What Is A Countertenor?

Last year the Metropolitan Opera staged Philip Glass’s ‘Akhnaten’ starring Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. Following the premiere much media attention was directed towards the countertenor in the leading role. Glass’s hypnotic, repetitive music is a big sing for any countertenor. Costanzo not only negotiated the vocal challenges of the exposed minimalist sound world, but also succeeded in developing a complex character amidst a restlessly demanding production. Costanzo is but one example of a singing actor among the current generation of countertenors who enjoy success and celebrity in the classical world.

When ‘Akhnaten’ was written in the early 1980’s the countertenor voice was beginning to gain momentum in the operatic world. Across the pond, the proliferating Early Music Movement and composers such as Benjamin Britten had already begun exploiting the sound palate of this extraordinary voice. The countertenor has to its name a large body of literature written at the turn of the 21st century which adds to the polyphonic material of the renaissance, the cantatas, passions and operas of the 18th century. The vocal otherworldliness that caught the attention of Philip Glass continues to inspire composers around the globe.

To trace the origins of this voice we know and admire today, we must begin our tale in Canterbury – an afternoon in 1944 when Michael Tippett heard for the very first time an alto lay-clerk sing Purcell’s ‘Music for a While’. Employed then at the cathedral was Alfred Deller whose rendition of the air from Oedipus so moved Tippet that he later recollected in a piece he wrote for a premier music journal, ‘In those moments the centuries rolled back. For I recognised absolutely that this was the voice for which Purcell had Written.’ While Tippett was not a musicologist and his dubbing Deller as a Countertenor has no bearing on the historical meaning of the word, Alfred Deller’s voice with its inviolable purity was something of a phenomenon in post-war England. It was the first time the counter-tenor voice was heard outside of the choral texture.

What, then, is a countertenor voice? Very simply put, countertenors are singers that usually cover the vocal range of a female alto or mezzo soprano. The whooping of an excited crowd at a sports event when a team scores a goal is the vocal production that modern ‘falsettist’ countertenors use to sing. That is to say, it is caused by a partial adduction (coming together) of the vocal folds allowing only a small portion of the vocal fold excursion and contact on vibration, resulting in a sound often described as feminine, womanly, or unearthly. It is granted that some individuals are more genetically predisposed to sing countertenor over others but, its vocal functioning is in no way unearthly, unnatural or special. It needs to be noted, however, that it takes great courage to embark on a career as a countertenor.

Today, this voice is associated with the Early Music Movement. Appearing in the music of the early European composers, ‘countertenor’ referred to the vocal part in the polyphonic music of the period. The tradition of high male singing voices in the classical singing context dates back to the renaissance, and some scholars posit, even earlier. However, a dearth of empirical evidence, disparity in the vocal ranges to assigned vocal parts, literature on singing riddled with semantic and linguistic ambiguities compounded by the untidy use of several terms and the contexts in which they were used, relay little to no information on the countertenor voice, at least in the sense of the word as we know today.

A quick study of the alto part of the renaissance polyphonic material and even Purcell’s choral works for instance reveals several low notes which does not fall within the range of the modern countertenor. Indeed, several sources point towards the preference for male sopranos (male singers who covered the vocal range of a soprano) over young boys in taking the upper part of the early church’s polyphonic literature. An interesting letter from Scipione Gonzaga to the Duke of Mantua describes a leading virtuoso falsettist of the time who usually sang soprano but preferred singing in his contralto voice (the alto part) when he sang in the Papal Chapel with the castrati so as to not mix his falsetto with their natural voices. Gonzaga then clarifies that the virtuoso’s contralto was sung in full voice (voce piena) or the chest voice as we call it today. To a modern audience for whom a contralto is Azucena in Verdi’s Il Torvatore, and Olga from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, the notion of a full-bodied male contralto is absurd. A similar description can be seen when 18th century writer Charles Burney describes the ‘masculine contralto’ of Vittoria Tesi who generally sang airs written for the ‘base voice’ but this time the singer is clearly a woman. A deep study of the sources reveals the great distance between the ‘alto’ vocal part and falsettist countertenor singing associated with it, as is the case today.

