What is a countertenor?

Countertenors are increasingly becoming the sweethearts of the world of classical music. 

Their forebears, castrati, were likewise the rockstars of 18th-century Italy—but they were also tragic eunuchs to the kingdom of art. Musically gifted boys would undergo an act of barbarism in the name of preserving the purity of their sound—no longer able to produce testosterone, they could aspire to transcendental, yet tainted, beauty. (Find out more in this documentary with Cecilia Bartoli…)

Portrait of Farinelli by Jacopo Amigoni (1750)
Portrait of Farinelli by Jacopo Amigoni (1750)

With the revival of Baroque repertory, countertenors such as Phillipe Jaroussky are regaining some of the notoriety and exposure of the maimed 19th-century idol.  No longer just supplying Europe’s Papal houses and the choir of King’s College Cambridge, countertenors are now in high demand for operas and festivals the world over. 

So what does it sound like? The countertenor voice has been described as pure, otherworldly, ephemeral, sultry…and is far from being a one-trick-pony. Why not listen to examples for yourself?

The Lamb

Bach’s B-minor Mass sneaks into this operatic line-up as a piece that is neither entirely sacred nor totally profane, but that is undoubtedly a gift for the countertenor voice. Bach capitalizes on the bell-like purity of the high male voice to reflect the purity of the Lamb of God.

The Boy

George Benjamin’s Written on Skin plays on the same idea of innocence. In this gripping performance at Aix-en-Provence, the vocal lines interweave hypnotically as Agnès (Barbara Hannigan) realizes that the Boy (Bejun Mehta) has drawn her picture—a picture of forbidden love. Britten writes brilliantly for the countertenor voice:you can’t take your eyes off the fated couple as the distant, ethereal Boy comes crashing down into carnal, suffocating nearness. Don’t forget to breathe.

The Tragic Lover

The role of Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo and Euridice is often played by a woman nowadays, with Kathleen Ferrier famously singing the role at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1947. However, in 1991, London’s Royal Opera House decided to cast a countertenor rather than a mezzo or contralto as Orfeo. This production has a bit of Rent about it, with the countertenor voice bringing another layer of vulnerability to the figure of the tormented musician. 

The Villain

Tolomeo from Handel’s Giulio Cesare is played brilliantly by Christophe Dumaux in this Glyndebourne production. In his exchanges with Cleopatra (Danielle de Niese), he is at once ambiguous, vulnerable, poisonous, and petty. He makes our skin crawl, but he also has a perverse seductive power—in short he’s the perfect villain…

The Loveable Eunuch

In the same Glyndebourne production, which exploits gender bending and wit to great dramatic advantage, we are introduced to another incarnation of the countertenor—this time the Queen’s coquettish confidante, Nireno…

So why the multiplex attraction of countertenors now? Perhaps it’s got something to do with their remarkable versatility. From lover to villain, the evolution of the countertenor reflects the ambiguous times we live in. Being a man, as Jaroussky puts it, is about more than being “brave” or “a warrior.” Just as Shakespeare’s comedies capitalise on fluidity of gender, so do our changing perceptions of masculine and feminine find voice (literally) in the 21st-century countertenor. 

The castrato cult, and its cries of “One God and one Farinelli!” have ceded to a new cult—that of the countertenor—and season after season, new high-pitched voices are being initiated into the dialogue. One such voice belongs to the Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński, whom we had the privilege of broadcasting in a stunning program live from Verbier Festival! If you’re not already a countertenor fan, you’ll soon be converted…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.