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

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.


10 Comments »

  1. Counter-tenors sound strained and queer while treble voices are pure and natural. They are not “putting it on,” but being themselves.

    Comment by nfperry — January 19, 2019 @ 7:37 am

  2. […] Classical music: The Ear generally doesn’t like countertenors. Do you? Is it sexist or artisticall… […]

    Pingback by Countertenors vs. Castrati – D. Brian Lee, Voice Teacher — October 10, 2016 @ 3:51 pm

  3. Thanks for voicing this. A male alto is strangely irritating to me as well. (Bach cantatas) Only for this reason I prefer older recordings..

    Comment by michal devetsedm — February 25, 2015 @ 5:01 am

  4. I have read your article and sustain your hypothesis on countertenors being more mainstream. But, let us get some facts first.

    Countertenors these days are not the ”authentic” countertenors back then. That is because male boys were getting their testicles removed before the onset of puberty to preserve their child voices. Due to the fact that today this practice is considered barbaric, it has been abolished from society. Therefore, the ”fake” sound of a countertenor emergin these days is due to the fact that the countertenor voice sings in the falsetto register of the male voice. These ”countertenors” are actually baritones or tenors. I know a guy in the University that I study who is actually a baritone. If you tell him to sing in the modal voice, that is the normal speaking voice, he sounds… hmmm… unsuited for classical singing. All these guys that go countertenors, most of them, not all, use this to attract attention and nothing more.

    Now, to straight some facts. There are countertenors who are genuine, and that is due to an endocrynological condition called Kallman’s Syndrome. Radu Marian is a good example of such a case. That is a genuine countertenor voice.

    Comment by Tudor Anghelina — January 21, 2014 @ 3:11 pm

  5. It’s entirely cultural conditioning and it CAN be surmounted. There are people who cannot accept the “trained” voice at all, because they have heard nothing but the “pop” voice, and have trained themselves to think one is artificial, the other genuine — when both, of course, are “artificial” in that certain effects of the natural voice have been cultivated.

    Every folk tradition on earth has a place in it for the male voice in the higher-than-speaking registers as an emotional device (think of Marvin Gaye), and it is quite “masculine,” in that men have always had it at their disposal. The Broadway-pop tradition has made very little use of it, and the invention of radio in America at a certain time made that the “normal” sound. It had not been so before.

    In Bach’s day and in medieval times, women were not supposed to sing (or speak!) in church. (Or in synagogues or mosques.) So boys were used for treble, and that produces a sound that can be quite ineffective for full-bodied roles, e.g. the use of a boy soprano in Nico Muhly’s opera, Two Boys, recently presented at the Met — everyone kvelled over the 13-year-old playing the 13-year-old, but his singing was useless at portraying a character in that size house — it was a hopeless effect dramatically.

    Not dissimilarly, women could not appear on the English stage in Shakespeare’s day (whereas they could in Spain and France and in much of Italy, though not the Papal States), and he dared not write elaborate women’s roles unless very talented boy actors were in the company, and was driven to expedients like Juliet’s balcony to prevent a boy and a “girl” from necking, which would have made his audience uncomfortable. But one can get used to this, even now, when all-male troupes (as currently in London and on Broadway) play such plays with gender indiscriminately assigned.

    In the early century and a half or so of opera, “aristocratic” characters always had high voices, and therefore were played by women or castrated males. Castration was never legal, and as governments tightened the screws, castrated singers disappeared and were replaced by “trouser” roles for ladies (playing boys) or the beginning of the tenor hero tradition, with Rubini and Mario. In the 1950s and ’60s, ignoring the fact that all opera is artifice (all theater is), producers felt that only men should play men, and began to revive baroque operas under this misapprehension. It took decades to discover a way to make these works “dramatic” to a generation that was rusty in its appreciation. One thing that changed was men willing to try for an alto career. (In America, notably, heterosexual male singers were very reluctant to do so, and gay singers remained closeted. In Europe, this has not been so very much the case.)

