Opera & Musical Theater

Countertenor Leads

The Countertenor voice seems to be entering a Golden Age in opera, with countertenors ranking among some of operas biggest marquee names. Eric Skelly explores the voice and repertoire of the countertenor, the countertenor’s predecessor, the castrato, and uncovers news about the most famous castrato of them all.


Lately you may have noticed the omnipresence of a new opera star, a handsome young man with a rakish beard, gazing out from the covers of opera magazines and CD jewel cases.   His name is David Daniels, and what’s different about him from all the other gifted young singers being agressively marketed by the major recording labels, is that David Daniels is a countertenor.  So what exactly is a countertenor?!

To fully answer that question we have to look back to the heyday of the castrato, a male soprano or contralto whose pre-pubescent range was preserved into adulthood through . . . uh . . . surgical means.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, the castrati reigned.  Due to The Church’s interpretation of a certain passage in The Book of Corinthians that prohibits women from speaking in church, it fell to men to sing the soprano and contralto lines.  Boy sopranos and altos had the range, but not the lung power needed to be heard over an ensemble or orchestra.   And since the castrato’s voice never underwent the thickening that puberty would normally have brought, it possessed an extraodinary flexibility and virtuosity that (if the accounts of the day are to be believed) remain unmatched. The most famous castrati included Senesino, who created the title role in H?ndel’s Julius Caesar;  Nicolino, who created the title role in the same composer’s Rinaldo; and the most exalted castrato of them all, Farinelli, who was the subject of a lavishly produced 1994 French film which reached these shores and achieved art house success a year later.


To the relief of pre-pubescents everywhere, the demand for castrati began to decline in the late 18th century.  By the late 19th century they were all but extinct, with one Alessandro Moreschi making the only existing recordings of a castrato in 1902-3.

With the castrato rapidly disappearing, women became the inheritors of opera’s gender-bending tradition.  Where before castrati took the roles of young male characters in opera, now those roles were going to female sopranos and mezzos.

These are the travesty, or trouser, roles that are staples of the late 18th and 19 century repertoires.  Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Oscar in Verdi’s A Masked Ball, and Octavian in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier are some of the most famous examples of trouser roles that remain in the standard repertoire today.

All the while, since at least the very inception of opera in England, the countertenor waited in the wings for his time in the spotlight.  It seems that time has come.


Ask any three experts “how does a  countertenor produce that sound?” and you’re almost assured of getting three different answers.  Like most issues regarding human voice production, it’s all very subjective and somewhat mysterious.  The Oxford Dictionary of Opera states unequivocally that the countertenor’s sound is naturally produced (like any other classically-trained voice) and is not to be confused with falsetto.  Yet in an interview before his 1993 HGO debut, Brian Asawa – one of the most successful and brilliantly gifted countertenors before us today asserted equally unequivocally that any countertenor who claims he isn’t a falsettist is lying.

I don’t know about you, but I’m inclined to believe the guy that’s out there pulling in big fees on the international opera and concert circuit as a professional countertenor.  While all countertenors may not rely exclusively on their falsetto registers, it seems reasonable to believe they spend the majority of their time in that “extra” high register, judiciously dipping down into their “natural” voices as the occasion and their own individual technique dictates.


The countertenor repertoire is centered on the great baroque operas, especially those written for the castrato voice by Georg Frideric H?ndel.  However, modern composers (British composers in particular) have led a 20th century rediscovery of the distinctive countertenor voice.  In casting a countertenor as the fairy king Oberon in  his setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), Benjamin Britten employed the otherworldly, androgynous sound to brilliant effect.  Philip Glass gave to a countertenor the title character in Akhnaten, which had its 1984 American premiere at HGO.

These days, countertenors are claiming roles traditionally considered the territory of their female colleagues.  In short, they’re starting to take over the trouser roles.  Polish countertenor Jochen Kowalski has sung Count Orlofsky –  traditionally a mezzo role – in Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus in many of the world’s great houses, and Brian Asawa has committed to film his Baba the Turk another mezzo staple in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

Any discussion of great countertenors would have to begin with the English Alfred Deller (1912-1979), the first Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Deller’s successors were the British James Bowman and the American Russell Oberlin.

Now, in addition to the aforementioned Americans Daniels and Asawa, we have a plethora of countertenors trodding the world opera and concert stage.  In addition, the countertenors we hear today eschew the “hooty” sound associated with the voice type (if you want to hear for yourself, find a copy of the Britten A Midsummer Night’s Dream conducted by the composer, featuring Deller’s eerie Oberon).  Today’s new generation of countertenor sports a brighter, more vibratoed, operatic sound than their forebears.


Houston is certainly familiar with the countertenor sound.  In addition to the American premiere of Akhnaten with British countertenor Christopher Robson in the title role, HGO produced a sensational production of H?ndel’s Julius Caesar in 1989 (directed by British film and theater director Nicholas Hytner), boasting no less than three countertenors: Australian Graham Pushee in the title role, Christopher Robson as Ptolemy, and from France, Dominique Visse as Nirenus.

Interestingly, at this time when the countertenor boom is in full swing, the most famous castrato of them all is back in the news.  On July 12 the Farinelli Study Center announced that the remains of Farinelli (buried in 1782) have been exhumed in Bologna, so that scientists can measure his skull and bones and study his vocal mechanism.  Their goal is to take advantage of modern technology to learn more about what gave the castrati such phenomenal range and power, and look further into what effects his intensive training and surgical alteration had on his body and vocal apparatus.  Through the DNA testing they’ll even study what he had to eat and what illnesses he had.

Apparently, once you’ve enjoyed more fame than Madonna, Brad Pitt and Michael Jordan combined as Farinelli did in his time, not even death and a couple of measly centuries is enough to deny you your rightful place in the headlines.