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Texas hits a low note

July 11, 2005

Here it is, the new definition of gender, coming to you oh-so-straight from Texas: Real boys don't sing soprano.

Boys cannot audition for soprano or alto roles in that state's All-State Choir. Girls cannot audition for tenor or bass. No matter where their talents lie.

As a result, 17-year-old Mikhael Rawls, who already has won awards for his countertenor -- the male parallel to soprano -- can't try out in the part where he excels.

That rule was made by the Texas Music Educators Assn. You would think music teachers would know that countertenors such as Mikhael are a widely respected part of classical music and tradition.

But then, Texas educators can be a touchy lot on gender issues. In its eagerness to keep middle-schoolers from thinking gay marriage might be OK, that state's Board of Education required textbooks to define marriage as the "lifelong union between a husband and wife." Apparently, the close to 50% of Texas marriages that end in divorce don't count.

It's true that a shameful aspect haunts the history of high-pitched male singers -- not on the part of the singers, though. In 17th- and 18th-century Italy, when women were not permitted on stage, the soprano voice would be provided by a castrato, a male castrated in boyhood so his voice would not deepen. The movie "Farinelli" was based on the life of one of the most famous of these.

Farinelli -- his real name was Carlo Broschi -- died in 1782. Time for Texas music teachers to get over it.

The organization says the rules prevent youngsters from damaging their voices by singing out of their appropriate ranges. They are right that kids should sing in their natural voices. For some girls, that's tenor, and for some boys, alto; for a few boys like Mikhael, it includes the high notes. He has been singing soprano parts as the only boy in his high school's a cappella choir. Boys will indeed be boys -- soprano or bass.

We hope Mikhael goes on to success as a countertenor -- and honors his open-minded high school by helping other young singers.

His family has been contacted by lawyers eager to file a discrimination suit. Here's the stranger part of the tale: His mother has declined, saying she doesn't think lawsuits are the right way to handle every disagreement.

To which we can say only: Bravo!

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