Feature: Are We Post-Anglican Yet? Part 1

article-header3 The task un­der­taken by a young coun­tertenor and his teacher to dis­cover, craft, and de­velop his sound is uniquely chal­leng­ing. Fewer coun­tertenor role mod­els ex­ist than for more main­stream voice types, ig­no­rance of the op­ti­mal use of the vo­cal mech­a­nism to cre­ate a healthy coun­tertenor sound abounds (and the re­sult­ing com­pro­mises are of­ten as­sumed to be in­her­ent to the voice type), teach­ers and singers use con­fus­ing and of­ten non-spe­cific terms to ex­plain how to sing, and coun­tertenors can face gen­der and iden­tity is­sues largely ab­sent in the de­vel­op­ment of their col­leagues. 

A wide va­ri­ety of vo­cal ideals are at­tached to the word ‘coun­tertenor.’ Just within the field of clas­si­cal mu­sic, for ex­am­ple, the man who sounds good singing the verse solo in This is the record of John by Gib­bons may sound ill-cast in a higher Han­delian opera role. The tes­si­tura of the alto so­los in Bach’s can­tatas (es­pe­cially at A=440) may lie just a step too high for a singer who ex­cels in the alto roles of Han­del’s Eng­lish or­a­to­rios. shout-1-300x300Con­versely, the man who can re­ally de­liver a Sesto or Cheru­bino may be a hot mess of gear changes when singing some­thing as stan­dard (and lu­cra­tive) as the alto role from Mes­siah. The coun­tertenor who ex­cels at singing Re­ich and Glass may fall flat try­ing to spin out the most sim­ple un-am­pli­fied legato line over an or­ches­tra, yet all of these per­form­ers would call them­selves coun­tertenors. The wide de­f­i­n­i­tion of what a coun­tertenor might be can re­sult in the mis­cast­ing of young singers who – be­cause of low­ered ex­pec­ta­tions for a coun­tertenor’s po­ten­tial – are of­ten en­cour­aged to sing ped­a­gog­i­cally in­ap­pro­pri­ate mu­sic. The ques­tion of ‘what sort of sound a coun­tertenor should make’ takes on added sig­nif­i­cance as an un­healthy tech­ni­cal foun­da­tion (which is far more likely to be tol­er­ated early on from a coun­tertenor) can set a singer up for a life­time of vo­cal strug­gles.

The dif­fi­cul­ties faced by teacher and stu­dent, how­ever, are not lim­ited to the defin­ing of a healthy sound con­cept. The sci­en­tific and ped­a­gog­i­cal re­search into coun­tertenor tech­nique (as op­posed to re­search into how typ­i­cal male singers use their falsetto or head reg­is­ters) is scant and of­ten falls prey to the same ba­sic as­sump­tion that hin­ders many teach­ers who work with coun­tertenors: That what the hu­man voice has his­tor­i­cally done in this higher reg­is­ter is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of what it can do. It is prob­lem­atic to de­scribe what coun­tertenors might ac­com­plish with terms used to de­scribe male voices that have never tried to fully de­velop a bal­anced and en­gaged sound in the coun­tertenor range. Few sci­en­tific stud­ies uti­lize high-level pro­fes­sional coun­tertenors as sub­jects, gen­er­ally fa­vor­ing am­a­teur or choral singers. Since a coun­tertenor typ­i­cally chooses to use his lar­ynx in a slightly dif­fer­ent man­ner than his tenor, bari­tone, and bass col­leagues (this will be un­packed in fu­ture ar­ti­cles on tech­nique and ped­a­gogy), some el­e­ments of clas­si­cal vo­cal tech­nique do not trans­late well, cre­at­ing a frus­trat­ing sce­nario in which the stu­dent’s pre­con­cep­tions ac­tu­ally stand in the way of an open and healthy sound.

