I stumbled upon this interesting interview of countertenor Stephen Wallace given on Irish National Radio. Excerpts of his singing, as well as some astute observations on the history of the countertenor voice and technique follow.
Since my previous articles in this series on countertenor relevant singing technique have been rather general in nature, I wanted to write this month about a specific exercise. Building on the information introduced in April’s article Countertenor Technique: An Introduction to Concepts, the exercise I outline here, called the flex, is one that reveals hidden mental prejudices that work against countertenors, builds stability and an authentic sound into the lower range of the countertenor voice, and eventually helps to bridge the transition (a shortening of the vibrating portion of the folds even as the folds remain stretched) that should take place between Bb4 and B4. My hope is that the inclusion of audio examples in this article will help to explain any questions that arise, and spark an conversation about what the countertenor voice is capable of and how it might be trained.
If I could marry a song, it would probably be one by Henry Purcell. There are so many favorites from which to choose, and they are all so appealing – at times unabashedly erotic, at other times ravishing in their melancholy, short and perky, intellectual, or flashy with substance. I want to relish every one of them. I am also a huge fan of Andreas Scholl. He is the rarely seen Complete Singer. He always delivers beautiful tone, prepares the music like a scholar, and demonstrates a sense of show business in his stage performances and recordings.
The late 2010 release O Solitude – Songs and Arias by Henry Purcell was poised to be my new international object of love: The greatest English composer of his time (not adverse to employing Italian operatic style and French dance rhythms), performed by today’s leading German countertenor and a sexy Italian band.
If you were anything like me during your undergraduate years, you probably spent the Summer working extra hours at a dead-end job, took an occasional vacation or day trip to the beach, and found yourself two steps behind vocally when you returned to school in the Fall. It should come as no surprise to most readers that there comes a point at which we must consider singing to be our job, regardless of whether it actually provides the majority of our income. For many young artists, Summer is the time when we most feel like working singers.
Bejun Mehta, previously featured in our “Watch this Now!” column, here delivers a crisp, joyful, and remarkably easy sounding performance of Sento la gioia from Handel’s Amadigi di Gaula. And some props go to the staff at Harmonia Mundi for editing together this fascinating collage of live and studio video footage.
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent…” ~ Calvin Coolidge
I have been through six years of music school (and about eighteen years off and on of private study), and I find it curious that the one thing that is rarely systematically addressed is how to practice. Especially when the quality of one’s practice habits, not necessarily how well one currently performs, is one of the best indicators of one’s long-term professional viability. So, here follows my thoughts on how to practice being good at practicing:
#1: You become what you practice…
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.
Quite recently I made the decision to remain in academia for a few more years – in pursuit of my Doctor of Musical Arts (D.M.A., the terminal performance degree). Although some singers agonize over this decision, it came quite easily for me – albeit after about a year of shoving it to the back of my brain! I thought this would be a good topic for this month’s issue. Many singers are afraid that working on a D.M.A. means losing three years of networking and ladder climbing as a performer, while not doing one means being shut out of most University teaching jobs. Although this may be true for some, I do not believe it to be the case for myself – let me tell you why.
This is a fascinating interview with Alfred Deller from French television in 1975. I have issues with some of his technical language (the use of the phrase ‘nasal resonance’ makes me shudder), but this is a great piece of our shared countertenor history!
Thank you for joining our us for our sixth issue! Many of you out there are coming to the end of your academic year. If you have written pieces that you think would be appropriate for this publication (or if you suddenly have time on your hands!) be in touch through the contact page. We would love to bring your writing to our large audience.
For next month we are working on an article about the seismic economic/structural shift taking place in the classical music business, and another piece covering the use of social media in a classical musician’s career. We’ll also bring you more reviews, videos, and blog posts.
We hope you enjoy this month’s articles and youtube videos. As always, please spread the word!
During my trip to England this past April, I had the privilege of sitting down with Sarah Bardwell, director of the Handel House Museum in London. We chatted a bit about Handel the man and Handel the musician, and the joys and challenges of bringing his legacy to a new generation.
Read the entire interview to learn a great deal about this wonderful museum and the man whose legacy it seeks to preserve.
If you don’t know about L’Arpeggiata, it is time for you to catch up. Austrian Christina Pluhar – continuo mistress extraordinaire – with her signature flowing ironed-straight red hair and child-like short bangs framing her porcelain face is the portrait of chic, euro-femininity. A huge fan of her work, I waited in suspense to hear her take on the 1610 Vespers, even though I had spent the better part of 2010 (the work’s 400th anniversary year) listening to it on record and from the pews of chapels large and small.
He was despised, the often ten minute plus scena from Handel’s Messiah, is a particularly challenging aria for countertenors to deliver well. The tessitura (it was originally written for Ms. Cibber, a singer reported to have had a very broadway-esque limited range) sits low, and the text asks for a dramatic declamation and cutting tone. Listen to the way that American countertenor Bejun Mehta is able to sing on an efficiently produced partial length of vocal fold (his head voice) all the way down to A3 (the aria is in the dark key of Eb, but here is performed down a half-step at A4=415). This is a great illustration of my description of a countertenor’s lower alto range from my previous post on countertenor technique.
Longe mala by Antonio Vivaldi, sung by Australian countertenor David Hansen. While there are some minor balance issues in this recording (I blame the microphone placement, not the performers!), I love the way that Mr. Hansen OWNS the opening cadenza. Listen carefully to the way that he keeps his voice engaged while backing off on air pressure as the line ascends. This optimal approach allows the vibrating portion of his vocal folds to shorten between E5 and F#5, allowing for a beautiful and easy sounding A5! This is a great illustration of the description of how countertenors can navigate their upper range from my previous post on countertenor technique.
Is countertenor technique different from standard classical vocal technique? Should a countertenor train like a male or female voice, and what pedagogical approach and conceptual model best elicits a healthy countertenor sound? Is a countertenor merely the intersection of gender and tessitura, or is there something specific to the technical approach and musical context that limits the definition?
Much of the language of our vocal pedagogy comes from the time before invasive scientific tools. It was as recently as 1854 that Manuel Garcia first viewed the vocal folds (his own, actually) in action with the use of a dentist’s mirror. By that point, words like chest, head, mixed voice, and falsetto (terms generally based on the location of the sensation of sympathetic vibrations) were so ingrained in the minds of 19th century voice teachers that the new information revealed by this direct scientific observation was made to conform to that basic conceptual system. However, success as a countertenor is no more or less physiologically likely than for any other voice-type, provided we have conceptual models that encourage singers to believe that it is possible…