Countertenors and Castrati: Ian Howell interviewed by Bonnie North on WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio

By  | June 1, 2011 | 2 Comments | Filed under: Features

Ian Howell, Countertenor

Bonnie North, Arts Producer Lake Effect WUWM Public Radio

Ahead of my May 2011 debut with the Florentine Opera Company as Cupid & Spirit in John Blow’s Venus & Adonis and Henry Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas, I sat down with Bonnie North, Arts Producer of WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio’s Lake Effect. We discussed countertenors, castrati, the Florentine opera Company’s upcoming production, and a bit about the history of baroque music in Europe.

Click here to open WUWM’s stream of the entire interview, complete with musical samples from 1685 & the Art of Ian Howell with The American Bach Soloists.

Edited Transcript

[music playing – Mir ekelt mehr zu leben from BWV 170 Vergnügte Ruh by Bach]

Quick Links

Bonnie North: We’re back with the Arts Page on Lake Effect. I’m Bonnie North. The Florentine Opera opens its double bill of English Baroque operas tonight in the intimate setting of the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall. Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and John Blow’s Venus and Adonis were both written in the 1680s and today are rarely staged. Countertenor Ian Howell will sing the role of Cupid in Venus and Adonis. Howell is a Grammy award winning singer who has performed with – among many others – The American Bach Soloists and the all-male Chanticleer, and as a soloist around the world. This performance marks Howell’s first in Milwaukee, and he joins me in the studio now. Ian, welcome to Lake Effect. Thanks so much for coming in this morning.

Ian Howell: Thanks so much for having me, Bonnie.

BN: I want to start with the countertenor voice and where that comes from. Is that something that was used at the time of Handel and Blow and Purcell, or is that a modern type of voice?

IH: The answer to both of those questions is yes. If you go back far enough in time there was actually a great movement in 16th century Spain that produced what they called at the time falsettists. A lot of modern countertenors will have issues with that word because they believe that it carries some pejorative qualities to it. In the 16th century they didn’t care. So the Spanish falsettists were the most commonly employed alto and soprano singers at the Sistine Chapel, for example. Into the 17th and 18th centuries they were replaced by the castrati tradition. But definitely in 16th century Europe they had a flourishing (what we would call today) countertenor tradition.

BN: So it actually predates the castrati, I didn’t know that…

IH: Oh yeah.

BN: Okay…

IH: Absolutely. And when you think about it, it makes sense. A man singing in a countertenor range is a physiological reality that is not tied to any sort of surgical procedure [laughs]. So if it is something that can happen now, human nature being what it is – and we’re inquisitive beings – it is totally logical that they would try and explore and find it back then. There is some speculation that Purcell himself was a countertenor. At the time male puberty took place at a much later point. At seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, it was common for men to still have unbroken voices. So, a man singing countertenor, a man singing in an alto range – or more rarely but still possibly in a soprano range was something that absolutely happened back then.  Handel himself employed countertenors; he employed castrati – he employed countertenors separately.

BN: Obviously we don’t have castrati now, but what would have been the difference in the vocal sound between the countertenor and the castrati?

IH: Sure, and this comparison always seems to come up. Maybe partially out of a morbid curiosity that our culture has for this, and if any of your listeners haven’t seen the movie Farinelli, I would suggest that they see it. It takes some licence historically, but it’s still very interesting in understanding the role of the castrati in society at the time. But the difference in the sound, I mean… in some ways we’ll never really know. There are some men singing today who have had endocrinological issues – they’ve had hormonal issues that caused their larynx to not develop at puberty, and so they can approximate perhaps what the sound was like. But, at the same time, being a successful castrato in the late 17th or early 18th century meant that you went through a very specific, rigorous, athletic training program to turn the voice into a specific instrument which was extremely agile, extremely loud, able to sing very long phrases. So just because a man today might have a very high voice…

