Michael Maniaci is a male soprano, and the only one currently working in opera. He grew up singing boy soprano parts, as many little boys do, and when he reached puberty his voice simply never broke. As he states it: “People would say: ‘Oh how sweet, you’re just a late bloomer’,” he recalls wryly. “I had to tell them that everything else had bloomed.”
He’s unusual, but also driven and extremely talented, and hence he has made quite a name for himself singing Baroque operatic roles that had been written for castrati, and are usually now sung by women. His voice is often considered close to the sound of the old castrati since, unlike a typical countertenor, Maniaci does not need to sing falsetto when in that range. His voice is simply that high naturally.
Other male sopranos such as Radu Marian are called “endocrinological castrati,” as their larynxes have indeed remained boyish due to hormone-related issues. Maniaci has no such issues and is otherwise a perfectly normal, healthy adult male — with one exception. The right half of his face is significantly less mobile than the left due to his having been born without complete nerve insertion on that side. It’s not immensely noticeable — his features are pleasant and attractive, and there are plenty of people who tend to raise one eyebrow more than another when they talk — but the two may be related if any lack of nerve insertion in Maniaci’s larynx prevented it from responding in the normal way to his testosterone.
However, Maniaci is very much his own creature and it would be a mistake to classify him as today’s castrato. He was not trained in the old school of castrato singing, and his style is very modern — operatic but modern. Also, while his larynx did not slide all the way into adulthood, the rest of him certainly did, leaving a youthful but still male voice in the body of a fully grown man, with the resonance of an adult male chest, throat, sinuses, and so forth. He does not sound like a boy, he certainly doesn’t sound like a typical adult male, and he doesn’t sound like a woman.
For a more historically accurate castrato sound, listeners can turn to the equally unique Radu Marian, whose voice is considerably lighter and higher (and not to my taste) than even Maniaci’s due to an apparent endocrine situation that left not only his larynx but also the rest of him relatively youthful. Compared to Marian’s extremely lemony voice, the relative richness and acoustic complexity of Maniaci’s becomes more obvious, as does the fact that he is not equivalent to the old castrati.
Happily, Maniaci’s capacity for hard work and his excellent musicianship are the equals of his voice, or else he would be nothing more than a passing curiosity. And it’s important to realize that, while he is unique in the world of opera, Mother Nature never does anything only once. Other men have voices as high as his, many of whom have even sung for a living — in popular music. One quick listen to an interview with Neil Sedaka makes clear that other men have had the capacity to sing as high as Maniaci or nearly so, if only opera and classical music had not relegated the male soprano, mezzo, or alto to the dustbin for the entire 20th century.
Maniaci is unique in the world of opera, but not unique on Earth by any means. He has not come along as a once in a lifetime event to bring opera back to its Baroque roots; it’s opera itself that has come around to those roots once again, after a century of avoidance, and has consequently made it possible for men like Maniaci to pursue the classical careers that would not have been possible before this current revival.
Michael Maniaci — Wikipedia entry
Interviews and articles:
The Man with the 300-Year Old Voice — popular press article, and a good one.
Michael Maniaci on high singing Idomeneo — another good article and interview, and one that delves a bit beyond just shop-talk.
Interview with Opera Today — a basic but excellent article describing the uniqueness of both his voice and his career.
Rising to the occasion — another article in Opera Today discussing an absolutely brutal experience wherein Maniaci had to learn 350 pages of music in about ten days before taking on Meyerbeer’s “Il Crociato in Egitto.”
Clips to listen to and watch:
“Pieno Il Core di Timore” by Handel
“Chi perde un momento” also by Handel
Nice clip with some discussion of just how castrato-like Maniaci is, discussion that is much better illustrated by simply comparing Maniaci’s high but (at its core) adult male voice with Marian’s extremely unusual and childlike one.
Maniaci talks about his voice — you’ll note that his speaking voice is high and light but still boyish, in other words, male. He does not sound like a woman, nor does he sound like the typical countertenor, who often speaks in a perfectly unremarkable baritone.
“O tu divina fe” by Meyerbeer — if you sing with a high male voice outside of popular music, you’d best like Baroque.