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Handel's 'Julius Caesar'

Whether you're looking around for a TV show to watch, a film to see or an opera to hear, you're sure to run across something that evokes the splendors of ancient Rome.

On television, the Roman Empire has been found everywhere from the intellectual drama of I Claudius, to History Channel documentaries, to HBO's sensational series, Rome.

Cinema buffs can revel in films ranging from classic movie epics like Ben Hur, Spartacus and The Ten Commandments, to the extravagant digital effects of Gladiator.

And long before movies or TV came along, Rome was a favorite subject for over-the-top operas. In the 18th century, George Frideric Handel turned to the story of Rome's first emperor, Julius Caesar, for one of his greatest operatic blockbusters. But in this case, the most impressive effects weren't in the onstage depictions of Roman pomp and splendor; the true spectacle was the music itself.

In Handel's era, opera was the domain of vocal superstars — singers whose fame rivaled that of today's star athletes and screen idols. So when the composer turned to ancient Rome for the story of Julius Caesar, he put the role of Caesar in the hands of perhaps the biggest star of the day, a castrato who went by a single name, Senesino.

Today, thankfully, such operas are performed without turning young boys into castrati to fill the main roles. In modern productions, those roles are sometimes sung by women. But increasingly, they're taken by the rare vocalists known as countertenors — men, with powerful voices, who sing in the same, high range as female vocalists.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a Houston Grand Opera production of Handel's Julius Caesar featuring David Daniels, a countertenor who is one of opera's biggest, current stars.

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