The New York Times has the adjectives, but does it know what it is describing?

By  | November 24, 2010 | 0 Comments | Filed under: Features
Philippe Jaroussky

Does anyone doubt that he sings with a man's voice?

Following the recent New York Times article on countertenors via a feature on Philippe Jaroussky (Who Can Resist a Man Who Sings Like a Woman? by Fernanda Eberstadt), I stumbled upon a critique by Bernard Gordillo (who deftly beat us to the punch). Bernard makes some wonderful points.

His full blog post is here:  How Do You Describe The Countertenor Voice? A few salient excerpts follow.

“The fate of the countertenor voice is to continually succumb to analogy. It can’t just exist on its own, but has to be like something else.

Fernanda Eberstadt captures the two most common clichés (with no modest amount of flowery prose), both essentially casting it in a feminine guise.

First, the little boy analogy.

‘…the countertenor — a grown man who sings like a turbo-charged choirboy…’

Then, likening it to something feminine.

‘The countertenorial voice — a high girlish tone produced by using the outer edges of the vocal cords…’

In other genres—American popular or world music—rarely is such similarity drawn with what has become predictable vocabulary.

It’s now the norm, reinforcing the voice type as anything but natural. Yet a well-trained countertenor most certainly produces a beautiful and organic sound.”


Ms. Eberstadt also misses a broader point, which is that countertenors as a group offer a wide range of timbres, some more masculine by contemporary standards and some more feminine. To be fair to her, Jaroussky is one of the more ‘feminine’ sounding countertenors out there, and she may not have been exposed to many other countertenors.

The notion that higher frequency pitches = feminine sound is a recent construct.  In the 17th and early 18th centuries, higher pitched singing tended to be perceived as dramatic or heroic (especially in Italian opera), rather than feminine.  This goes a long way towards explaining the phenomenon of casting castrati as brave, yet flawed protagonists.

In his article The Eroticism of Emasculation:  Confronting the Baroque Body of the Castrato (The Journal of Musicology 20,2:  196-249), Roger Freitas argues that gender in the Baroque period was thought of in terms of a continuum rather than delineated categories.

“Recent work in the history of sexuality has shown the prevalence in the early modern period of the “one-sex” model, in which the distinction between male and female is quantitative rather than qualitative. This model provides for a large middle ground, encompassing prepubescent children, castrati, and other unusual figures.”

Freitas goes on to write that this ‘middle ground’ was extremely appealing to both genders. While castrati had undeniably amazing voices, Freitas argues that part of their wild success was rooted in… well… how sexy both men and women found them to be. This presents a problem for modern audiences used to thinking of gender in a more contemporary manner. That countertenors are now regularly singing many of the roles written for castrati only brings this perceptual conflict into brighter light. What we should move towards is a model that assumes that every voice is a human voice first, a pitch range second, and (if necessary) capable of qualities associated with mainstream gender definitions third.  Upon hearing a profoundly low contralto, one might comment on the masculine nature of the sound, but few would comment “she sings like a man.”  Why is the converse not also true?

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Ian Howell is a countertenor based in Boston, Massachusetts. He regularly performs as a concert and operatic soloist all across North America and writes from time to time. He was educated at Yale and Capital Universities, sang with Chanticleer from 2000-04, and is currently a Doctor of Musical Arts student at the New England Conservatory of Music. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.