The New Age of the Countertenors

David Daniels and the young superstars of opera.

The curtain rises on a glamorous and expensive new opera production in New York, London, Vienna, Paris, or Milan—it hardly matters where—and the colorful setting tells us that we're about to experience an evening of exotic medieval fantasy. A macho bearded warrior prepares to set off on a dangerous adventure as he mounts his horse, lifts his sword, and launches into a spectacular aria complete with coloratura fireworks and show-stopping high notes. The audience loves it.

But wait. Isn't that voice a bit unusual? Our hero hardly sounds like one of the three tenors. He doesn't even sound like a heroic baritone. This high-pitched, nearly falsetto voice belongs to a countertenor, a type of singer known only to connoisseurs until just a few years ago.

The countertenor has become a hot operatic commodity thanks to the sudden and unexpected global vogue for Baroque opera, the genre in which this vocal virtuoso once flourished. As recently as a decade ago, music lovers confidently believed that the rigid formalities of Baroque opera—its ultra-stylized characters and plots, slow-motion action, and predictable happy endings—could never appeal to contemporary tastes, accustomed as they were to the elegant humanism of Mozart, the red-blooded drama of Verdi, the heroic mythologies of Wagner, or the erotic tragedies of Puccini. Yes, Monteverdi, Handel, and many other great composers turned out stage works by the dozens between 1600 and 1750, and they were wildly successful in their day. But their operas—all operas written before Mozart, even—were surely dead and buried for good.

Well, as is so often the case, conventional wisdom has been proven wrong again. Over the past few years Baroque opera has made a spectacular comeback—opera companies can't seem to produce enough of them. Yet viewed with hindsight, perhaps it had to happen. Instrumental compositions from this era—the concertos of Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel—have long been popular with concert audiences, and it may have simply taken longer for the traditionally slower-moving world of opera to catch up. It could also be that those stylized formalities of Baroque opera no longer seem stiff and awkward but offer the operagoing public in our disorderly age a reassuring emotional anchor. Then, too, Baroque operas, Handel's in particular, are full of gorgeous music, as one sublime melody follows another to express an amazing range of feelings.

A generation ago there were very few singers trained to deal with such vocally challenging music, but today, in response to the Baroque surge, we have a wealth of voices equipped to excel in both the style and aesthetics of the Baroque repertory. Indeed, in an era when satisfactory singers for Verdi's Aïda are perilously scarce, any opera by Handel could be cast at a world-class level five times over. And when these operas are performed, the singer that audiences respond to most enthusiastically is the countertenor. Occupying the highest male register, closer in sound quality to a soprano than a regular tenor, this flexible voice is uniquely suited to deal with the florid demands that Baroque composers made of the heroic warriors, evil villains, and sorely beset princes who figure so prominently in their operas.

As a country fabled for its can-do approach and ability to produce singers who eagerly seize the moment, America has recently become one of the world's richest sources for countertenors. Among them is David Daniels, whose career in opera and concert now takes him all over the globe. Like most of today's countertenors, Daniels did not start out studying to be one. "I grew up in the South," he recalls, "and my big ambition in high school was to be South Carolina's next great operatic tenor. Obviously that never happened." At first Daniels attempted to train his voice in the tenor register—an unusual circumstance in itself, he points out, since most male singers with a strong falsetto tend to be baritones or basses. He ran into technical difficulties right from the beginning, cracking on notes above F and flipping over inadvertently into a falsetto. After struggling with the problem for a while, he began to think that he was, in fact, a born countertenor, and he considered making the change. After preparing a few arias in his new voice, he sang them for his teacher, tenor George Shirley, who was bowled over by what he heard. "Why would you ever want to sing in any other way?" Shirley asked him. And those were precisely the liberating words that Daniels needed to hear—they gave him permission to sing with his natural voice.

Any contemporary singer such as Daniels would need a fabulous technique to perform Baroque opera adequately, since most of these roles were originally written for a phenomenon called the castrato. That category of long-vanished operatic superstars was created by the practice of selecting young boys with unusually beautiful treble voices, castrating them before puberty, and training them to become adult singers. Very few successfully made the transition or found fame, but the temptation to take the risk, particularly among poor Italian families, was great. The most celebrated castrati became famous all over Europe, the pampered pets of kings and courtiers, singers of spectacular virtuosity whose voices combined the range and flexibility of a woman with the trumpeting power and tonal amplitude of a man.