BN: The range…

IH: Yeah, exactly, doesn’t necessarily mean that he would be able to execute the music the way a castrat[o] would. But what we think a castrato would sound like is, imagine a boy’s voice – because fundamentally the larynx of a castrato was the larynx of a boy – except with a huge chest cavity, so there was a lot of air that he was able to slowly pass over the [vocal] cords. He could sing very long phrases. The sound, from some accounts, was quite piercing and quite loud, and not necessarily what we would consider pleasant or aesthetically beautiful by our current vocal standards. But, you know, we’ll never really know. Physiologically what a countertenor does… I mean, it really depends on how far down the rabbit hole you want to go with it. You can get very specific and very technical not only about the physiology of the countertenor voice, but also about the normative constructs psychologically that you have to have organized in your mind so that you even try to do it in the first place. I mean, it is discouraged in our current society, to a certain extent, much less so now than recently…

BN: You mean actually singing in the countertenor voice?

IH: Yeah, for a man to make a sound that is (and I’m doing airquotes here) “feminine,” right. And what does that necessarily mean because gender norms have shifted century to century? Basically what a countertenor does is sings on a shorter length of vocal fold. So, any man out there listening to this program, if you have ever gone to a basketball game or a football game and gone, “woo-hoo,” and made that sound, that is you singing on a shorter length of vocal fold. Just like if you play a guitar string and it has a certain pitch, and then you fret it at the twelfth fret – thereby shortening the length of vibrating string by one half, [the pitch] is an octave higher. That’s a really basic conceptual model of what a countertenor does.

BN: Alright, and obviously your speaking voice is in what we would consider an adult male speaking range. And I’m assuming that if you chose to, you could sing in a tenor or baritone range.

IH: Yeah, and I think what’s really important about what you just said is that that is a choice as well. To sing as a tenor or a bass or a baritone is just as much of a choice as is singing as a countertenor. I think we all have human voices and those human voices are capable of a wide range of not only frequency – not only the pitch that you can speak [or sing], but also the expressive choices that you make; the way in which you choose to blend what people call registers. Do you take your chest register up really high so it is super dramatic, or do you let it switch to what people call a head register sooner so that you have a perhaps less exciting sound, but a more smooth transition from one [register] to the other. These are all choices. So yes, I could sing as a baritone. I have sung as a baritone and a tenor.

[music “Oh Lord whose mercies numberless” from Handel’s Saul]

IH: Baroque music, I think, for our common Western cultural sensibilities with respect to music, was the [gateway] that reminded us that the countertenor sound can be aesthetically beautiful, can have a musical function, just [that it] can be acceptable. So, we’ve accomplished that, and that’s great. But countertenors [now] sing repertory that spans well beyond baroque music. You’re not going to get hired to sing much Verdi as a countertenor… that’s just a truism. But countertenors are singing Mozart, countertenors are singing Rossini at this point. Countertenors are singing a lot of modern music, which makes sense, because composers write for the tools that they have available at the time, and the countertenor voice is definitely a tool that people have in their toolbox at this point. But the countertenor voice, while there an historical argument that can be made for using it in baroque music, and I think aesthetically there is a leaner approach to singing that people tend to use when they sing baroque music theses days. It doesn’t necessarily mean that people are trying to sound like they’re boy sopranos; it’s not this straight-tone thing that puts all of your sound through a tiny little hole, But, at the same time, there is an ability to back off the voice or have the occasional straight-tone as a color… That’s something that is really associated with the interpretation of baroque music now, and that ‘s something that a lot of countertenors are able to do relatively easily.

[music “Va tacito” from Cesare by Handel]

IH: We’re finally getting to the point [with respect to public awareness] where saying baroque music is not a specific enough term, because if you are doing music from turn of the 17th century Venice you are going to sing with a very different technique than music from 1742 in London. And this is all baroque music.

BN: Yes it is, and that leads perfectly into my next question about just that. Do you approach the music of, say, John Blow and Henry Purcell differently than you would approach Handel, and obviously, yes [you would].

