Feature: Are We Post-Anglican Yet? Part 1

By  | January 1, 2011 | 4 Comments | Filed under: Features

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. Conversely, 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)

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.” [1]

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.

However, 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? One 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

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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.


  • Tai Oney

    What a wonderful article!
    This site couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m so excited to know that we finally have a place where we can share our own opinions and philosophies AND receive music!


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  • David Hackston

    Thank you, Ian, for a most informed piece – and for all your indefatigable work putting this site together. This will be an invaluable resource for all of us. Many thanks.

    • http://www.ianhowellcountertenor.com Ian Howell

      Thank you so much David; the results of the survey have been fascinating thus far. :-) Thanks for finding us and spreading the word!