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The Countertenor Connection

Every Sunday morning at 8 am, I listen to a Bach Cantata online in Germany, where I now live. After several years, I dawned on me that many recordings of Bach cantatas containing a solo alto part were performed by countertenors, and likewise, the choruses consisted of boys and men. At first I thought I was imagining it, until I tuned into a US classical music station one day, and found the same thing to be true.
 
How could this be? I decided to write a letter to the German station to express my dismay at this seeming imbalance of CD’s with male performers of treble clef music in Bach.
 
I received a reply from the programming manager– who admitted she personally preferred the sound of the female alto/mezzo voice soloists to that of countertenors – but to my surprise, said that the station was limited to the recordings available.
 
I investigated and found out that of the ten recordings of the next Sunday’s particular cantata, only three had women as alto solo performers and only five had an SATB chorus. Not even 50% representation of women.
 
I personally had long admired Countertenor Alfred Deller singing early music, but as I thought about it, I could come up with no woman doing the same in the late 50’s and 60’s. I just thought that was the way things were.  But, we’re we now in the 21st century, and my tune is very different.
 
After reflection, the answer to my discovered imbalance started to fall into place. The Countertenor connection goes back to childhood opportunities for males in Boy choirs. They represent the natural Petri dish for future Early and Baroque choral and solo performing, especially in Germany.
 
The connection is seamless. Early on, boys and young men – much more than girls and young women – get introduced to the literature, meet the conductors, and as young adults continue their studies at the conservatories, increasing their contact with (mostly male) conductors, music directors, men in the recording industry, leaving girls behind in the dust.
 
So where’s your beef you say? There are men that can sing this treble music. And they do. To the victor belong the spoils. If I look and for someone to perform the “Alto” solos, whom would I pick? Easy. Someone with experience, someone I heard on tour, someone I made a recording with or an old pal I performed with  – like little Joey from our boy’s chorus in Privilege, Oregon. He’d be great in our next recording.”
 
This is indeed a sad state of affairs, that women are often excluded or passed over from full participation in Early Music performances, recordings, and musical opportunities. Their absence in concerts and in the recording studio is wide spread and entrenched. Lost opportunity due to what? Singing ability? NO. The nature of their voices? Absolutely not. Through the old boys network and lack of opportunity? You bet. 
 
The implications for altos are enormous. For example, one of Germany’s leading choral quartets, Die Prinzen, owe their existence (and earnings) to all four having been well trained Thomaner. To this day, not one girl has been allowed into the Thomaner Chor – one tried last year and even went to court – in vain. No females need apply. No tickee, no washee.
 
I performed many times in choruses and sang tenor while enduring cracks about “fake tenors” who sang the wrong clef only when there were not enough men to create a balanced section. We’re acceptable, apparently, but not for “real” situations such as performances and recordings of Bach tenor solos or (horrors) the Evangelists.
 
So it’s okay for countertenors to sing treble parts, but not okay for Altos to sing bass clef/treble solos. And if that argument doesn’t grab you, then countertenors can play the authenticity card – Bach always performed with males. (Big surprise: Bach didn’t even recognize his daughters in his family tree.).
 
Rubbish. How about Vivaldi’s Gloria - written for, and sung by women in its first performance - and when was the last time you’ve heard the Gloria performed by women only? 
 
Still not swayed? Them let’s get to the real issue – the one way street, the old boys stiff arming aside. There is no substitute for the rich, full quality of a female Alto/Mezzo singing in her accustomed range and the depth of emotion that female singer’s voice can uniquely bring to Bach’s music. If presented with the choice, I would always program a woman for the arias in Bach, and use SATB in the chorus – or only when girls sing SA side by side with boys – or even on their own.
 
On a related topic of women singing tenor, one countertenor wrote recently in this forum that he “sang with balls, baby (sic).” Funny, the slang word for “balls,” in German is Eier, or “eggs.”  I know of only one gender with eggs.  Perhaps the psychodynamics of the language should give us a pause. Altos of the world unite! There is nothing like a  . . .  Change will start with that first girl’s choir you sing in.
 
Replies (5): Threaded | Chronological
on June 19, 2013 4:51am
Naomi,
 
You raise some good points. Even as someone who has sung countertenor professionally, I have noted times when male altos "got the part", rather than women, even though the women were clearly better singers. I would say a couple of things:
1. To some extent, fashion always dictates decisions. The same phenomenon occurred in the 17th- and 18th centuries; certainly there were times when mediocre castrati sang roles or choral parts when a female singer would have been better.
2. I also generally prefer the sound of male altos in Early Music. Part of it, though, is also vocal production. A singer--male or female--who uses wide vibrato and a good deal of portamento strikes me as out of place in a lot of Early Music. For the same reason, there are numerous Early Music recordings from the 50's and 60's (primarily Renaissance music) that I don't care for.
3. Some conductors hold to a tenuous argument that "guys sang it originally". In the case of Bach cantatas, at least there is some historical backup, but, as you note, with Vivaldi it's either misinformation, stubbornness, or perhaps it is that preference for the tone color.
 
