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David Daniels: A High Road to Opera Stardom

Music: The singer is drawing praise for his artistry--and earning respect for countertenors.

May 10, 1997|JOHN HENKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Countertenors have been around for centuries; the Oxford English Dictionary dredges up a 14th century reference to the high-flying male voice-type. But for many outside the early music circle, the term suggests only a P.D.Q. Bach gag--the one about the bargain countertenor. Relabeling it as "male alto" doesn't help much, at least in this country.

"In Europe, it's never a shock," countertenor David Daniels says. "I'm just another voice-type. It's important that people come hear me as an artist and not some kind of oddity, although it's going to take awhile," he adds with a sigh.

Daniels is patiently taking yet another interviewer through the ways and means of countertenorism, in an L.A. Opera office the day after the company opened a production of Monteverdi's "The Return of Ulysses," in which Daniels sings two roles. Since his 1994 debut, in another Monteverdi opera at Glimmerglass Opera, the 31-year-old American has made stage debuts with the English National Opera, the Glyndebourne Festival, the Salzburg Festival, and recital debuts at London's Wigmore Hall and New York's Lincoln Center. He was recently named the 1997 winner of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation Award--the first countertenor to take that prestigious prize.

Critics and opera conductors and directors have been unstinting in their praise for Daniels' artistry and voice, remarkable for its evenness and power across a wide range. Countertenors have come and gone--mostly leaving an impression of weedy sound and labored technique--but Daniels is one of a new breed of countertenors in whom the voice sounds completely natural.

"Technically, it's a falsetto production--it just is. I don't particularly like to call it falsetto, however; the suggestion that it's a 'false' voice bothers me," Daniels says. "I would hope that when people hear me sing, they would think it is a real voice.

"I think there are a handful of countertenors--no, I will not name names--who have been born with the voice. This is my most natural voice."

Falsetto is produced by using only the edge of the vocal chords, providing an extended upper range that's employed in music where, traditionally, female voices haven't been allowed. Today it's also used in Baroque opera, when countertenors take roles that were originally written for castrati.

In Daniels' case, falsetto gives him a fluent voice up to high A--not the very top of a good female soprano's range, but higher than most mezzos and altos can hit comfortably. On the other hand, Daniels found it difficult to push a nice mid-range tenor up into Pavarotti territory using the full vocal chords as in his speaking voice. In his senior year in high school in South Carolina, Daniels won the Music Teachers National Assn. competition as a tenor. The promise of that voice led to full scholarships at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory and then at the University of Michigan--and almost a decade of frustration.

"I struggled, just absolutely struggled as a tenor," Daniels recalls. "I could never get up into the top range. It was a situation where I found the same problems occurring when I was 25 or 26 that had occurred when I was 17. I knew something wasn't right."

The son of two voice teachers, Daniels had spent his childhood singing boy soprano parts in operas and oratorios throughout the Southeast, including an "Elijah" with Robert Shaw in Atlanta.

"When my voice changed, I never lost the ability to produce that sound," Daniels says. "In fact, when I was 17 I sang Bernstein's 'Chichester Psalms' for the same conductor in Charlotte who had hired me for the part when I was 11."

Throughout his college career, Daniels continued to sing in falsetto, at home for his own pleasure and at parties for the entertainment of his friends (always opera arias; Daniels claims no interest in any of the pop practitioners of the voice). Finally he decided that this was his true voice, and not the tenor that was giving him such grief.

"It was a very easy decision, once it was time," Daniels says. "I know it sounds like a cliche, but I really felt like the weight of the world had been taken off my shoulders, like I was 10 feet tall."

He immediately began buying CDs and listening to other countertenors; a recital program from Derek Lee Ragin, whose vocal production seemed closest to his, gave Daniels confidence in his decision. He had a professional tape of his own made, and, calling on all of his, his teacher's and his parents' contacts, began marketing himself to opera companies and early music groups.

"Then I just sort of sat back and hoped," he says. "But in reality, this career has happened very quickly."

Indeed. From here Daniels goes on to Munich for one of his signature roles, Nero in Monteverdi's "Coronation of Poppea," followed by major roles at Covent Garden and New York City Opera, the opening recital on the Great Performers series at Alice Tully Hall and then the annual Richard Tucker gala in November.

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