Kashu-do (歌手道): False Voices 1: The Modern Counter-Tenor in Opera

The title of this post is controversial and I am aware of that.  Let me begin by saying that I am not making a judgment on the artistry of counter-tenors, nor even on the validity of the voice type.  The fact that many counter-tenors make a great living and that I have taught quite a few counter-tenors over the years is enough to dispel any prejudice against the use of the male “falsetto”!  Indeed I am playing on the word falsetto, the diminutive of the Italian word, falso (false).

The falsetto as utilized by most counter-tenors is not falsetto in the true sense.  Although modern counter-tenors call themselves falsettists for the most part, their sound envelopes do not reflect falsetto patterns, generally, but something akin to that of many Rossini tenors (not all–More on Rossini Tenors in False Voices 2). It is important to explain what happens functionally in the case of such voices.  The term falsetto is too general and covers many types of sounds.

In the case of the modern counter-tenor, two types of functions are observed that are called falsetto: 1) the brilliant, powerful but relatively thin high voice that apes the middle and higher portions of the mezzo-soprano range.  Modern counter-tenors such as  Michael Chance

 and David Daniels

use what some might call “full-closure falsetto”.  It is an effect a modal phonation, but an extremely thin version of modal voice.  That is the folds are stretched very thin with little vocalis opposition.  The virtue of this is that with little vocalis resistance it is very easy to stretch to the note.  The negative part is that to created a viable tone, the singer must press the folds together considerably.  If the fold were of appropriate mass and closure, a male singer singing C5 would sound like Franco Corelli, not David Daniels.  So to make the counter-tenor sound that can be heard over an orchestra, there must be enough strength in the high overtones, which can only be accomplished if there is enough glottal resistance. Because of the very thin nature of the folds in counter-tenor singing, the folds must be pressed considerably to make up for the lost oscillation time that would have existed in full modal vocal posture, like a tenor or even mezzo. 2) The slightly breathy lower passaggio that often results when descending from the unnaturally thin upper voice has also been called falsetto by Old School Italian Teachers. In fact the original range that was referred to as falsetto was the passaggio of the male voice where breathiness often occurred before the singer develops the skill to manage the change between heavier and lighter mechanisms.

It is worthwhile to compare the same arias sung by mezzo-sopranos (again not comparing artistic quality here, but rather functional differences).  Here is Garanca singing the Tancredi aria

and Julia Hamari’s rendition of the Bach

What we hear in the mezzo versions as compared to the counter-tenor versions is that the mezzo voice is considerably richer.  This is expected because a viable mezzo uses an appropriately full (deep) fold posture that with adequate closure generates a richer spectrum of overtones, achieving a balance between low and high overtones (chiaroscuro).  By virtue of this balance, the mezzo sounds more at ease in this range.  It must also be reminded that the operatic counter-tenor (whether in Rossini or in Bach, the orchestra texture provides enough competition) is using a full-closure (or near full-closure–in most instances there is a slight gap at the arytenoidal end of the vocal folds to prevent dangerously harmful over-pressurizing)  phonation pattern at the very top of his modal range for long periods of time.

If a lyric tenor (not talking about haute contres or naturally high tenor voices that do not have to thin out to sing Rossini) sang between F4 and C5 even 50% of the time (i.e. in a mezzo middle range) with a near full-voice approximation, the amount of strain would be considerable and could reduce the quality of tone, as the amount of constant medial pressure would cause chronic pressed voice, leading to loss of the upper range.  This is precisely what we experience with even the most skilled counter-tenors over time.

Again, I am not making a musical judgment.  I chose the two counter-tenors, David Daniels and Michael Chance because I am a fan of both of them.  I heard Mr. Chance in Berlin in Johannes Passion and he gave the vocal performance of that evening, even in the presence of such giants as Thomas Quasthof in the role of Jesus.  David Daniels is a former classmate at the University of Michigan whom I have always admired for not only his great vocal abilities but his musicianship and his amazing acting ability.  We played opposite each other in Britten’s Albert Herring, his last role as a tenor (in rehearsals.  We were in different casts for the show).

So to be clear, I do not have a problem with the counter-tenor voice, per se.  However, I believe there are dangers in utilizing the voice in large operatic venues.  The male voice used in near full-closure mode at the upper extremes of the modal range cannot sustain the amount of pressure put on it in order to produce audible sounds at such large venues as the Metropolitan Opera and other large operatic and concert venues.  The wear on the voice over time is a given.  The professional shelf-life of an operatic counter-tenor is considerably shorter than that of the average opera singer.

The counter-tenor voice used in chamber music, such as the a capella group Chanticleer and others, is relatively healthy as long as the vocal technique is sound, for the simple reason that they singer does not have to exert vocal energy beyond the natural limits of the instrument used in this fashion.  Such singers can last a long time.

It is also important to note that the great pioneer, Russel Oberlin, was not a counter-tenor in the style of the modern counter-tenor.  He was referred to as a haute contre, whose voice is by my analysis that of a very high and light tenor voice.  One hears a full posture in his middle range, even if the upper extremes are a little thin by comparison:

This article in no way disputes the artistic viability of singers who make their living as counter-tenors, but it is an anatomic reality that the male voice used in near full-closure mode at the extremes of the modal range for long periods of time with substantial orchestral accompaniment in large halls is a recipe for problems.  It is also common that counter-tenors singing in large opera houses require more recovery time than the average singer after a performance.

To be fair, not all counter-tenors are alike.  Daniels has a natural tenor voice and would have been a spinto in my estimation (telling from how he sang as a tenor).  I have taught several counter-tenors who were natural baritones.  Some counter-tenors have naturally high tenor voices and in their counter-tenor singing do not deviate too extremely from the natural voice.  In such voices, the pressure is considerably less.  Darryl Taylor, another excellent counter-tenor and colleague from my graduate school days is precisely such a tenor.

I sang Papageno to Taylor’s Tamino (again in rehearsals.  We were in different casts) and he too was an excellent tenor.  The lightness of his voice as a tenor made his transition to counter-tenor relatively easy.  He already had the lighter extension and the muscular shift between the high light voice and the middle C area is more naturally managed in such voices.  In fact, Taylor’s production is closer to a haute-contre than it is to a modern counter-tenor–A kind of counter-tenor/haute-contre Zwischenfach!

Obviously, the closer the counter-tenor production is to the natural voice the healthier it is in terms of longevity for the singer.  Nevertheless, the success of such artists has to do with their singular charm, musicality and vocal beauty, all of which are subjective.  The objectivity of vocal function, as a matter of scientific facts, as much as teachers like me would like to see it play a more important part in the vocal discourse, up to now has had little influence on the business side of the operatic discourse.

Finally, one should avoid equating counter-tenors to their Castrato predecessors. The vocal mechanisms of castrati were arrested in development, allowing an adult male with full adult breath capacity to have a prepubescent boy’s vocal folds.  In other words, they were singing with the full voice of a child powered by an adult’s breath mechanism.  They were not falsettists and sang in their full modal voice as do other traditional voices.  They did not face the vocal fatigue and wear that a modern counter tenor might face.

© 03/06/2012

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