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Fascination Countertenor

A consideration of the role profile of the countertenor in contemporary music theater.

From 18.05. to 29.05.2022 the festival "Ja Mai" took place at the Bavarian State Opera, in the framework of which two music theater works by the contemporary composer Georg Friedrich Haas were brought to the stage. (We previously reported on the second edition of this festival this year in this magazine). Combined with music by Claudio Monteverdi, this contemporary music entered into a dialogue with the beginnings of music theater in the 16th century. The cast lists for the two pieces featured a total of three countertenors, a surprisingly high number for someone who is used to the casting of 19th century operas in particular. Even more surprising, perhaps, that these countertenors were not used in baroque music, but in Haas' compositions. Perhaps not so surprising, however, if one considers the frequency with which this voice is now used in the works of contemporary composers.

But what is the reason for this fascination that we obviously feel for the countertenor? Why has this voice, which became rare in the 18th century and disappeared completely in the 19th century, been in such demand again since the last century?

The answer to these questions seems at first to be twofold. Where does the interest in the context of historically informed performance practice come from, and why are contemporary authors interested in this vocal subject? In the next step, however, the answers are closely related: The attraction lies - especially in relation to scenic performances - in the link between the high voice and the male body on stage. This paper explores this relationship between body and voice and its significance for contemporary musical theater. My thesis is that through the discrepancy of voice and body, the countertenor on stage can be understood as a border dweller and as such is a representative of the extraordinary. This is reflected in the roles written for this vocal subject.

The paper begins with a brief historical overview to explain the new discovery of countertenors and to present their relationship to the - literally - extinct vocal subject of castrati. This is followed by a consideration of different understandings of gender and a reflection on how the countertenor should be positioned in this context. In the third part of the work we observe the role profiles of countertenors in contemporary mysic theater pieces.

I. The Countertenor


When Michael Tippett hears the singer Alfred Deller sing one afternoon in 1943, he is enraptured by the otherness of his high voice. "...this was the voice for which Purcell had written" (Tippett 2014, p.1). Ravens describes in his treatise on the high male voice that it was Tippett who suggested to Deller to describe his technique of singing with the term "countertenor," recalling the English countertenors of the 17th/18th centuries (Tippett 2014, p.2). With the historically informed performance practice of the 20th century, this voice part became more in demand, as it was thought to be an adequate substitute for the voice part of the castrato.

Ravel, however, points out that this idea of authenticity is highly deceptive, as there is a great difference between the voice of the castrato, which has been altered in its development by surgery, and the countertenor, who sings high through falsetto (Tippett 2014, p.214f). First, however, it is worth considering the historical development of these two voice subjects.

Often the emergence of the castrati is linked to the prohibition of women to speak in church in the 4th century AD (Herr 2013, p.26). At first, this vocal subject spreads in sacred music. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V forbids laymen (and thus also women) to perform in public in Rome. By this time, there is already evidence of castrati on the European music scene, especially in Italy.

The idea of the castrato replacing the female voice seems to be as much about vocal color as it is about a representation of the female sex. This is very evident in their importance in the fledgling genre of opera "They appear in the dramma per musica as gods and heroes, but they are also seen in female roles, this mainly because of the widely known ban on women performing in Rome, but occasionally elsewhere. While in the early stages of opera history casting castrati is the exception, this changes during the seicento and castrato voices become indispensable to opera" (Herr 2013, p.115). A clear distinction is made between the "natural" voice of the castrato and the unnatural, false (-falsetto) voice of the countertenor (Herr 2013, p.73). The castrato is considered the more perfect voice, while the countertenor is often cast in parodic roles. As restrictions on women's performances were gradually lifted in the 17th-18th centuries, castrati no longer appeared in female roles. Countertenors, male alto voices, on the other hand, are definitely still used in female roles. This is mostly done for comedic purposes, especially when the masculine in a woman is to be portrayed. A typical role profile would be the old wet nurse, who was often filled by a man to represent the loss of femininity in old age (cf. e.g. Knaus 2012, pp.199-213).

Around 1800, the tenor replaced the castrato more and more, and the vocal subject of the countertenor also became increasingly uncommon. Gioacchino Rossini's "Tancredi" (1813) and Giacomo Meyerbeer's "Il crociato in Egitto" (1824) are considered the last two major operas with castrati (Herr 2013, pp.395-413). At this point we return to Alfred Deller and his voice "for which Purcell had written" (Ravens 2014, p.1). Indeed, there are theories that Purcell himself sang Belinda in Dido and Aeneas in the premiere (he demonstrably sang in an alto voice range), but it turns out that often contemporary reception does not clearly differentiate between roles written for a castrato or for a countertenor. As described at the beginning of the chapter, the vocal technique of the countertenor is fundamentally different from that of the castrato. Accordingly, the sound experience is completely different. Nevertheless, the use of countertenors has become increasingly popular in recent decades, especially in staged works.

