The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear generally doesn’t like countertenors. Do you? Is it sexist or artistically wrong to prefer female singers to countertenors and to boy sopranos, especially in Bach cantatas. What do you say about the choices?

July 26, 2013
10 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

No doubt about it: Countertenors are once again cool.

Finally, after centuries of being ignored, slighted and downright ridiculed, countertenors are back in. They are mainstream these days and their numbers are increasing, as are their popularity and their quality.

When you plug the word “countertenor” into the YouTube search engine, you get more than 106,000 results. (At bottom is YouTube video of French countertenor Philippe Jarousskey singing a Vivaldi aria that has almost 2.5 million hits.)

On this past Thursday, NPR’s “Morning Edition” featured a terrific piece about countertenors with Miles Hoffman, the music commentator who is also a professional violist.

The report and commentary concerned the upcoming world premiere this weekend of the opera Theodore Morrison’s “Oscar,” based on the life and trial of Oscar Wilde, at the open air Santa Fe Opera (below).

santa fe opera house

The main point about the singing is that the lead role is played by the universally acclaimed countertenor David Daniels, for whom the opera was specifically composed. And Daniels (below, on the right, as Oscar Wilde in a photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera) has a voice that was described as “high” and heavenly.”

Here is a link to the story with audio clips of other performances by Daniels including music by Handel and Franz Schubert:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/07/25/205148226/The-High-Heavenly-Voice-Of-David-Daniels

oscr_0417

Now, I have heard a few countertenors, in live performances and on recordings, and there are times when I liked them a lot. I certainly was impressed by them and glad that they now have place in the mainstream of vocal music and opera.

The resurgence of countertenors over the past 15 or so year was inevitable, I suppose, given the revival of Baroque opera and especially the operas of George Frideric Handel (below), who usually wrote his high-pitched hero roles for countertenors.

handel big 2

In fact, here is a link to an earlier piece that NPR “Deceptive Cadence” blogger Tom Huizenga wrote about the Handel recording by another prominent countertenor Bejun Mehta (below):

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2010/11/30/131701596/when-a-man-sings-like-a-woman-a-countertenor-convergence

Bejun Mehta

But I found myself disagreeing with Miles Hoffman (below) and others who think that countertenors somehow bring an added richness to the singing.

Miles Hoffman NPR

My ears tell me just the opposite. So now is a good time to files what appears to be a minority report.

I generally find the countertenor tone uncomfortable. In general, I find adult women’s voices or ordinary male tenors more convincing and expressive, less artificial and more normal to my standards.

I feel the same way about using boy sopranos in choruses of J.S. Bach’s cantatas. There are times when I love the sound of boychoirs and boy sopranos.

But even in period performances of early music – by far, my preference — Bach’s cantatas seem much more convincing and beautiful to me with a soloists and choruses of adult men and adult women.

Of course, we all live in history.

But the fact of the matter is that women were not used for singing not because high male voices were superior but because earlier epochs were heavily sexist and discriminated against women.

That is also, I believe, why the roles of young women in Shakespeare’s plays were usually played by young men. Women were simply not allowed full participation in the performing arts.

And although we may want to reconstruct such practices out a curiosity for historically informed performance and to hear how a certain piece of music originally sounded, I say that earlier periods – not ours – were the more deprived epochs.

Anyway, I look forward to hearing from readers and sophisticated fans of vocal music about whether my objections are misplaced and inappropriate, or whether they agree with me. Not that I expect the trend toward  using countertenors will abate. I am sure it will only grow.

In the end, I suspect, it was comes down to taste and personal preference – as is so often the case, given the inevitable subjectivity of art.

But let me know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


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