Friday, April 14, 2006 | The story of “Julius Caesar in Egypt,” composed by Handel of “Messiah” fame, is about the young Queen Cleopatra’s seduction of the Roman ruler. Together they conspire to overthrow her boy-king brother Ptolemy so she can rule Egypt with Caesar as the power behind the throne. It’s a real-life tale of political scheming and boudoir mischief that put 1st Century history into motion.
San Diego Opera premiers this 18th century masterpiece on April 15 with a stellar cast of cross-dressing characters in the style of the Baroque period. Julius Caesar is sung by a contralto, a female with a very low-range voice. Another Roman soldier is sung by a mezzo soprano whose mother is also a mezzo. Don’t be confused. The costumes define the sexual identity. Cleopatra is a girl, but her brother is a countertenor, a male with boy-soprano voice. It’s all part of the artistry of emerging Italian opera so popular 300 years ago.
Operas composed in the 18th Century are in the Baroque style, meaning a lot of vocal acrobatics to show off very unusual voices not heard today. The lead singers of that musical era were the castrati, male adults with a boy-soprano voice of remarkable range, volume and agility creating high-pitched trills and flights of vocalizing. They were the rock stars of their day. Operas were composed especially for these celebrated artists that drew frantic crowds to their performances. Handel composed a star role for a castrato in most of his more or less 40 operas.
In 17th Century Italy under Papal mandate, women were not allowed to perform on the stage. Early operas depended on men to fill the female roles with a voice to match. Due to changes in social custom, castrati were replaced in early 19th Century opera by countertenors and women altos or contraltos.
George Frideric Handel was a German composer who trained in Italy and wrote operas for the London stage in the Italian Baroque style. His English court patronage extended over all three of the Hanoverian King George’s. Legend recalls that Handel got along with his monarchs because they liked his heroic music suitable for royal occasions, and they could converse in German.
“Julius Caesar in Egypt” opened in 1724 on the London stage with some success. It was not performed again until the 20th Century as Baroque opera went out of style in favor of the latest trend into opera buffa made popular by the new composers Rossini and Verdi. The American premiere of “Caesar” was in 1927, but did not catch on in the modern repertory until New York City Opera mounted a stylish new production in 1966 that launched the career of Beverly Sills as Cleopatra.
The rising popularity of great contraltos and mezzo sopranos, like Marilyn Horne and Ewa Podles, began showcasing their vocal skills singing the male roles of Handel’s operas. SDO is fortunate to cast Podles in the lead role of Caesar. The Polish contralto sang a recital in San Diego in 2003 with glowing reviews and has appeared with the Metropolitan Opera and most of the major European opera houses.
One of the few notable countertenors performing today, Brian Asawa, is cast as Cleopatra’s sinister brother, the role written for a castrato. He repeats his dazzling vocal skills in the complex characterization of the boy-king as performed at the Met Opera.
British conductor Kenneth Montgomery and director John Copley bring their Handel expertise back to San Diego following their successful team effort in 2002 with the first Handel opera ever presented by SDO, “Ariodante.” Copley was the director for an English National Opera revival of “Caesar” in 1984 that inspired this Met Opera production and set brought to San Diego.
Other returning artists are two mezzo-sopranos, Vivica Genaux appearing in the trouser role of the Roman soldier Sextus, and Suzanna Guzman as “his” mother, Cornelia. Several stars are making their SDO debut in this large cast, including Lisa Saffer, a Handel opera specialist, in the pivotal role of Cleopatra.
Handel’s “Julius Caesar in Egypt” runs for four performances: 7:00 p.m. Saturday April 15 and Tuesday April 18; 8:00 p.m. Friday April 21; and 2:00 p.m. Sunday April 23 in the Civic Theatre at the intersection of 3rd Avenue and B Street in downtown. Info: (619) 533-7000 or
John Patrick Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and maintains the opera archive at the San Diego Historical Society.