Is there something of an "old boys" club? Yes, I suppose so. BUT, keep in mind that, at least in the U.S., there is a constant struggle for us guys to sing classical music. In other words, a guy can get on stage and scream out Guns and Roses, but if that same guy performs Handel--as a tenor OR countertenor--he's a wuss. I see this every day in my job as a middle- and high-school choir teacher: Males--particularly young males--need continued encouragement to sing.

Thanks for illuminating the elephant in the room.
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on June 20, 2013 6:44am
Great thread, thanks!!! Being someone who grew up totally jealous (and very upset) that I couldn't sing with the Vienna or St Thomas' Boys Choirs because I was a girl (my cousins were in the latter, too, fie on them!), I understand the frustration.
 
But, I think vocal production is critical, and underestimated, in making these decisions - I know at least one straight toned alto who is a better counter-tenor than any, absolutely any, counter-tenor that I have every heard. Unfortunately, she is rarely appreciated because of that tone! In a blind audtition, I would guarantee she'd get the part, but, she's a woman who doesn't sound like the "traditional" big voiced alto, so she is passed over (and is no longer a professional musician, too) And I have seen CT's get the part before her only because they were men, even though she has the best voice for it.
 
So, even more than changing the old boys network is the need to change our preconceived ideas of who should or shouldn't be singing. Choose the voice and the muscianship, not the gender (or beauty factor).
 
When chosing solos or even choristers we need to close our eyes and open our ears. We may be surprised.
on June 20, 2013 10:32am
Thank you, Eric, for your thoughtful reply. It set my brain – and heart in motion. I think my interchange with you revolves around who should sing what, the prejudice in the choral world, and missed opportunities for women, who had been denied performing for centuries.
 
This morning, I decided to revisit the Matthew Passion, which I have sung in concert, this time instead of singing the Alto, I took the role of the Evangelist. For the first time in my life, EVER, I sang the recitatives and after about 15 minutes had to get up from the piano, because I felt faint with exhilaration and excitement. The recitatives sounded right for a female Evangelist and lovely – whether at the original pitch or an octave higher. And when I went on to sing the first tenor aria Ich will bei mein Jesum wachen. It worked, too. (In fact, women did the watching, not the men, who cleared out.)
 
Women singers have (not yet) sung these solo roles, nor had the opportunity to express those tender feelings. Why? Although Bach didn’t have a woman in mind, there were female Evangelists. At the risk of appearing to contradict what I wrote in my piece, does any one gender own the performance rights to a particular vocal work/solo/ Lied/musical period? In early music, Male altos have their place, but not exclusively. And certainly, in medieval and early Baroque music, sonority is a matter of taste, but not an argument for Bach, in my opinion.
 
And if we women do have a treble clef opportunity, such as with Bach, we still get passed over many times, as I stated in the article, if countertenors want to continue to sing Bach, they should insist on the orchestra being comprised of early instruments, who lack the fuller sound  - especially in the strings. One can’t have it both ways, full sound in the instruments and not in the solos.
 
I agree with you, Eric, when it comes to singing, young men with high voices in high school are seen as wusses. Homophobia – wide spread in the vocal world – wreaks havoc with our young male singers especially in the classical arena – but also with our young women, too, who suffer a similar discrimination.
 
When the question arose at the conservatory as to whether I was a soprano or an alto there was no discussion. You sing soprano I was told. Alto was seen as a voice category for those who lacked high notes and/or women who were, well . . . you know . . . (By the way, as a choral composer, I make it a point to write for Alto 2, and low. No more of this wussy exclusive treble clef range).
 
Finally, back to this morning. After singing Bach, I turned to Schumann’s Dichterliebe, and Liederkreis. These songs I have often sung at home, but never in concert. As a student, when I went to my singing coach in Berlin, and gave him a couple of selections from those cycles to work on, he said, “ you know what kind of woman would sing these songs!  No rebuttal from this young, scared me. Instead, I ended up writing a dissertation about Schumann’s interpretation of Heine’s songs – songs I was “not allowed” to sing in public! 
 
 
Yes, music belongs to us all.  Women must take up the torch and insist on full participation. Choir directors, conductors, and recording studios have to be pressured to end discrimination, prejudice and exclusivity. It’s really up to us to put to an end to centuries of mulier taceat.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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on June 20, 2013 10:34am
Thanks, too to  you Dianna, I just saw your comments as I waa answering Eric's. More tomorrow!!  
on June 21, 2013 10:29am
Hi Dianna:
 
It's really so sad that aspirations such as yours end up in such sadness and frustration. Do you sing now? I'd be interested in knowing.
 
The woman for whom you wrote - who now is no longer singing professionally - is much like my tale. Because I could see no future at the time I was interested in early music, I went on to sublimated endeavors, such as getting a PhD and turning later and with greater satisfaction, to composing for women's voices.
 
It hasn't stopped the discriimination. Choral and music directors play a big role in whom and what gets selected for a performance. Since the majority are male, the outcome is not surprising, although I must say for my requiem to my mother, men have been more interested in the work than women, even though it is written for women's chorus.
 
I would agree with you to choose the voice and the musicianship, not the gender. One caveat: the musicianship for young girls is simply not as promoted as for boys in the long haul and women are less likely to get encouragement to go for it professionally, as the woman you mentioned demonstrates.
 
Naomi
 
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