But I di­gress. The topic of this fea­ture, and I hope a lively dis­cus­sion as well, is whether to­day’s coun­tertenor sound is in­her­ently tied to the An­gli­can tra­di­tion that so lov­ingly guarded it through cen­turies of dis­fa­vor. Are the coun­tertenors now study­ing in our con­ser­va­to­ries mod­el­ing their sound on of the likes of James Bow­man, Michael Chance, and Al­fred Deller, or do they turn to role mod­els not tied to that Eng­lish tra­di­tion? What is our cur­rent ‘ideal’ coun­tertenor sound, and why?

This is cer­tainly an ex­cit­ing time to be a coun­tertenor. Per­haps not since be­fore the wild con­ti­nen­tal pop­u­lar­ity of the 16th and 17th cen­tury Span­ish falset­tists was eclipsed by the rise of the Cas­trati has this voice type been so uni­ver­sally ac­cepted. (The se­crets of the lost Span­ish tech­nique, like that of the Cas­trati, are firmly on my list of things to study should I ever get a time ma­chine).

Alfred Deller (1912-1979)

Alfred Deller (1912-1979)

The last Span­ish falset­tist em­ployed by the Sis­tine Chapel died in 1625, and though coun­tertenors were still em­ployed in con­cert, cham­ber, and litur­gi­cal set­tings through­out the Baroque era, as time passed (and tastes changed) the coun­tertenor voice gen­er­ally fell out of reg­u­lar use in all but litur­gi­cal set­tings. In­deed, it was from out of the choir stalls of St. Paul’s in Lon­don that Al­fred Deller be­gan our cur­rent coun­tertenor re­nais­sance. Watkins Shaw notes:


“In [Al­fred Deller] and his suc­ces­sors we be­gan to hear male vo­cal­ists in con­cert rooms (not choir stalls), wear­ing ap­pro­pri­ate dress (not sur­plices), singing mu­sic of alto pitch while stand­ing as of right be­side so­prano, tenor and bass soloists. Be­fore then, though they may not all have en­joyed Deller’s pres­ence, it was not so much that re­ally good singers of alto parts had been en­tirely lack­ing… as that they were not called to the con­cert plat­form. It does not de­tract from Deller’s achieve­ment to say that 25 years ear­lier he might have re­mained in ob­scu­rity. As it hap­pened he was fe­lix op­por­tu­ni­tate [lucky at the right time], avail­able to share in the re­vival of in­ter­est, then gath­er­ing mo­men­tum, in mu­sic re­quir­ing that class of male voice. Hence he was in part the cre­ator, but also in part the crea­ture, of that re­vival.”

It was the An­gli­can Church Choir tra­di­tion (the keeper of a sound that justly cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of the nascent 20th cen­tury early mu­sic move­ment) from which Deller emerged that pre­served the fun­da­men­tals of this tech­nique long enough for the pub­lic’s taste to come full cir­cle.

shout-2-300x300How­ever, one can­not help but no­tice that re­cent gen­er­a­tions of coun­tertenors have found them­selves less tied to that Eng­lish aes­thetic, and I think we are now forced to ask what is in­her­ent ver­sus cho­sen in a coun­tertenor’s sound. In Heidi Wale­son’s piece, The New Coun­tertenors (pub­lished in 2000), Gwen Toth (di­rec­tor of the New York City based early mu­sic en­sem­ble Artek) and coun­tertenor Drew Minter dis­cuss the evo­lu­tion of the voice since the 1980s. Ms. Wale­son writes:

“The new breed of coun­tertenor, with its fo­cus on opera, is of­ten a dif­fer­ent kind of singer than those who made their names 10 or 15 years ago. Gwen Toth says…, ‘The coun­tertenors of the 1980s — when the voice was get­ting go­ing — are of an­other era,’ she says. ‘They did many things very well. Drew [Minter] is an opera soloist, and also an en­sem­ble singer. Now, be­ing a coun­tertenor means be­ing an opera star. They tend to sing higher, since that’s what the opera needs. They’re also tech­ni­cally geared to­ward mak­ing a big­ger sound, and very few singers are re­ally skilled in both opera and lieder. Be­ing a coun­tertenor also used to mean that the singer was a good mu­si­cian. He had an ob­vi­ous vested in­ter­est in early mu­sic, which said some­thing about mu­si­cal skill, where you need to work in en­sem­bles. Now they want to be opera stars — and why not, it’s the only way to make any money.’

