The Countertenor


In 1984, the audience of the New York City Opera was presented with a unique scene. A man is prepared for his coronation by assistants who change his costume. Naked, he turns out to be a hermaphrodite, with male genitals and female breasts. When he sings, he is in the mezzo-soprano range; in a love duet with his wife, his voice is the highest. The opera was Akhnaten by Philip Glass. The main role of Pharaoh, a religious reformer, sung at the time by Paul Esswood, was written for countertenor. For those in the audience listening to a countertenor for the first time, the singer’s unusual appearance might have seemed inappropriate: with his head made deformed and pointed by a prosthesis, was he really human? And if so, what was he, male or female?

The contradiction of a man singing in a range usually associated with the female figure may seem disturbing and otherworldly, or at least unnatural, to today’s listeners. Some twentieth-century composers have exploited the contradictions of the countertenor voice by writing music for it, though not always in such an extreme dramatic context as Akhnaten. Perhaps the best-known modern countertenor roles are Benjamin Britten’s Oberon, the non-human fairy king in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960) and the voice of Apollo, the abstract, celestial god of music, placed in opposition to the earthly Dionysus, god of wine (a baritone) in Death in Venice (1973).

Although used to great effect by modern composers, countertenors can be heard more frequently in early music practice, such as in medieval and Renaissance polyphony and in Baroque solo singing, especially of the operatic type. The twentieth-century revival of the countertenor in opera is linked to the modern early music movement, which began in the 1950s, but the history of falsetto singing in Europe dates back at least to the Middle Ages and extends to the present day in an unbroken line.

The term countertenor itself is medieval, deriving from the compositional process of the Ars Antiqua. When writing sacred polyphony, from the twelfth century onwards, a composer would first select a Gregorian chant on which to base his piece. The next step was to add rhythmic scansion to the melody; the resulting vocal line was called tenor, from the Latin tenere. This part ‘held’ the original chant. (An alternative theory, also supported by medieval evidence, holds that the tenor part is so called because, as the structurally fundamental voice, it ‘holds’ the composition. The substance is however very similar). Then the composer wrote a new musical line ‘against’ the tenor one: the counter-tenor. There could be more than one of these newly composed countertenor parts: the higher one was labelled contratenor altus and the lower one was called contratenor bassus. From these designations we derive our modern terms alto and basso.

From the 14th century onwards, when professional singers, and no longer just clerics, monks and priests, began to be hired to sing polyphony in church, the names of the musical lines were transferred to the singers of that same part. The singer of the tenor part became known as tenor, the one of the contratenor bassus part was called bass, while the man (women were forbidden to sing in church, following St Paul’s injunction) who sang the contratenor altus part was called contralto, contr’alto (only in Italy) or countertenor.

After being supplanted by castrati in the second half of the 17th century, the tenors of the 18th century began to cultivate a more lyrical singing style. But as the 19th century progressed, the popularity, not to mention the availability, of the castrato in opera gradually waned to be replaced by a new, powerful and more dramatic tenor hero. Opera composers began to demand more volume in the upper register than could be produced by falsetto singing, and tenors and their teachers responded by favouring the extension of the more robust chest voice into ever higher ranges. The new tenor sound first emerged in Italy and is the one familiar to audiences today.

This revolution in singing and vocal training permanently ousted male falsetto singing from the opera stage. Falsetto survived into the nineteenth century mainly in English cathedral choirs, where changes in the general style of singing forced male contraltos to develop a romantic sound of their own, the stereotypical English cathedral countertenor sound.

Falsetto singing did not return to the opera stage until the 1950s, largely thanks to Alfred Deller (1912-79), the singer who more than any other popularised the countertenor voice in our century. In 1944, Deller met the composer Michael Tippett, who was interested in the music of the Elizabethan era. Tippett and Deller collaborated in concerts and radio broadcasts with the music of Henry Purcell, an English composer of the 17th century.

Today most countertenor soloists are English. Many sang as choristers in cathedrals or college chapels and thus grew up singing with male altos. Consequently, the transition from white voice to adult countertenor is often easy and natural.

Although it may seem that the emergence of countertenor solo singing in opera is entirely a revival of Baroque practice, today’s countertenors are not the equivalent of period instruments. Countertenors have to sing in the same large theatres as all other singers, so they too have benefited from the vocal revolution of the 19th century. Just as modern tenors and baritones are taught to extend their chest voice upwards, filling the voice pauses evenly, modern countertenors learn to extend their falsetto head voice downwards.

The modern countertenor is fully a twentieth-century singer.

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