Every boy soprano knows that adolescence is bearing down on him, coarsening the larynx, turning vocal cords into unwieldy bits of gristle and tearing that delicate silvery sound into a cacophony of squawks. At the same age that pianists, drummers and French horn players start to get serious, male singers have to take a sabbatical from their training. Most of them never come back. Some wait until their voices have stabilized, but by then they have to make up for lost practice time, which is one reason tenors and baritones often struggle to be agile.
But a few of those teens learn to cheat their bodies and keep producing a child’s piping tone, even while their hormones are shoving the rest of them into adulthood. Those boys do what Michael Jackson and Little Richard did: perfect their “head voice,” so that anything a girl can sing, they can sing higher. And, if they have a classical inclination, they become countertenors.
Some are phenomenal. After nearly 20 years in which the male alto David Daniels dominated his corner of the operatic repertoire, milking Handel arias for bombast, nuance, extravagance, and subtlety, his success has spawned a new generation of high-voiced males. The newest gold standard is the Argentinian Franco Fagioli, who has a voice of astounding brilliance and vast range, which he can wield as a battering ram or a feather.
Until the 18th Century, the most effective, if drastic, way of keeping a boy’s musical education intact was surgery. Castrati could become superstars, combining dramatic flair, refined musicality and gymnastic technique with a high, brilliant timbre. The legendary Farinelli could make audiences swoon with a single note: It “was taken with such delicacy, swelled by minute degrees to such an amazing volume, and afterwards diminished in the same manner to a mere point, that it was applauded for full five minutes,” an 18th Century listener reported. Castration was never a guarantee of talent or fortune, and as it came to be seen as barbaric, the practice faded out, leaving heroic arias to what one historian called “more or less strapping mezzos.”
Countertenors stepped out of the shadows in the mid ’90s, around the time that baroque operas, especially Handel’s, began tumbling out of storage and audiences were startled by their vivid colors and emotional directness. Music once thought irretrievable now seemed startlingly modern, and men who sang high suddenly found themselves with a market for their curious talents. The first generation to benefit from this renaissance had to get over their own prejudices that ‘falsetto’ meant false, that for a male to invade the soprano range ran counter to nature, and that there was really nothing for them to do. In college, Daniels and Brian Asawa thought of their sonorous high notes as little more than a party trick. A decade later, when The New Yorker published a profile of Daniels, a young baritone named Bejun Mehta read it, then put down his magazine and tried boosting his range a couple of octaves, and discovered he already knew how to sing that way.
Daniels became the first celebrity countertenor, thanks to a muscular, sun-filled, and supple voice, and an ability to burrow deep inside a vocal line. His singing is masculine and strong enough to dispel the sense of androgynous strangeness that a countertenor’s sound produces on first encounter. Having starred in various Handel operas, including, most memorably, Giulio Cesare and Serse, he staked a claim to standard repertoire that he’d once have been excluded from. He opened his recital album Serenade with Beethoven’s “Adelaide” and followed that song with four Schubert lieder, practically defying anyone to deny him the right to sing anything he wanted.
The road may be easier now, even though the novelty of this ancient practice has worn off. And while the demand for countertenors isn’t huge, the Metropolitan Opera has a few on its roster every season. Daniels’s success still leaves room for Mehta, Fagioli, Andreas Scholl http://www.emusic.com/album/andreas-scholl/o-solitude/13020385/, Philippe Jaroussky and Iestyn Davies to have careers. But what matters more than this abundance is the way the high male voice has snuck back into our repertoire of familiar sounds after a 300-year hiatus.