David Daniels | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

David Daniels 

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In the 17th and 18th centuries an exceptional boy soprano could hope for the kind of stardom pop divas enjoy today--if he ensured his voice would never break. Castrati originally sang alto and soprano parts in church services closed to women, but at the peak of their fashionability a new genre, opera seria, showcased their voices. They were the toast of Handel's London, and in the opera capitals of Europe fans wore medallions embossed with portraits of their favorites. The modern equivalent of a castrato--a countertenor--thankfully doesn't rely on surgery but on a combination of natural gifts and rigorous training to maintain the alto-soprano range. Even after his vocal cords thicken, a countertenor's tone can glide from the ethereal to the voluptuous, boyishly transparent but as powerful and flexible as any baritone's. Until very recently countertenors were little known outside early-music circles, but David Daniels, who makes his local debut at Ravinia this week, belongs to a versatile, media-savvy group of young singers (which also includes Brian Asawa and Andreas Scholl) that could expand the cult considerably. Born in South Carolina to two voice teachers, as a child he would sing along in falsetto with records of soprano Leontyne Price; he tried to study as a tenor in college, as his mother had advised, but found the countertenor range more congenial. Since his professional debut in '92 he's been sensational in the roles Handel wrote for the celebrity castrati of his day, singing at major opera houses in London, New York, and San Francisco. His voice is full and unforced, delicate yet capable of unbridled runs, and he's compiled a deep repertoire: his Ravinia program spans six centuries, from Spanish songs of the 1450s to recent work by New Yorker Richard Hundley. He's included arias from two Handel operas, five chansons by Ravel based on Greek folk tunes, and Britten's arrangements of four traditional English songs. The evening's high point, though, promises to be his performance of five of Schubert's lieder--the ultimate test of any singer's artistry--including the heartbreaking standard "Der Tod und das Madchen." Wednesday, 8 PM, Martin Theatre, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100. TED SHEN


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