IH: Yeah, I think to a certain extent you would. People who are interested in historically informed performance practice spend a lot of energy figuring out the context of the music. What size room were they in? Who were they singing to? What social function did this music serve? And it’s interesting because that doesn’t always carry over effortlessly to performances that we do today. For example, doing an opera like Handel’s Rodelinda at the Met, you’re not necessarily going to be able to make the same choices in a space that large that somebody would make at… I’m embarrassed, I don’t remember if it was Covent Garden, or where it was actually premiered. The pieces that we’re doing [here in Milwaukee]… Dido and Aeneas was premiered (I believe that there is some doubt about this) at a girl’s school. The Blow (Venus and Adonis)… this just drips of being performed at a King’s court. So very small spaces…

BN: Intimate…

IH: Yeah, intimate spaces. [In the Blow] the performers are singing about courtly love and the downfall of humans based on their emotions and following their emotions to their bitter end. And, you know, they’re singing about the King who is sitting forty feet away, [and the roles of Venus and Cupid were originally performed by the King’s mistress and her nine year-old daughter respectively.] This performance that we’re doing at the Marcus Center is going to be, actually in contrast to Rodelinda at the Met or another large scale, modern production of baroque music, is going to be in a very intimate space. So I think you’re going to get that sense [of what it was like in the 17th century.] For example, some of our staging has us singing upstage sometimes, but that’s okay because the space is small enough that even singing upstage all the voices will be completely heard. We’re able to sing with straight-tone sometimes, sing quietly sometimes because the space is small and we’re able to be heard. I think in some ways that it will convey a little more of the original intent of the music.

BN: Had you been familiar with this part of the baroque repertoire before, or is this the first time you’ve been launched into this?

IH: This is the first time that I’ve done both of these pieces specifically. I actually have quite an affinity for baroque music of the mid to late 17th century. I love the 18th century stuff, don’t get me wrong, but there is something wonderfully unpolished about it to my ear. It’s just jagged enough harmonically that it really peaks my interest. But that being said, I tend to enjoy music of the mid to late 17th century from Italy and Germany more so than from England. That’s probably just because of the random set of circumstances that brought me to sit in this chair today. You know, all the little choices I’ve made that exposed me to pieces of music. But I’m enjoying, one, being able to sing in English! That’s such a pleasure and rare in this business. [laughs]

BN: Well, and I also think the music of the continent was probably more developed in a lot of ways. Anyone whose had any music history classes… you tend to think about what was going on in Germany, what was going on in the Netherlands, and Italy, of course, what with opera starting in Italy. England was catching up, perhaps.

IH: And I think at the time there were definite national compositional styles [that] were then, to a certain extent, packaged and exported.

BN: Okay…

IH: And I think you’re right, I think the Italians dominated for a long time. It’s not even necessarily that if you’re living in your church parish in England somewhere that you just happened to try to get a copy of a book of madrigals from Italy or whatnot, or the latest book of monody (of single voice song that came out of Italy and evolved into opera.) It’s not even that, it’s that the person who got the job, who would be teaching you music at the school may have been imported from Italy. [Certainly many court musician positions across Europe were held by Italians.] So it does make sense that perhaps it took the English music scene a little bit of time to catch up with Germany or with Italy.

BN: And to develop its own sound.

IH: Sure, sure.

BN: Well Ian Howell, it is such a pleasure to have you here to sing in some English Baroque opera. It has been such a pleasure having you in this chair; I can’t thank you enough.

IH: It’s been great Bonnie, thanks so much.

[over music Al lampo dell’armi from Cesare by Handel]

BN: Countertenor Ian Howell will sing the role of Cupid in John Blow’s opera Venus and Adonis produced by the Florentine Opera. The Florentine’s double bill of English Baroque operas opens at Vogel Hall tonight and runs through May 22nd.  In addition to his artist website, Ian Howell also blogs about the countertenor voice. There’s a link to that blog and to all of the show information at All of the music we’ve heard during this segment is from Ian Howell’s debut CD 1685 and the Art of Ian Howell [with The American Bach Soloists, directed by Jeffrey Thomas.]

Error: Unable to create directory uploads/2021/01. Is its parent directory writable by the server?


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.

  • Robert E. Lee

    Very informative interview from (in my opinion) one of the great combinations of scholar and talented performing countertenors out there today (Mr Ian Howell)!! And an informed interviewer, as well (lots of these interviews have to be “dumbed down” to be more interesting to the public (or the interviewer), but this one is pretty on par!

  • Pingback: Our June 2011 Issue | The Countertenor Voice