Simon Ravens, in his volume: The Supernatural Voice. A history of male singing, about the fascination countertenors have for the classical music scene, when the desire for authenticity cannot actually carry any weight:

"Musically, then, the benefits of counter-tenors taking operatic castrati roles may be more apparent than real. And dramatically? Fundamentally, we need to ask whether the most obvious apparent gain-of seeing men playing the parts of men-actually brings us closer to an understanding of baroque drama. After all the castrati were figures of sexual ambiguity par excellence, and nothing in our experience of these roles is likely to reflect this more accurately than a female with a relatively straight voice and an assumed 'masculine' stage persona" (Ravens 2014, p.215).

What is interesting here is precisely this notion of stage persona. It is obviously not about a purely acoustic fascination, but about a visual effect that is apparently, contrary to what Ravens suggests, decisive for the casting of a countertenor in a castrato role. This visual effect plays a role, of course, especially in staged works.

Male body, female voice

"It is my opinion that the majority of adults still retain the primitive notion that the serious singing voice must express sex in the most obvious way of all: pitch. So this prejudice now stands in the way of art. Perhaps for prejudice we should read custom: custom that a woman`s singing voice must always sound higher than a man`s merely because speaking voices do." (Gilles 1982, p.6)

In this quote from his book The Counter Tenor, Peter Gilles addresses the irritation audiences feel when they hear a high voice they would categorize as female and see a body they recognize as male. This question of gender was and is always immanent to the castrato as well as to the countertenor. Anne Fleig's theory of body stagings points out that the actually male body of the stage persona must play a role in this:

"The double constitution of the human body can be exemplarily illustrated by the model of the theater. The bodies of an actress or a dancer produce and are signs, they are sign-bodies, semiotic bodies. But they are at the same time medium, materiality and corporeality, signifiers that are never completely absorbed in the sign or have always already exceeded their sign function." (Fleig 2000, p.12)

If the countertenor is on stage, the presence of his body thus necessarily plays into the reception by the audience. Following this theory, it will have been the same with the audience of the castrato. The question that the presence of the countertenor on stage raises is that of gender. Always immanent in his performance, at least subliminally, is the discourse of how we as a society define and categorize gender.

For a long time, human gender identity was understood rather as a spectrum on which one can reach different levels of masculinity/femininity.

For example, in Entgrenzungen des Körpers, Erika Fischer-Lichte refers to the concept of body warmth that Aristotle recorded in Five Books of the Procreation and Development of Animals. According to this, the feminine is associated with cold and the masculine with warmth. According to this, animated discussions in an upright posture or athletic training helped to increase masculinity. On this spectrum of masculine/feminine, warm/cold, however, there were gradations, such as a feminine man or a masculine woman. Gender was thus a rather fluid field, on which the countertenor/castrat could certainly be classified (cf. Fischer-Lichte 2000, pp.21-25).

In the course of time, the boundaries between male and female became more and more solidified, so that they can rather be described as two fields separated by a border. Let's take a brief look into the concept of social and biological gender that Judith Butler posits in "Bodies of Weight".

"If social gender consists of the social meanings that biological gender takes on, then biological gender does not accrue social properties, but rather is replaced by the social meanings it takes on." (Butler 1997, p.26).

Thus, in the search for its gender identity, the subject tares out the boundaries of these social meanings. In doing so, "the "I" neither precedes nor follows this process of gender identity emergence, but emerges only within the matrix of gendered relations and as that matrix itself." (Butler 1997, p.29) Accordingly, social gender constructs itself in time. Conventions may well change over time through "ongoing repetitions of norms" (Butler 1997, p.32). However, they are divided by a heterosexual dialectic of male and female. "Thinking about how and for what purpose bodies are constructed will therefore be as important as thinking about how and for what purpose bodies are not constructed, and furthermore, it will be important to ask how bodies that fail in materialization provide the necessary "outside," if not the necessary support, for those bodies that qualify as bodies that matter with the materialization of the norm" (Butler 1997, p.40).

What does this mean for the role of the countertenor or castrato?

In the simplistic description that Peter Gilles faults, the countertenor (likewise the castrato) is a person whose biological sex is male. He seems, however, to have "failed" in materialization, since one of his essential physical characteristics, the voice, is assigned to the feminine according to the conventions of social gender. He thus finds himself in an in-between space, between male and female, and does not clearly place himself on either side. It is also interesting to note that, according to Butler, he thus represents a fortification of the bodies that conform to the norm. One reason for the audience's and artists' fascination with the countertenor could therefore lie precisely in this fortification of one's own identity, or in pointing out the boundaries of the same.

