A Countertenor is an adult male singer who uses the falsetto part of his voice more than usual to sing a higher range than the typical adult male voice. A countertenor trains himself to use the whole of the vocal cords as well to produce a rich sound, as distinct from the falsettist who makes a much slighter sound by only using the edges of the cords (or falsetto). What singers term 'onset of tone' (in layman's terms, the beginning of the sound) is perhaps the key to the different usages. A healthy voice uses both the fine edges of the cords and the 'body' of the cords. The difference in onset between, say, a baritone and a countertenor is how much of the edges of the cords are being used at the 'onset' or start. A countertenor will use a huge amount of falsetto in the onset of tone - then expanding into the rest of the cord - while a baritone will use the main part of the cord in onset, whilst having some falsetto present.
Good vocal teaching has meant that a greater variety of countertenor voices have begun to emerge in recent years. The range of a countertenor is often similar to that of the (more usually female or boy) alto, although some countertenors now attain a mezzo-soprano or even a soprano range. The countertenor voice has grown over the years, in variety of tone within the individual and within the voice type as a whole, to the point where some male singers are not easy to distinguish from female singers.
The term countertenor has its roots in sacred medieval music. The church musician chose to label the various voice parts to help the organisation of music. The tenere was the "held" note or the main vocal line - giving rise to the modern voice label tenor. The contratenore were voices that moved against (above or below) the tenere. The voices were labelled "contratenor altis" (high voice - but giving us alto which is now also a low female voice) and "contratenor bassus" (low voice - giving us bass). Over the later medieval, renaissance and baroque periods the labels evolved so that "contratenor altis" became "countertenor" in England, "hautcontre" in France and "altist" in Italy. (The further label "soprano" coming from the Italian "sopra" meaning "above").
Countertenors are often used today in baroque operas with parts originally written for castrati - a voice type which, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists. The voice is also heard in contemporary classical music where composers often employ it for its haunting quality. Church and cathedral choirs employ them as well - although women's alto voices are being heard as much as men's in British Anglican churches in the 21st century. (Cathedral choir schools are now admitting young female trebles as well as young male trebles onto their training programmes.)
The principal ambassador for the countertenor voice type in the 20th century was Alfred Deller. Originally a church singer, he was at the forefront of the early music movement. In 1948 he founded the Deller Consort , a vocal ensemble specialising in renaissance and baroque music. Deller may be best described as a falsettist, as evidenced by listening to his recordings.
Benjamin Britten wrote the role of Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream, premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1960, for Alfred Deller's voice. In so doing Benjamin Britten allowed the countertenor out of the cloistered world of the church and cathedral, onto the stage and into the 20th - and now 21st century. The role of Oberon was reprised at The Royal Opera House by the American countertenor Russell Oberlin in 1961, and has since been associated very strongly with James Bowman .
James Bowman's vocal quality was closer to the modern day countertenor than Alfred Deller's falsetto. Bowman had an extraordinarily large and focused voice which leant itself immediately to the larger opera houses and the concert platform in a way a falsettist never could, simply because of the size of voice. Since then, more and more countertenors have made careers in opera houses, on concert platforms and in recording studios - as well as continuing the church singing tradition.
The term countertenor is used much less frequently to mean a normal male tenor who uses some falsetto at the very top of his range. Another term for this is hautcontre .
In the Barbershop Harmony musical style, the name tenor is used to denote the highest part, corresponding to a countertenor. The four parts, in order, are bass, baritone, lead, tenor. The tenor generally harmonizes above the lead, who sings the melody. The barbershop tenor range is, as notated, Bb-below-middle C to D-above-high-C (and sung an octave lower).
It is thought that sopranistas also use falsetto, sometimes called 'unsupported falsetto', (there is much speculation over this unusual voice type). The sopranista can achieve a much higher range that the Countertenor.
It should be noted that although many male rock and pop artists frequently go into falsetto and use much the same range as classical countertenors, the term is never used for them: it is essentially a name used only in classical music. (Rock and pop are generally more relaxed about categorizing types of singer anyway, and the high range of the countertenor seems likely to cause some mild confusion and embarrassment if examined too closely in the context of rock machismo.
Regrettably, the part of the countertenor has been one long accused of being a somehow "false" or "unwholesome" voice because it utilizes falsetto technique. Because Castrati are extinct and the percentage of natural countertenors is very, very low, nearly the only way for a male to sing countertenor is to utilize their developed falsetto.
List of countertenors
- Brian Asawa
- Robin Blaze
- James Bowman
- Michael Chance
- David Cordier
- David Daniels
- Alfred Deller
- Yoshikazu Mera
- Russell Oberlin
- Andreas Scholl
- Bejun Mehta
- The (Un)official Countertenor Homepage