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date: 25 August 2019

Child performerslocked

  • John Rosselli

Extract

Opera does not readily lend itself to being sung by pre-adolescent children: their voices may sound sweet in church but are rarely strong enough to hold their own in a theatre among those of adults. Child characters are accordingly few and hard to cast: Yniold in Pelléas et Mélisande, whose childishness is insisted upon, usually sounds weak if sung by a treble, and looks buxom if by a woman; worse difficulties arise with the two important child characters in The Turn of the Screw, where Miles must be a treble and Flora a soprano older than the character. The Three Boys of Die Zauberflöte are in practice most often sung by women. Choruses of children are not uncommon: Act 1 of Carmen provides a well-known example.

Up to 1830–40, when orchestral writing in opera grew heavier, light voices could cope with many parts. Average life expectancy was about half that of today and young people started careers earlier. An opera début between 16 and 19 was common for women and, in Italy, for castratos, whose vocal development had not been interrupted by puberty. Some (such as Girolamo Crescentini) began as early as 13 or 14, but these were regarded as young adults. The cult of children in the theatre flowed from the new sense, identified with Rousseau, of childhood as a special and valuable stage. Spectacular 19th-century opera productions often used children as dancers or extras to rouse sentiment or amusement, whether the story called for them or not – a practice kept up by some modern opera houses even though the engagement of child performers is now strictly regulated by law, alternative casts have to be used and, in Britain, a children’s adviser employed. These regulations had to be fought for over many years against the public’s tendency to regard children as ‘cute’ without inquiring into their conditions of work....

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