Minter points out that as­pects of the pe­riod-per­for­mance train­ing that went with the ter­ri­tory of coun­tertenor singing have also fallen by the way­side, such as know­ing how to Or­na­ment [this au­thor can at­test to the fact that Mr. Minter can or­na­ment as spon­ta­neously as though he were a jazz mu­si­cian im­pro­vis­ing!]. While he be­lieves that coun­tertenors in gen­eral sing bet­ter than they used to (”There are more peo­ple to lis­ten to — when I was start­ing, there was only Al­fred Deller”), the need to ac­com­mo­date the opera house has re­sulted in a fun­da­men­tal change in the way coun­tertenors sound. The ju­di­cious use of vi­brato, for ex­am­ple, has given way to more gen­eral use of it.’” [2]

This more re­cent shift from the mid-20th cen­tury early mu­sic sound (which is cer­tainly still alive and well among a va­ri­ety of pro­fes­sional singers) and the An­gli­can choral sound to more of a bel canto ap­proach is hap­pen­ing and may be di­vid­ing coun­tertenors into two camps. Per­haps this is a nat­ural pro­gres­sion? shout-3-300x300One can cer­tainly find aes­thetic and tech­ni­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween op­er­atic and choral so­pra­nos. This is fur­ther com­pli­cated by the fact that (in my own anec­do­tal ev­i­dence) Amer­i­can or­ches­tral con­duc­tors seem to like a beefier sound from their early mu­sic soloists than even a gen­er­a­tion ago (at least in the larger scale Baroque reper­tory). Ad­di­tion­ally, if coun­tertenors are to find their place in the mu­sic of the next cen­tury, we must guard against the pos­si­ble (in­evitable?) de­cline in the pop­u­lar­ity of Baroque Opera and Or­a­to­rio. It is some­what log­i­cal (in a Dar­win­ian sense any­way) that a broad va­ri­ety of avail­able coun­tertenor tim­bres will bet­ter our col­lec­tive chances of re­main­ing rel­e­vant once the next change in tastes buries our cur­rent stan­dards.

So, while we can prob­a­bly all agree that we are in the midst of an aes­thetic shift (or per­haps broad­en­ing) re­gard­ing the ideal coun­tertenor sound, no one has stud­ied what fac­tors lead young singers to make the tech­ni­cal choices that they make. Is singing with a larger, more op­er­atic sound, as Ms. Toth per­haps half-jok­ingly sug­gested, “the only way to make money?” Is it pan­der­ing to the mar­ket­place or a nat­ural pro­gres­sion that has taken coun­tertenors longer to make than every other clas­si­cal voice type? Are the An­gli­can church choir or mid-20th cen­tury early mu­sic aes­thet­ics el­e­ments of the coun­tertenor sound that are hard-wired into the vo­cal mech­a­nism, or just the re­sult of choices that singers have made. Will au­di­ences ac­cept coun­tertenors who choose to stray from these well-worn ap­proaches?

So, dear reader, we at The Coun­tertenor Voice would like to in­vite you to take a sim­ple sur­vey to help us be­gin to un­der­stand what mo­ti­vates coun­tertenors to strive for one vo­cal ideal over an­other. If you are a coun­tertenor of any age or per­for­mance level, fol­low the link be­low (or use the ‘Con­tact’ link in the menu bar above and we will gladly send you the link). Please feel free to share this with your coun­tertenor col­leagues, and en­cour­age them to do the same. All in­for­ma­tion will be kept in the strictest of con­fi­dence and we will post the re­sults in an up­com­ing ar­ti­cle.

Now go prac­tice (af­ter you take the sur­vey, of course).


[1] The Mu­si­cal Times, Vol. 124. No. 1681 (Mar., 1983). p. 167

[2] Early Mu­sic Amer­ica, Vol. 6. No. 1 (Spring, 2000). p. 22