However, what the sources do say about high male singers from several early treatises on singing is that the preferred male vocal aesthetic was a gradual reduction in volume and a graceful transition into falsetto when ascending in pitch. The virile tenor voice that we enjoy today was surprisingly not a performance practice until 1831, as popular legend has it, when the French tenor, Gilbert-Louis Duprez sang the thrilling top C’s in his chest voice (speaking voice) in Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell. The preference for a restrained vocal aesthetic over the modern tenore di forza is possibly a result of the small and intimate performance spaces in which the singers were employed. The earlier singers were not competing with the brute force of large ensembles that we see in concert halls today. The rapid increase in the size of the ensembles and chorus, as observed for instance when Haydn heard Händel’s Music in London only 30 years after the passing of the celebrated composer is, in a word, astonishing. The bigger performance spaces and orchestra warranted bigger voices. While Rossini, along with many critics of the time, lamented the demise of the older model of singing, what the audience favoured ultimately prevailed.

While the word countertenor is historic, this voice singing predominantly in ‘falsetto’ is not. No vocal work in the past was composed with the modern countertenor in mind until Benjamin Britten wrote ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ with Alfred Deller in the leading role. This is the first piece to have ever been written for the modern falsettist countertenor. Even as Deller sang Oberon at the Aldeburgh festival, we observe in America, Russell Oberlin demonstrate, in an interview the difference between his falsetto and high tenor “natural” voice with which he sang while maintaining that his was the real countertenor voice. It is noteworthy that there existed a multiplicity of views on the countertenor voice as recently as the middle of the last century.

Whatever the past may have been, the countertenor voice is here to stay. Challenging the culturally accepted male voice, the modern countertenor is continuing to expand its musical horizons. Today, countertenors are consummate artists with a strong presence in the world of contemporary musical performance. Each singer is different with their unique vocal quality and artistry as we will see in the videos referenced below.

Alfred Deller Sings Shall I come sweet love to thee, Thomas Campion

Note: This recording of Alfred Deller moves me every time I listen to it. The diminution on ‘Shall I not excluded be’ towards the end of the song is executed so delicately and with much affect, pregnant with sentimental feelings. The articulation of the virtuosic passage might not be as clean as one might expect but, it is the execution of that phrase in the Deller style that makes me sympathise with Tippett.

Philippe Jaroussky singing Nell’attendere il mio bene, Nicolo Porpora

Note: Countertenors have usurped the castrati roles and rightfully so. Here, the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky executes the fiendishly difficult vocal literature written for the great castrato, Farinelli. The first section in this Da Capo Aria is sung with vigour and animation which is in great contrast with the beautiful second section inundated with subtle graces only to return to the virtuosic first movement ending with the legendary, ‘anything you can play I can sing higher’ cadenza duelling between the voice and the trumpet. The trumpet however wins in this case. While Phillipe Jaroussky’s voice may not reach the stratospheric heights of Farinelli in the cadenza, the virtuosity with which the piece is sung is impressive and worthy of high praise.

Franco Fagioli sings Va Sol Cando, Leornado Vinci

Note:  What you immediately notice when Fagioli sings is the colour of his voice. His isn’t your run-of-the-mill hooty countertenor. The florid passage is sung with military precision and the baroque gestures make for an interesting performance.  The c’’’ sharp in alt in the cadenza is thrilling and exciting to listen as evidenced by the cheers at the end of the performance.

Bruno de Sá sings Se Romeo t’uccise un figlio… La tremenda ultrice spada, Bellini

Note: The cavatina and cabaletta are performed with conviction and style by this young Brazilian singer. Several traditional notions surrounding this voice are broken here. Bruno sings with a full orchestral accompaniment and the projection of his voice is remarkable. The vocal range covered is extensive ending with a D’’’ in alt.

Many recordings of James Bowman, Michael Chance, Andreas Scholl and other countertenors of the past and present are available for public consumption on the internet. I also recommend listening to recordings of Russell Oberlin who sang as a high tenor but called himself a countertenor which in the historical sense of the word might just be true. Additionally, historical recordings of castrato Alessandro Moreschi and his pupil Domenico Mancini gives us fascinating insights into the traditional restrained model of singing as propounded by various early treatises on singing.

Andrew Parrott, Falsetto Beliefs: the ‘countertenor’ cross examined, Early Music, Vol XLIII, No. 1, Oxford University Press, 2015

Andrew Parrott, Performing Purcell, The Purcell Companion, Michael Burden, Faber, 1995

Ian Howell, The Countertenor Voice, 2011

Simon Raven, The Super Natural Voice: A History of High Male Singing, Woodbridge: Boydell, 2014

Sir Michael Tippett, Alfred Deller, Early Music, Volume 8, Issue 1, January 1980, Pages 43–46, 1980

Tim Braithwaite: An Overview of the History of the Countertenor voice and Falsetto Singing, Cacophony!, 2020