No matter which conception of gender is considered, the countertenor always finds himself in an in-between. He is a border dweller between female and male, the paradox that he represents eludes categorization.

It is striking that exactly this idea of an in-between/inhabiting the border also determines the constitution of the figure of the monster. Completely detached from all the negative connotations that this word has in our linguistic usage, the monster is first of all a figure that represents the Other. Surprisingly close to Butler's description of the boundaries between social genders, Bogards, Holm, and Oesterle describe in the preface to the anthology "Monster. Zur ästhetischen Verfassung eines Grenzbewohners" (On the Aesthetic Constitution of a Border Dweller), describe the border zone in which the monster is located "as a fuzzy but concrete zone within which positions and relations must always be renegotiated" (Bogards 2009, p.9). Comparatively, Butler:

"This zone of uninhabitability will provide the definitional boundary for the realm of the subject; it will constitute that site of feared identification against which-and by virtue of which-the realm of the subject will delimit its claim to autonomy and life." (Butler 1997, p.23)

This in-between of the monster is first reflected in its corporeality. "It is mixtum of at least two separate realms - human/animal/plant, organic/inorganic, life/death, real/fictional - or even of two or more species, genders, individuals, media" (Bogards 2009, p.9). Through the monster, these boundaries, which can be social, political, aesthetic, or religious, are questioned and widened. It is thus a reflective being, just like Butler's "failing bodies."

The appearance of a countertenor, or castrato, on stage initially thematizes this discourse insofar as it fulfills this very condition of the mixtum between two sexes. This explains the abiding interest in the casting of a countertenor in castrato roles in the context of historically informed performance practice. Although the acoustic experience, may not be authentic, the performative aspect of the male body on stage is. This understanding of the countertenor as a border dweller, as a representation of the Other, makes him at the same time interesting for contemporary composers.

II The Countertenor in Contemporary Music Theater

With the historical performance practice, the countertenor thus moved into the focus of the classical music branch of the 20th century. However, the fascination that this vocal subject exerted was not limited to Baroque music. Contemporary composers in particular also fell for the fascination with the high male voice. In the following, we will look almost exclusively at music-theatrical compositions in order to further explore the aspect of the body on stage.

Benjamin Britten was one of the first to write the role of Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960) for a countertenor, probably inspired by the voice of Alfred Deller, who also sang the premiere (Ravens 2014, p.206f). Over time, the market for countertenors thus developed, and with it the training of their voices. At the same time, of course, the new vocal subject presented composers with a challenge. The interest and the problems of the composers of this time, is shown very impressively in a statement by Philip Glass, which he made regarding the title role of his Ahknate, premiered in 1983:

"I had no special problem writing the music, except for the counter-tenor part itself. Here I was working with a voice unfamiliar to me. [...] The attraction for me in using a countertenor for Akhnate must, by now, be obvious. The effect of hearing a high beautiful voice coming from the lips of a full grown man can at first be very startling. In one stroke, Akhnate would be separated from everyone around him." ( Ravens 2014, p.218)

He expresses here, on the one hand, the difficulties of working with a vocal subject that is initially unknown and also still in the process of development and exploration. But at the same time, he also points out the fascination that the countertenor has. It's interesting that he talks about the effect of hearing the high voice and seeing the man. So here again we find a hint that the interest in the countertenor is always visual. Moreover, he addresses the effect of this ambiguity on the relationship with the other characters, who are occupied by more "traditional" voice subjects. For him, this lies explicitly in the fact that the figure occupied by a countertenor, separating itself from the others, has a unique value.

The list of contemporary composers who have written roles for countertenors to date is long (as far as one wants to call a list of contemporary musical theater composers long). They all used the countertenor in their specific way, but the idea of the Other, always seems to be closely linked to it.

Kordula Knaus examines in the essay "Von Ammen, Müttern, Schwestern und Göttinnen: The Use of High Male Voices for Female Stage Characters in Opera," explicitly examines the use of the countertenor in Isabel Mundry's work. Mundry (superficially consistent with the role of the countertenor in the past) casts women's roles with this vocal subject. "The use of countertenors in female roles, even in contemporary opera, involves interpretive acts that in any case go beyond corresponding processes in conventional casting decisions. A "neutralization" of the gender factor is not possible" (Knaus, 2012, p.211). Instead of a parody of the masculinity of the woman portrayed, however, a role is now rather designed that poses questions about the construction of femininity. A reflective figure, then, who plays with boundaries and questions social gender.

