HGO Presents Vocal Gender-Bending

Gay countertenor DAVID DANIELS joins Houston favorites Susan Graham and Laura Claycomb in Handel’s ‘Xerxes.’

by Rich Arenschieldt • Photo by Ted Thai

Opera is often predicated on the suspension of reality and the embracing of the improbable. HGO’s current offering, Handel’s Xerxes, is no exception. This 18th-century-inspired production features a king played by a girl, in love with a girl played by a girl, loved by a boy who looks like a boy, but sounds like a girl.

Susan Graham as King Xerxes, Laura Claycomb as the sought-after Romilda, and David Daniels as royal rival Arsamenes comprise a perfect cast for this work, a classic opera seria in true Handelian style. (Countertenors are male singers who have a female vocal range that is usually achieved with a falsetto technique.)

In a recent interview with OutSmart, countertenor Daniels shared insights into the opera, his work, and his life as one of the growing number of openly gay singers inhabiting the top tier of opera.

With regard to coming out (professionally) in opera, it was easier for Daniels than for many others. “I came out in an article in The Advocate in the late ’90s, and there was also a big piece in The New Yorker magazine in 1997,” Daniels says. “Given the fact that I was a countertenor, for me to ‘come out’ in the opera world was not that big of a stretch—people didn’t fall off their chairs when they heard the news—it’s not like I was in Hollywood. I didn’t feel like I put my career at risk by doing it.”

While it was relatively painless for Daniels to reveal his sexuality, such a revelation might not come so easily for his peers. “Other singers may have more of an issue, especially with regard to heroic ? tenors or baritones. But in reality, these days I would think that most people would be relatively comfortable participating in an interview like this one.”

Daniels is a man at ease with his personal and professional life, each of which has been undergoing a positive transformation in recent months. “I just started a new relationship,” Daniels says. “I lived for many years in Washington DC, and have relocated to Atlanta to be closer to my mom and a good group of friends. My new partner is a musician, has an interest in choral conducting, and sings in the Atlanta Symphony Chorus. He’s been very supportive of my career and has been able to travel with me, something that has been wonderful.”

Career-wise, Daniels’ unique vocal capabilities place him in a distinct artistic category. The realm of the countertenor is enigmatic and often misunderstood. In Daniels’ case, he arrived at this musical endpoint via a circuitous route.

Beginning his academic endeavors as a tenor, Daniels realized midway through his studies that he wasn’t inhabiting the most comfortable vocal territory. He, like many other countertenors, felt somewhat dysphoric—as if he had “another voice” inside of him.

“I had always sung naturally with this [countertenor] voice—I just never thought that it was marketable in a meaningful way,” Daniels says. “My vocal musculature remained intact even as my voice changed during adolescence—I never lost the ability to sing in that upper register. It was always the most comfortable for me; I just had to embrace it. Once I made the intellectual decision to do that, the rest was easy.”

When Daniels began his musical career, countertenors were rare. The genre got a boost when Brian Asawa became the first countertenor to win the prestigious Metropolitan Opera Auditions in 1991. “Now there are lots of people out there winning competitions, performing, and making recordings,” Daniels says.

Daniels’ voice has matured as he has expanded his repertoire. Most of his ilk favor music from the Baroque era that was, in some cases, written for castrati (sans gonads) who were in demand as performers at the time. As countertenors have increased in popularity, Daniels has utilized the recital stage to bring new musical interpretations to audiences.

While Daniels doesn’t consider himself a trailblazer per se, he is committed to educating audiences about his particular voice type. “I want to show that the countertenor voice, and specifically my instrument, doesn’t have to be pigeonholed into Baroque opera. I felt like I possessed the volume, the technique, and the vocal colors to bring something unique and emotional to previously unexplored repertoire.

“I have a strong commitment to recitals [done in collaboration with über-accompanist Martin Katz], having performed them for about 16 years,” Daniels says. “They provide me a completely different form of artistic expression, away from 18th-century opera, and will always be part of the work that I do.”

Daniels also continues to record, having recently released an excellent CD of Bach arias and cantatas. Additionally, Daniels has something in the works that will be of great interest to LGBT audiences. “I have an exciting project happening in the summer of 2013—a new opera being written for me entitled Oscar.”

This work, based on the trial and imprisonment of Irish writer and aesthete Oscar Wilde, is being composed by Theodore Morrison, of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Morrison, the Director of Graduate Studies in Conducting at the University of Michigan, has written for Daniels before, composing Chamber Music, a cycle of songs set to poems by James Joyce.

“Morrison was my choral professor at the University of Michigan,” Daniels says. “We put together a demo tape of pieces and sent it to several opera companies, one of which decided to commission the work.”

Appearing in HGO’s Xerxes, Daniels slips back a few centuries for a production that the Times of London described as “a revelation.”


Xerxes is running through May 14. For tickets and information, go to houstongrandopera.org or call 713/228-OPERA.

Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.

Got a comment?—[email protected].


Rich Arenschieldt

Rich has written for OutSmart for more than 25 years, chronicling various events impacting Houston’s queer community. His areas of interest and influence include all aspects of HIV treatment and education as well as the milieu of creative endeavors Houston affords its citizenry, including the performing, visual and fine arts. Rich loves interviewing and discovering people, be they living, or, in his capacity as a member of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, deceased.

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