When Iestyn Davies steps onstage and sings, it’s a fair guess that most people in the audience have never heard anything quite like it.
Davies is one of a brigade of men today who sing like women — or, more to the point, who sing (as close as anyone can approximate) like castrati, those 1700s-era, soprano-voiced chaps whose gonads were lopped off before puberty in order to preserve their unusual, high sound.
“To me, it doesn’t feel high, although I suppose it sounds that way if you’re hearing it for the first time,” says Davies, an acclaimed British classical countertenor appearing opposite Oscar-winner Mark Rylance in “Farinelli and the King,” a new Broadway play by Claire van Kampen, opening Sunday, Dec. 17 and running through March 25 at the Belasco Theatre. Inspired by true events, it recounts the palace intrigues surrounding Spain’s King Philip V (Rylance), whose madness was apparently eased by the graceful, angelic voice of Farinelli (acted by Sam Crane and sung six shows a week by Davies).
The production takes great pains to transport audiences back to Farinelli’s time, using period instruments like the harpsichord and theorbo (basically a long-necked lute) and bathing the stage in the golden glow of candlelight. Davies sings, like all opera singers, without a microphone, and the lilting sound is both curious (coming from a man) and oddly calming.
“All men have a falsetto range,” says Davies, breaking into a high-pitched schoolmarm tone. “We can all do that voice.” Then he’s back to his normal baritone. “I just do it for a living — but it bears no relation to my testicles at all,” he adds, laughing.
Back in the day, castrati were all the rage in opera, playing the swashbuckling hero, and Farinelli was of greatest renown, a rock star with a love life (yes, he could have sex) as legendary as his voice.
That voice is nearly impossible to replicate, as the castrati’s lack of testosterone resulted in smaller larynxes (thus a feminine tone) but large rib cages (affording abundant power and breath control).
“I think if you castrated somebody these days and put him on a stage he’d be famous whether he could sing well or not,” Davies says. “Today we’re mainly interested in the freak element of things but, in Farinelli’s day, it was the beauty of the voice that counted most.”