Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Dear Mr. Postman...

On Sunday I received an email from George Hanson, criticizing my post about Mikhael Rawls. First, George takes issue with the label, 'countertenor.'
First, the term countertenor is very inexact, and is often used as a catch-all for many different voice types or fachs.  Countertenor is perhaps most appropriate for male singers who use falsetto (often without vibrato) to sing early or baroque music.  Many singers -- who perform operatic repertoire, i.e. David Daniels -- prefer the designation male alto.  The distinction is well deserved.

George is absolutely correct that there are different labels for different types of male sopranists, as shown by this chart at Trrill. But Nick points out that labels have been fluid in the last 100 years, so 'countertenor' has become acceptable for any male voice singing in the alto range, despite the repertoire, style, or means of singing. Anglican/Episcopalian Men and Boy choirs call their male falsettists 'countertenors,' whether they are performing Monteverdi or Mauridsen. And most importantly, Mikhael refers to himself as a countertenor, so we should respect his opinion in this.

George's other quibble is with my suggestion that countertenors would not blend well with female mezzos. I am happy to accept that I could be wrong in this. I am not trained as a choir director. My own experiences in choir are limited to being a boy soprano in a boy's choir until I was 14, and singing as a baritone in my high school choir. The timbres I experienced in these two choirs were very different, something that I thought a choir director may want to avoid if possible. In Mikhael's case, he was denied singing in the All-State Choir, a group that probably only rehearses for one or two weeks before performing. With such limited time, blending becomes even more of a challenge so auditions may be looking for homogenity in timbre rather than for distinctively strong voices. But again, IANACD. What are your thoughts?

6 comments:

Jeff said...

Arh, thanks for this enlightening post. I've always thought that males who sing above the tenor range are all known as countertenors. Please pardon me for my ignorance...

I'd agree with your point though, on the fact that countertenors do not blend well with female mezzo-sopranos. They do have that masculine and earthy tone, which isn't characteristic of the mezzos. In my opinion, they'd do better as soloists instead of being in a choir, where unity is more important than individuality.

And of course, that's just some opinions from me who isn't exactly well-versed in the art of singing. it'd be nice to hear from a voice teacher or singer or just someone with more knowledge in this field.

Tim said...

I have a friend who's a countertenor (male alto), whose voice I've heard blend really well with female singers. I think it probably comes down to the individual voice as much as anything else: he has a very melifluous, 'Early Music' kind of tone.

P.S. - from the New Grove: "Countertenor. A male high voice, originally and still most commonly of alto range, though the title is increasingly employed generically to describe any adult male voice higher than tenor...."

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Tim, you're right that it is an individual effect. Therefore the Texas board was wrong to disallow Mikhael from auditioning. It would have been perfectly acceptable to decide at the audition that his voice wouldn't blend, but I was wrong to suggest that it is okay to pre-filter based on more generic bases.

Michael Tomasz said...
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Michael Tomasz said...

I am a countertenor in Texas that just recently graduated. I am in complete disagreement with Mikhael's case. It was acceptable to sing countertenor in the 17th century when women were not allowed to sing at all in any choir or ensemble. And with this there were many arias and art songs written for the countertenor/castrati. But this is a choir that *does not* sing early music, therefore the rational decision is to not allow a countertenor to sing choral music. My second argument has to do with the issue stated above, which is blending. There are very few countertenors that will truly blend with women. Most countertenors do have a straight tone which is unachievable by the adolescent female voice. (Not to say that some do not have the talent to do so, but very few do) An added vibrato to a changing voice for the boy voice in the countertenor/male alto/male soprano voice is proven to be harmful. Some who attempt this act do hurt themselves. TMEA in its decision was trying to also defend the research that they had found in the several years they had studied this issue. This is not the first time this issue has come to light for TMEA. Now from listening to Mikhael Rawls on many occasions his voice is very mature for his age. He has a pleasant quality in most parts of his countertenor range. But the countertenor voice was not meant for choral music. Solo material, yes, but not choral. That’s why its one of the highest paid solo voices, its not meant for choir. However there are many ensembles that do have countertenors in their group. But the difference is that they are all countertenors, such as Chanticleer, Kin Singers, the concord ensemble, etc. People and certain issues are different you can't legislate equality... but that’s just my opinion. Thanks for reading –Michael T.

David Justin Lynch said...

I have sung countertenor since 1966 and have more than once felt the insult of gender discrimination. Regardless of one's musical tastes, it is simply wrong for the same reasons it's wrong to exclude women from practicing medicine. However you dress it up or rationalize it, gender discrimination is what it is. In California, it's illegal as to professional singers working for a non-religious employer. When public funds or facilities are involved it's illegal, period. I'm a lawyer by trade, and I'm itching for the right case to litigate this issue, which I'll gladly do pro bono. And by the way, the Episcopal Church has a specific canon against gender discrimination in all aspects of lay ministry. This isn't a musical taste issue, but a human rights issue.