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Steve Bryant’s Concert Program Notes
Questions and Answers from a Countertenor

Male Alto Singing — History and Technique

Having performed extensively as a countertenor, often for people who have never before heard one, I am accustomed to answering questions about exactly what I am doing. Kids ask if I am a man or a woman, Adults have slightly more sophisticated questions.

The readers of this newsletter, I trust, have more serious questions and, I imagine, very few good sources for answering them. In the following paragraphs I hope to provide concise answers for some of the questions I am most commonly asked.

What is a Countertenor?

A countertenor is an adult male singer using the highest part of his voice, normally referred to as “the falsetto.” Many, though not all, countertenors also use the chest, or speaking, register of their voices. Sometimes exceptionally high-voiced tenors are considered countertenors. The 18th-century music historian Charles Burney even refers to low-voiced Venetian nuns as countertenors. By far the most common, however, is the male singer who relies primarily on the falsetto voice.

What is the Falsetto?

The falsetto is the voice one hears when the adult male voice “breaks.”

The falsetto is distinguished from yet a higher part of the male voice: a white, small, vibrato-less sound similar to the coloratura soprano’s highest “whistle register.”

Is the Countertenor a Natural Voice?

Any sound humans produce may be said to be natural. The real question for the singer is whether this manner of singing is one that can be sustained throughout a concert — or a career. Both historical and modern evidence shows that countertenors are as capable as other singers of doing so.

The Beach Boys Use Falsetto,
Does That Make Them Countertenors?

Yes, in a manner of speaking. The Beach Boys and many other popular music singers use very much the same technique as singers we normally call countertenors. They are simply singing different material. Similarly, a widely varied use of the falsetto can be witnessed in most cultures (and in most species of animals as well).

Even in 18th-century Europe the variation was notable. For soloists, the French preferred the approach of the haute-contre, a tenor voice with a falsetto extension. But, generally speaking, they used only falsetto-singing male altos in choral ensembles.

How Did the Western Europe Countertenor Style Come About?

It is now widely understood that early western musical life routinely excluded women from active participation outside of a convent. Consequently, once music expanded its range beyond that of men’s chest voices (as early as organum in the 12th century), men’s falsetto and, later, boys’ voices were employed to fill the new vocal requirements. The men, because of greater experience, were often preferred for the exposed and difficult singing roles.

During the later part of the 16th century, Spanish singers, said to be falsettists rather than castrati, began to sing higher soprano parts, often supplanting the need for boys altogether. Then, during the early 17th century, castrati began to take their places and, within a short while, dominated the upper lines of music. Not long afterwards, they began to replace the alto falsettists as well.

In some places, notably England, falsettists continued to sing, especially in churches. As sexism began to subside, women were increasingly employed as sopranos and, later, as altos. Castrati fell out of favor during the 19th century, and falsettists became almost as uncommon.

If Women Can Sing the Upper Parts,
Doesn’t that Make Countertenors Obsolete?

No. It is a just and good thing that women are doing all manner of things that were formerly reserved for men.

They should be allowed, even encouraged, to do anything they find possible. This includes singing any piece that is comfortably within their range. The same standard must also be applied to men.

Aside from justice, male and female altos often have very different sounds. How much this difference is attributable to sex-role conditioning is unclear. However, male altos are singing in the highest part of their voices, whereas women sing in the lowest part of theirs. Consequently, male altos typically have smaller voices, of somewhat greater clarity.

Thus, when women altos sing music conceived for male voices, they may want to lighten their voices. The singer Andrea von Ramm has had tremendous success with early repertoire, and her voice is commonly mistaken for a countertenor’s.

When men choose to sing later repertoire — and they are more frequently doing so — they tend to open up their voices, adding warmth and, often, vibrato. Paul Esswood, for instance, has recorded an album of 19th-century lieder. Other countertenors are now being heard in repertoire of the late 18th century, often singing roles the castrati sang.

What Exactly is a Castrato?

These were men, primarily of Italian birth, who were castrated, usually between the ages of six and eight, so that they would retain unbroken treble voices into adulthood. By the middle of the 17th century they had been firmly established in churches and on opera stages throughout Europe.

They were supplied with a full-scale musical education and became, with little doubt, among the best singers in recorded Western history.

Who Can Best Take Their Places Now?

Naturally, the singer best suited to a role’s vocal and — in the case of opera — dramatic requirements. Sometimes women are the only possible choice. Occasionally, boys can also sing soprano castrati roles. The roles of alto castrati can usually be sung by female altos, but they can just as often be sung by countertenors. When Handel replaced alto castrati in his operas and oratorios, he used both countertenors and female altos.

Until the late 18th century, gender was not even considered a critical element in the assignment of opera roles. The castrati commonly played both the leading male and female characters. Women were sometimes assigned heroic male roles — as they are even today.

With these precedents, the present-day director of 17th- and 18th-century opera and oratorio should not shrink from casting countertenors, even in female roles.

What Accounts for the Highly Varied Results
Achieved by Modern Countertenors?

The countertenor, unlike other voice types, has not come down to us in a continuous tradition, except, that is, for the choral heritage of the English cathedral altos, from which Alfred Deller emerged to reestablish a solo tradition. Therefore, the technique of singing has had to be more or less reconstructed by individuals who were often isolated from one another.

Singers took radically different approaches. The dual nature of the vocal mechanism (the chest and falsetto registers) also worked to encourage diversity. Alfred Deller, for instance, insisted that only the falsetto register should be used, and then only in a central range. He achieved a breadth of sound in the lower ranges of the falsetto and in the higher range he tapered off the sound for a very subtle effect.

James Bowman has proceeded in much the same fashion, but because he often sings with large forces, in modern opera houses, he has expanded his voice to fill large spaces with a voluminous sound.

René Jacobs, on the other hand, has chosen to develop both his falsetto and chest registers in an integrated fashion to achieve a much more Italianate sound and a broader effective range.

How Can Men Train to Become Countertenors?

Many countertenors still find it necessary to train themselves. They simply practice singing — and sometimes speaking — in the falsetto register. Learning to integrate the falsetto and chest registers proves very useful as well. But, as with any music discipline, finding a teacher who is supportive, able, and willing to help is probably the best way for most people to learn this special and delightful manner of singing.

Steve Bryant
Originally published in “Musica!” the newsletter of the
Early Music Guild, San Francisco, California, October 1982
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