When the barbaric operation that made castrati possible was finally outlawed in the early 19th century, the music written for them largely disappeared. Until recently, if an opera company wanted to revive one of these works, there were just two options: either to cast a woman dressed in male costume or to transpose the music down an octave so that it could be sung by a baritone or tenor. Visually unconvincing on the one hand and musically disfiguring on the other, neither solution proved ideal. Nowadays, countertenors like Daniels, Andreas Scholl, Bejun Mehta, Brian Asawa, David Walker, Daniel Taylor, and numerous other enormously gifted singers make such compromises unnecessary. Countertenors match the right sound with the proper gender, and audiences, now that they have adjusted to the special vocal qualities of these singers, are eager to hear them. Today the countertenor figures as prominently in a major opera company as any star soprano, tenor, or bass.

Countertenors have actually been with us for a very long time, at least since the 13th century, when the term was used in medieval manuscripts to designate the vocal part written just above the tenor line. The singers of these countertenor parts were invariably males who employed the highest register of their voices using a head-tone technique most listeners will recognize as falsetto. Since women were not allowed to sing in cathedral choirs, composers of sacred music mixed the sound of mature, high adult male voices with the more delicate tonal qualities of boy sopranos who sang the treble parts, thereby giving their choral music extra weight, color, and textural variety. It was in this sacred context that countertenors made their home for centuries, even emerging as soloists on special occasions. After opera developed into a viable musical form around 1600, they probably would have been used more prominently had not the greater theatrical virtuosity of the castrati caught the public's imagination. Even then, Handel and a few other composers wrote important parts expressly for countertenors when they were not able to secure the castrato of their choice for a specific role. Mainly, though, countertenors survived in church music or in small early-music ensembles.

There the situation remained until the middle of the last century and the arrival of Alfred Deller (1912-1979), an English countertenor and the first of his breed to establish an extensive reputation through touring and recordings. Deller was primarily a recitalist who performed with his own consort of voices and instruments, focusing on Elizabethan songs and English folksongs, which he sang with an unusually beautiful and rich voice. Although he was more comfortable as a singer than an actor, Deller did occasionally appear in opera, setting new vocal standards in Handel and introducing audiences to the sound of a countertenor in an operatic context. His most famous stage role, however, was written especially for him in 1960: Oberon in Benjamin Britten's setting of A Midsummer Night's Dream, an opera that is now established in the repertory. His successors owe Deller a debt of gratitude for inspiring this great role, surely the most important music written for a countertenor in more than two centuries.

Deller's American counterpart was Russell Oberlin. This vocal pioneer (born in 1928), for years the country's sole countertenor of any note, was a founding member in 1952 of Noah Greenberg's famous ensemble New York Pro Musica and a leading exponent of early music at a time when Americans considered anything composed before Bach arcane and unapproachable. The British also appreciated Oberlin's sweet tone, musical sophistication, and communicative appeal—he was, in fact, the second interpreter of Britten's Oberon, which he sang at London's Covent Garden one year after the opera had premiered with Deller at the Aldeburgh Festival.

The present flourishing generation of American countertenors regards Oberlin as a godfather of sorts, although today's practitioners enjoy international careers unimaginable even a decade ago. As Daniels once noted, "I was scared to death because at the time, 1992, I didn't even know if there was a chance of a career with that voice type." Still, he forged ahead, thankful that he had found his true vocal placement. With it came complete technical security, a discovery that, he says, took "such a weight off my shoulders; I could concentrate on all the musical things I felt, the expressive instincts." Even Daniels was surprised by the speed of his success. He now feels it was a classic instance of the right man in the right place at the right time. Only 28 when his breakthrough came, Daniels made his official stage debut in 1994 at the Glimmerglass Opera Festival in Cooperstown, New York, as the flamboyantly amoral Emperor Nero in Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea. The production and its hero got rave reviews, traveled in triumph a few seasons later to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Daniels was on his way.

Since his success as Nero, Daniels has sung at the New York City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, England's Glyndebourne Festival, Munich, Paris, London, and virtually every other important city where opera is performed. The music world had clearly accepted a countertenor as a major player, a fact that was certified in 1997, when Daniels became the first countertenor to win the Richard Tucker Music Foundation's prestigious top award. His amazingly secure voice easily sails through the most florid Baroque arias with show-stopping bravura. Not only that, he has dramatic presence and flair as an actor. This past June in London, Daniels sang Orfeo in Gluck's classic opera for the first time, and critics were ecstatic. "Something approaching paradise," wrote Rodney Milnes in The Times of London. "[Daniels] makes the act of singing with pellucid, near-soprano tone and a succulent vibrato seem the most natural thing in the world."