Another composer who repeatedly deals with the vocal subject of the countertenor in her work is Olga Neuwirth. Due to her recurring themes of strangeness and otherness and her interest in the infinite possibilities of the voice and sound, her preoccupation with the countertenor is obvious. She is especially interested in the other side of the voice, apart from the falsetto. "Other composers may have politely deferred to their counter-tenors by exclusively writing for their falsetto register, but in her 1994 Five Daily Miniatures Neuwirth also lays bare the uncomfortable underside of the voice. Here, there is no room for semantic quibbles to distinguish between modal and speaking voices, since the singer is required to speak (or at last sprechstimme) modally" (Ravens 2014, p.219). It is precisely the contrast between the high falsetto and the male speaking voice that seems to interest her. This goes hand in hand with her desire to deconstruct sounds, to reveal how they work, and to play with the audience's perception (Van Treeck 2020, p.115).

In the late 1990s, Neuwirth became insistently involved with the singer Klaus Nomi. Born in Immenstadt in 1944, the singer made a career in New York in the 1970s/80s as a countertenor active in the popular music scene. His music ranged from pieces of the 16th century to the (especially American) popular music of the 1970s. He was conspicuous not only by his voice and his special style, but also by his very artificial stage appearance, reminiscent of an alien. So already his self-presentation speaks of an otherness. In 1998 Neuwirth's songplay Hommage à Klaus Nomi celebrated its world premiere. It reinterprets pieces from his repertoire with technically produced and manipulated sounds, breaking the boundary between pop music and serious, classical music. For her, according to Bernhard Günther, "the aesthetic attitude of the permanent outsider [...], which Nomi has elevated to a principle, has long since become the only plausible one" (Günther 1998, p.172).

With her countertenor-roles she is emphasizing the role of the Other, which arises with his function as a border dweller. Olga Neuwirth, in talking about her work herself, repeatedly connects the roles she writes for countertenors with an idea of the Other. In doing so, she makes use of the critical potential above all in "Bählamm's Fest" (1999). the countertenor Jeremy, a wolf-man, is a border dweller par excellence. He is a mixtum between human and animal, which is also reflected in his voice through electronic alienation. Last appearing as a ghost he is even a mixture of life and death. Precisely through this and through this exaggeration, which characterizes the figure, Neuwirth hopes to depict a reality, or to convey a social critique.

The Mystery Man in "Lost Highway" (2003, a film opera after the David Lynch movie from 1997) also represents the Other, since he seems to stand outside the plot. Needless to say that he is a countertenor as well. He can intervene in the narrative and manipulate it, and thus differs significantly from the other characters. Andy, the second countertenor in the play, does not have this prominent function, but he too exists as the same character in both storylines, so can be understood as a border crosser.

Materially, both roles (the Mystery Man and Jeremy) seem to take on the role of the other in the film, and the drama, respectively, even as they are created. Their casting by countertenors is quite understandable in this context.

Sonically, Neuwirth plays with the voices. Jeremy's is heavily electronically manipulated, which makes it seem even more unusual. Mystery Man plays with the falsetto and the modal position, thus increasing the irritation even more. In addition, Neuwirth works decidedly with his absences or presence on stage, thus intensifying the question of the body even more.

III: Conclusion

So what is the "fascination countertenor"?

The focus here is on his scenic performance, that is, his significance as a body on stage. It has become clear that the basis of this fascination is the discrepancy between body and voice. According to Butler's theory, he can be placed in the category of failing bodies. His social gender is disrupted by the "feminine" voice. Through his failure, Butler argues, we can feel fortified in our social gender. If we look complementarily at the definition of a monster, certain parallels reveal themselves. This helps understanding in that the countertenor can be understood as a borderline dweller. As such, he holds a strong reflexive potential. His presence stimulates the audience to recognize and question boundaries. These boundaries can refer to the most diverse areas of social life.

Through this consideration, it becomes clear that certain discourses always initially resonate with the countertenor. It seems to be these discourses that continue to associate him with the castrato and that, despite the vocal discrepancy with the latter, make it interesting to cast him for roles written for castratos.

The countertenor, like the castrato before him, is thus surrounded by an aura of the extraordinary, the other, the wonderful. Thus he becomes at the same time a reflection surface for the question of the "normal". Perhaps Neuwirth's answer to this is that, in the final analysis, this normal does not exist, because all her characters are connected to the abnormal. But this question demands a more detailed consideration of her works, in another work.

Signed: Wein in den Muscheln

Pont - l'Abbé, Juli 2023


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Christine Stein, Dominik Frank: Fimtcast. Ein Audio-Opernführer. Folge 8. Seien Sie niemals hässlich. 29.11.2019. unter: "Seien Sie niemals hässlich" - der fimtcast ("Bählamms Fest" von Olga Neuwirth) – fimtcast | Podcast auf Spotify, letzter Zugriff: 30.05.2022, 15:10h.

Ja, Mai | Bayerische Staatsoper - Bayerische Staatsoper, letzter Zugriff: 29.05.2022 10:00h.

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