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Elbphilharmonie Explains: Counter­tenor

Countertenors can sing beautifully in a high register. What is their secret?

When Men Sing Like Women

You can normally tell with your eyes closed whether you're listening to a male or a female voice. With a countertenor it's not that easy: these male vocalists sing in the register of a woman's voice. But this has nothing to do with theatrical travesty or with the much-debated »third gender«. Nonetheless, listeners are often irritated for a moment when the voice they hear doesn't seem to match the singer's appearance.

I travel round the world and sing 300-year-old music in a woman's voice.

Alex Potter, countertenor

Countertenor Alex Potter explains his high male voice
Music: Henry Purcell – We Sing to Him

With Chest Hair and a Squeaky Voice

The (acoustic) game playing with gender roles has a musical tradition – in pop music, for example. In dazzling homoerotic performances, David Bowie presented himself as an androgynous figure outside time. And with the Bee Gees, you had to listen carefully to be sure whether it was men or women crooning into the microphone. (But all doubts were dispelled by the chest hair visible under their unbuttoned shirts.) In fact the entire disco era highlighted the contrast between deep-sounding beats and extremely high male voices – also to be heard in Dieter Bohlen's »Modern Talking«.

Like the Bee Gees, but more sophisticated

Alex Potter, countertenor

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Not of this World

However, several hundreds of years ago there were already music stars who broke with all role cliches and electrified men and women alike with their heavenly voices: castrati. As heroes and gods, and sometimes in women's costume, the castrati stormed the world's opera stages and, not unlike Bowie, portrayed beings that seemed to hail from another world. But they paid a high price: feted by ecstatic opera audiences for their virtuoso singing, they were outsiders in normal society. Yet their renown outlasted them, and some names are still known today, such as Farinelli. In the costume drama of the same name, Belgian film director Gérard Corbiau brought the best-known castrato of his day back to life on the silver screen. In order to reproduce a castrato's voice as accurately as possible, the sound technicians mixed a countertenor's voice with that of a coloratura soprano.

A scene from the film »Farinelli« with Stefano Dionisi in the leading role

Sacrificed to the Cause of Music

Starting in the 16th century, countless choirboys underwent castration in Italy in order to preserve and continue training their high voices. The process of castration keeps the larynx as small as that of a child, while the lungs, rib cage and muscles grow to normal adult size. The sound is clear and pure, and even higher than a soprano, but combined with the power of a male voice. The castrati that survived the operation and possessed sufficient talent went on to enchant their contemporaries with marvellous coloraturas, performed with unrivalled lung power and breathing capacity. There are no castrati left nowadays: the last castrato singer, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1922. A recording of him singing has even survived, though it's fair to assume that Farinelli and his 18th century contemporaries sang in a completely different style.

Recording of the last castrato singer, Alessandro Moreschi

Main Voice Types

Female

  • Soprano
  • Mezzo-Soprano
  • Contralto

Male

  • Countertenor / Contra Tenor
  • Tenor
  • Baritone
  • Bass

The Technique of the High Notes

The post-war revival of Baroque music confronted performers with an obvious problem: who was going to sing the parts originally written for a castrato? In many cases, these roles are sung by a female singer. But countertenors (also known as male contralto) like Alex Potter or Philippe Jaroussky are increasingly being chosen for castrato parts. They employ a special singing technique: instead of the normal chest voice, they use their head voice, also referred to as falsetto. This calls for a good deal of training and special talent: an inexperienced singer only produces a reedy-sounding piping in the high register.

A castrato can sing as high as two octaves above middle C, or 1175 hertz. The soundtrack in this video conveys how high that is.

For a full sound, the vocal cords in the larynx need to close as tightly and with as much control as possible, without the breathing pressure making the tone sound strained. A constant balance between not breathing and not producing a shrill tone. Moreover, the transition from the chest voice to the head voice needs to be as smooth as possible. If a man sings with a high voice nowadays, he is still in full possession of his masculinity. He won't be able to quite reach the top notes sung by a castrato, but the sound can still be very impressive.

Text: Janna Heider (last updated 23 September 2019)

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