in Dresden, brought the singer to London
to join his Italian Opera Company. Handel wrote many great roles for
Senesino, including Giulio Cesare, and Bertarido in Rodelinda, the role
which launched Scholl's operatic career - to great acclaim - at
Glyndebourne in 1998, and which he will reprise next year at the Met in
rotund, piggy-faced and by all accounts behaved like a
spoilt diva - insolent, demanding and tantrum-throwing. Scholl, by
contrast, is slim and good-looking, and was rather amenable when I met
him recently in Aldeburgh, where he was attending some masterclasses
and making his first public appearance as a conductor.
I mention that
while I knew of the castrato Farinelli, I knew less
about Senesino. "Farinelli is better known as a castrato to the public
now than Senesino," admits Scholl, "but that was because there was a
film made of him. Senesino was more famous at the time - he was a
retired, Handel's finances went downhill and he coaxed
Senesino back from Italy. When he returned, there were wild scenes for
his comeback performances."
Castrati were a
unique part of Western musical history, from the
late-16th to the 19th century. Although castrating young boys and
training them for singing was never approved by the church, the
authorities tolerated it. But presumably we don't really know what they
"There's only one recording - of Alessandro Moreschi in 1902," says Scholl. "It is interesting, but he was in his sixties and not in his prime. It's clear, though, that the castrato voice had the clarity of a boy's voice with the strength of an adult male's body."
that in pop music the audience are used to androgyny
and high male voices. "Pop audiences don't have a problem, but even now
some classical audiences, when they first hear a counter-tenor, say,
'What's wrong with him? He sounds like a woman.' "
For him, the subject of castrati is more than a historical curio. "What the castrati and the counter-tenors do is cross a threshold - the clichés no longer apply. The interest comes from the human desire to be more complete. We are human beings first, male and female second.
"There are elements of masculinity - just a few, perhaps - which could benefit women, and plenty of things we associate with femininity which would make a man more complete."
Scholl insists that this has nothing to do with being gay. As it happens, he lives alone in Basle, but has a girlfriend, an ex-wife he "gets on very well with", and a daughter.
The singer, 38 next week, was born into a musical family near Wiesbaden in Germany, and enrolled in a boys' choir school at the age of seven, where he spent 10 years.
"For me, the wonderful thing about this school was the amount of Baroque and Renaissance music we performed," he recalls. "So I never thought of 'early' music as some special category." When his speaking voice broke at 13, he went on singing soprano or alto. "I never felt comfortable as a tenor or bass, and I think it's helped my technique that I never had a phase of singing in those ranges."
A voice coach from the Darmstadt Music Academy suggested Scholl might have a career as a counter-tenor, at the same time as an uncle lent him some records of James Bowman, a singer who "from the beginning, has been my role model". He sent a tape to Ren?Jacobs, and was offered a place at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, where he taught.
"He [Jacobs] is the strongest influence on me from an interpretation point of view," says Scholl. "After his lessons I would almost break down, because he demands 100 per cent concentration - he has so much important information to give you."
Fortuitously, Scholl's debut concert, in Paris in 1993, was heard by the early music maestro William Christie. Christie signed him up to sing in Handel's Messiah, and his career was launched. And, while he excels in all kinds of Baroque music (and has tried his hand at English folk music), Handel remains close to his heart. "He is a master of creating the maximum impact from the first bars of a piece," says Scholl.
Although no longer a Catholic, the counter-tenor is still religious. He says he sings "because I love it, because I have fun, and because it's a way to praise God". He sees his concerts as "something similar to religious ritual. Sometimes - not every performance - you feel a connection that bypasses your mind, and those moments create glorious music-making. Although if that happened all the time, you would go mad."