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United in Unusual Voice

Three of the leading countertenors responsible for the high male sound's resurgence take the L.A. stage.

February 25, 2001|SASHA ANAWALT | Sasha Anawalt is a performing arts critic for KCRW-FM

In the middle of his aria during a rehearsal a few weeks ago, blond-ponytailed countertenor David Walker turned an effortless, spontaneous cartwheel. The pianist didn't stop playing. The director registered no surprise.

The flashy agility of that cartwheel is in a sense the perfect metaphor for what has come to be known as the Countertenor Revolution, and everyone in opera is getting used to it.

Outside of opera, it's a little different. "People still say to me, 'You look like men but sound like women,' " said Walker, who sings Nirenus in the Los Angeles Opera production of Handel's "Julius Caesar," which opened Friday. "I just say to them, 'Well, we are men, so, of course, we look like men. And we really don't sound like women. We have our own voice.' "

Alone, Walker could be considered intriguing casting in "Julius Caesar." But he is joined by two more countertenors, David Daniels in the title role of and Bejun Mehta as Caesar's Egyptian nemesis, Ptolemy. The three of them are arguably the top countertenors in the world.

"This is the cast I always imagined," director Francisco Negrin told the full company--indicating not just the men, but also Elizabeth Futral (Cleopatra), Paula Rasmussen (Sextus) and Suzanna Guzman (Cornelia)--when they met for the first day of work in L.A.

He would later elaborate on the countertenor's contribution: "How many times in your lifetime do you experience the development of a whole new voice type? It's an enormous transformation. The biggest advance in this type of singing, and it is happening now. The new sound can't be compared to anything else. And, so, it forces us to listen anew."

What is that "new" countertenor sound?

The standard definition is a start--countertenors are adult males who reach into the usually female alto and soprano range using a head voice, often a falsetto. It's a contemporary version of the castrato voice--which is to say, it's natural, no surgery required. Until recently, however, it has been a truly rare voice, and serious, formal training for it was almost nonexistent. The tonal quality of the few countertenors who sang professionally was generally considered flimsy or hollow.

In the 1960s, however, the voice gained respect with the appearance of Alfred Deller, an Englishman for whom Benjamin Britten wrote the role of Oberon in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The next two generations of countertenors (including Drew Minter, Michael Chance and Jeffrey Gall) advanced the voice type by concentrating on style and ornamentation. But, as Negrin implies, there is something different about the current crop of countertenors represented by Daniels, Mehta and Walker.

All are American, and that is significant. They have found ways to successfully send their highest registers to the farthest seats, as if they were singing from the chest.

"The largest houses are in America," Negrin points out, "so there's a practical reason why we are seeing the greatest advances here."

And they are--simply--talented. The best add muscle to the beauty of tone and agility associated with the soprano voice. They are also vigorously praised as actors, complete performers.

"The countertenor is, finally, no longer a curiosity," wrote The Times' Mark Swed, reviewing Mehta in 1999 but taking into account the rest of the revolution as well.

Certainly, Daniels, Mehta and Walker come close to the sound Handel had in mind when he cast the original "Julius Caesar" in 1724 in London. Handel's best male parts--the heroes and villains--were meant for castrati, whose high but strong voices were a fixture in the Baroque sound palette. Castrati dominated opera until about 1800, when mutilating boys in the name of art was banned--which coincided with the waning popularity of Handel's operas. The male soprano roles that remained popular in the repertory, such as the many "trouser" roles in Mozart's operas, went to women, usually mezzo-sopranos.


It's only been in the last decade or so, as interest in Baroque opera has exploded, that there has been a renewed appreciation of male singers who sound like women--sort of. This time around, many think the sound is here to stay.

"I'm not a countertenor activist," says David Daniels, 34.

He may not think of himself that way, but as Opera News pointed out, "There are countertenors A.D. and B.D.: after Daniels and before Daniels."

"I just concentrate on the music. That's hard enough," he says, in response to the notion that his is the voice most responsible for the countertenor vogue. He is sitting in his rented L.A. apartment, where minutes earlier his queen-size bed was moved out to make room for a king--a size perhaps more befitting a Roman emperor.

The truth is, Daniels does think about the big picture. First, he makes the definition clear: "It is a male voice. There are no countertenor women."

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