Countertenors: New Takes on an Old Tradition

Countertenors: New Takes on an Old Tradition

Written by Anne E. Johnson

“Countertenor” is one of those musical terms that has meant many different things over the centuries. These days, it normally refers to a man who uses falsetto or head voice to cover the pitch range typical of a female contralto or mezzo-soprano. There are some very gifted singers of this type, and happily they’ve been busy making new recordings.

Literally meaning “against the held part” (tenere is Latin for “to hold”), in the Middle Ages the contra-tenor was a voice that sang a separate line at the same time as, say, the notes of a Gregorian chant or the melody of a secular tune. The term had nothing to do with pitch range, and by the Renaissance composers had mostly stopped using it. It came back in vogue in the late 17th century to mean a high male voice (by which point, “tenor” referred to the vocal pitch range we’re familiar with today).

Of course, it’s important to mention castrati in this context. Castrati and countertenors have never been the same thing. A countertenor is a man with a natural baritone voice who sings in falsetto. A castrato was a man who was castrated before his voice changed so that his natural voice remained in the soprano range. This horrific practice was distressingly common in the 16th through early 18th centuries. George Frideric Handel created many of his operatic roles for castrati, and his public loved it. For much of the 20th century, women took such roles, but then countertenors started to come into vogue, thanks to the birth of the early music movement led by singers like Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin. Nowadays, countertenors or “sopranists” (the very rare men who can sustain falsetto in a soprano range) often sing the roles Handel meant for castrati.

A recent exploration of some of those Handel roles can be found on the PentaTone label. Handel’s Unsung Heroes by the ensemble La Nuova Musica, directed by David Bates, features countertenors Iestyn Davies and Alexander Chance, along with soprano Lucy Crowe and mezzo-soprano Christine Rice.

Handel’s opera Rinaldo originally included no fewer than three “alto castrato” parts, which are now sung by women or countertenors. On this recording, Davies sings the title character’s aria “Or la tromba.” The text begins, “Now the trumpet calls me again to triumph,” and Handel has appropriately written it as a “motto” aria, or one that makes the voice mimic the sound of a musical instrument – in this case, the trumpet. Davies is rare for the purity of his falsetto, and his mastery of baroque style and expression is matchless.


Crowe’s contributions to this CD are also exceptional, particularly her moving rendition of Cleopatra’s aria “V’adoro, pupille” from Giulio Cesare in Egitto.

Handel famously worked with superstar castrato Farinelli on many occasions, but he was only one of many such singers who had hugely successful careers. If you’re interested in the height of the castrato era, you should check out The Trials of Tenducci: A Castrato in Ireland on the LINN label. Mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught “plays” Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci, a very popular singer in the mid-18th century who often performed in Dublin. In this collection of arias by Johann Christian Bach, Thomas Arne, and others, the Irish Baroque Orchestra is conducted by Peter Whelan.



But let’s get back to countertenors. Many such vocalists concertize and make albums of songs with lute accompaniment, in the great tradition of late-Renaissance and baroque “lute song.” (I wrote a Copper column on that genre in Issue 35.) There are a couple of recent examples.

Daniel Gloger has self-released Thou Single Wilt Prove None…: Music for Countertenor and Lute, accompanied by Hans-Jürgen Gerung on lute and oud (a Middle Eastern lute). It’s an interesting and unusual program, with pieces that span 400 years and utilize the high male voice in a wide variety of ways. The sound production is poor, and Gloger is not a world-class singer. Nevertheless, the recording is intriguing enough to reward the listener.

Living Japanese composer Mai Fukasaka describes her style as based on prayer sounds. Her “Thou Single Wilt Prove None” (setting text from a Shakespeare sonnet) requires the singer to use both his falsetto and his natural, or “modal,” voice. Gloger suffers from the common countertenor problem of not having as much control over his baritone range as his falsetto, but he gets high marks for courage.


He also includes some more standard fare, such as John Dowland’s “Come Again, Sweet Love” but bafflingly chooses to sing it in baritone range, a full octave below his countertenor tessitura.

A more skilled and experienced countertenor has also completed a new album of songs: Philippe Jaroussky’s À sa guitare, on Erato, is a collaboration with guitarist Thibaut García. The track list is heavily Spanish, as the album title implies, but also includes a range of British songs, from John Dowland to Benjamin Britten, plus some Italian and French pieces.

In the last category is Gabriel Fauré’s “Au bord de l’eau,” which sets a poem by Sully Prudhomme to music. This is from the Three Songs, Op. 8, originally for soprano with piano accompaniment. Jaroussky’s voice is characterized by its lightness and agility, not always true of countertenors, and García matches him with effortless grace.


García gets several chances to shine as a specialist in Spanish and Latin American guitar, with selections by Enrique Granados, Luiz Bonfá, Dilermando Reis, and Gerardo Matos Rodriguez.

As it turns out, however, Jaroussky does not share his colleague’s comfort with Latin rhythms and melodies. While his tone is intensely emotional, the singer does not seem at ease with the music’s syncopations; he is too careful and exact, as you can hear in the Ariel Ramírez song “Alfonsina y el mar.”


Being a countertenor seems to require a willingness to experiment in order to increase available repertoire (this is not a new situation, as those of you familiar with new wave pop singers/countertenors Klaus Nomi and Jimmy Somerville will know). French countertenor Théophile Alexandre teamed up with a string quartet called Quatuor Zaïde for just this purpose. Their album, No(s) Dames, on NoMadMusic, contains voice-and-strings arrangements of operatic diva arias. All the arrangements are by Eric Mouret, who deserves much praise for making the new context seem natural to the music.

This project has an extra-musical purpose. As the CD booklet says, “No(s) Dames (Our/No Ladies) were created to honour four centuries of masculine operas, in order to celebrate their beauty while deconstructing their gender roles.” Even the source material that originally included castrato or countertenor roles is turned on its head: “Che fiero momento” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, was written for the female role of Euridice, not for male Orfeo.

Alexandre’s most striking arrangement and performance is “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (better known as the Habanera) from Bizet’s Carmen. If you were skeptical that any gender should be allowed to sing any vocal music, this may convince you. The women of Quatuor Zaïde contribute their percussive, miniaturized orchestral part with plenty of Seville flair.


Header image: Théophile Alexandre. From; photo courtesy of Julien Benhamou.

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