Such a paean of praise from a British music critic is all the more extraordinary since England is perhaps the one country in the world where the countertenor has been an active vocal presence for centuries, and where standards are especially high. After Deller's death, British singers like James Bowman and Paul Esswood dominated the international scene as the Baroque revival gathered momentum, and only recently have they been joined by younger American colleagues such as Daniels, Brian Asawa, Drew Minter, Jeffrey Gall, and Derek Lee Ragin. Germany has also produced several eminent practitioners: Ralph Popken, Jochen Kowalski, and, perhaps the most distinguished of all, young Andreas Scholl. When Scholl debuted four years ago, he immediately impressed critics with his voice, musicianship, and expressive range. So far, he has only dipped a toe into opera, wanting first to get his voice under absolute control, but even on the concert stage this imposing six-foot-three-inch singer looks like the hero Baroque opera has been waiting for.

Now that audiences and critics no longer find their sound strange or off-putting, countertenors are eager to extend their options and explore a repertory beyond the Baroque and classical eras. A typical David Daniels recital includes music by Handel and Purcell, but he also sings material no countertenor would've touched a generation ago—romantic songs by Schubert, Gounod, Fauré, Poulenc, and Vaughan Williams, as well as music by contemporary composers. Like all intelligent and adventurous singers, he wants to investigate any kind of music that he feels suits his voice and expressive goals. Perhaps Daniels' biggest stretch to date will take place in March when he appears with the New York Philharmonic to sing Berlioz's ravishing cycle Les Nuits d'Eté, a group of songs most commonly sung either by a soprano or tenor.

It's impossible to say how far the countertenor's search for new repertory will take him. Brian Asawa has already appropriated the bearded lady of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress—Baba the Turk, a role originally written for mezzo-soprano—and made it one of his specialties. Others are casting a covetous eye on Mozart's Cherubino and Strauss's Octavian, two of opera's most famous teenagers, customarily sung by women dressed as boys. No doubt more concert music of every kind will be considered fair game as these singers continue to flourish and gain favor with audiences. Whatever the future holds, the countertenor's golden age has definitely arrived.


Recommended Recordings

DAVID DANIELS A tour de force for Daniels in the title role, Decca's recent complete recording of Handel's Rinaldo (289 467 087-2) also features an all-star cast that includes two other important countertenors, Daniel Taylor and Bejun Mehta—an ideal opportunity to compare three very different voices and musical approaches on one recording. Among Daniels' solo recitals, a fine introduction is Sento Amor (Virgin Classics 5 45365-2), a collection of classic arias by Mozart, Gluck, and Handel all originally written for castratos. To hear how the countertenor voice can be easily adapted to a more conventional song repertory, Serenade (Virgin Classics 5 45400-2B) is a must: Its program mixes music by Beethoven, Schubert, Gounod, and Poulenc with songs by composers from earlier eras.

ANDREAS SCHOLL Scholl takes the title role in a new recording of Handel's great oratorio Solomon (Archiv 459 688-2), a part first sung by a female alto and most often in modern times by a tenor. Neither voice has ever seemed quite right; no doubt if Handel had known a countertenor of Scholl's quality and musicianship, he would have used him. The full range of Scholl's remarkable vocalism is on display in Heroes (Decca 466 196-2), virtuoso arias by Handel, Hasse, Gluck, and Mozart that fully test a singer's technique and expressive abilities. For a more low-key example of Scholl's vocal art, there is A Musicall Banquet (Decca 466 917-2), a cross-section of Renaissance European songs, including masterpieces of the genre by John Dowland and Giulio Caccini.

BRIAN ASAWA This versatile singer has looked further afield for new challenges than most of his colleagues, and his recordings reflect his eclectic tastes. A collection of English lute songs titled The Dark Is My Delight (RCA 68818-2) shows Asawa second to none in his sensitive treatment of classic countertenor material. Vocalise (RCA 68903-2) shows off the sheer beauty of his voice, with lush romantic songs by Fauré, Rachmaninoff, Medtner, and Villa-Lobos tastefully arranged for countertenor and orchestra. With composer Ned Rorem's blessings, Asawa has also recorded two of his atmospheric song cycles, More Than a Day and From an Unknown Past (RCA 63512-2).

ALFRED DELLER Although Deller was a prolific recording artist, reissues on compact discs are not always easy to find. Several are still available on Vanguard Classics, mostly devoted to the Elizabethan lute songs and British folksongs that he sang so incomparably, and they are well worth searching out. Not to be missed, and still generally available, is the classic "original cast" recording of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, recorded in 1966 and conducted by the composer (Decca 425 663-2).