    So, to people who find the sound difficult to accept, I urge listening to some of the hundreds of young men making operatic careers with “falsetto” (a charged term) voices. The quality of the voices vary, and many are simply not very theatrical (as with any other voice category). But with those who are — just scrape your ears clean of expectation and listen to the SOUND, and observe the ACTING. If you are not immune to beauty or subtlety (and I suspect many people who listen only to VERY LOUD AMPLIFIED VOICES have, indeed, immunized themselves to beauty), you will “get it” with the right singer in the right music.

    Comment by John Yohalem — November 24, 2013 @ 10:50 pm

  6. I wasn’t taken with countertenors in the Alfred Deller days, but that may have had as much to do with recording limitations as with voices. Or perhaps there’s just a particularly fine crop of countertenors today. Two of the best:

    David Daniels
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKax5-GHC1Y

    Jose Lemos
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCzm4SOm5MI

    Comment by Susan Fiore — July 27, 2013 @ 9:35 pm

  7. We both have heard some thrilling moments from countertenors in Madison performances, but I tend to agree with you, Jake, that the sound can be “haunting” but not as warm, full, and well-supported as a female alto’s. And you are right, the male alto was the produce of a corrupt cultural practice — the exclusion of women from the church choir and stage. It was forced into existence by ideology, not art.

    Having said that, I also recognize that that “uncomfortable” feeling you mention is a product of our cultural conditioning, that it is strange in the way it is strange to see two men dancing together closely in the West. We don’t have the cultural experience that would prepares us to see it — or hear it — as normal. It is still a novelty.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — July 27, 2013 @ 9:38 am

  8. Handel’s heroic make parts were sung by castrati, not countertenors. This is true of opera seria in general. He engaged one of the superstar castrati, Senesino, for the Royal Academy of Music. Senesino was later wooed away by the rival Opera of the Nobility. Modern countertenors are used in Baroque opera to replace castratii, not countertenors.

    As to Bach, and all the other composers of Lutheran cantatas, the choir was the ensemble of four boys who sang the solos (assuming an SATB piece). These were concertists. A few pieces (with Bach about 10) have doubling singers (one of each part) called ripienists, who would typically reinforce parts of an opening chorus and sing along in the chorale. That’s it. There are four ripienists in the St. John Passion. One part equals one singer. Concertists’ and ripienists’ parts look very different. (I could show you some). Sometimes Telemann had one ripienist to reinforce a weaker part. Sometimes Bach used an instrument for the same purpose. Bear in mind that boys’ voices changed much later in Bach’s time. He may have used falsettists for high parts. There is no separate chorus and soloists. Does this help?

    Comment by Jeanne Swack — July 26, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

    • Hi Jeanne,

      Thank you. This really does help me, but more historically than aesthetically.

      There are still “solo” parts or arias, even if they are sung by chorus members, in many Bach cantatas, say “Ich habe genug,” if I am not mistaken. And I still prefer them to be sung sung by mature women’s voice rather than by young boys.

      As for Handel, I think I knew about the castrati in major roles (remember the popular CD “Arias for Farinelli”), and I can accept the modern substitute of countertenors if I have to.
      But the sound of a countertenor often still sounds falsified or fake to me, somewhat grating, artificial and unsatisfying. Not always, though, and some countertenors sound quite lovely, depending on the piece.

      In short, I am less concerned with authenticity than I am with beauty and sonic preference.
      It is the same reason that, putting historical authenticity aside, I generally prefer modern violins to baroque violins and modern piano to harpsichords or fortepianos.

      I suspect that authenticity for you is inseparable from the beauty. But for many of us there is a distinction, and perhaps even a distance, between historical origin and contemporary performance.

      Thanks again for reading and sending your thoughtful and fact-filled reply.
      Best,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 26, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

  9. I agree – not a big fan of countertenors or boy choirs.

    Comment by Famous Hat — July 26, 2013 @ 9:13 am


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