Fifty years ago, the only place to find a countertenor-a male voice approximately equal in range to a mezzo-soprano-was in an English cathedral choir, and Baroque opera was rarely performed. But look at the season announcement for any major opera company these days and you are likely to see a Handel opera with a countertenor in its cast. The early music revival of the 1970s brought Baroque opera back to life, and with it, the castrato roles of the 17th and 18th centuries, written for men whose castration before puberty ensured that their voices remained high and pure. The pop stars of their time, flamboyant, adored and often decadent, the castrati fell out of favor by the 19th century, when their roles were transposed for tenor or sung by women, a practice that continued for most of the 20th century.
Fast forward to the early 1990s. With Baroque opera’s increasing popularity and a more widespread interest in historical performance practice, the countertenor voice began to emerge as a new standard. Replacing the castrato, the countertenor’s high, muscular vocal range increased audience appetite for early opera and created both musical and dramatic interest.
The countertenor David Daniels has been at the forefront of this movement, and has received rave reviews for his brilliant instrument and his heartfelt performances alike. His intensity and virtuosity have made him an audience favorite as well. The New York Times wrote, “To say that he is the most acclaimed countertenor of the day, perhaps the best ever, is to understate his achievement. He is simply a great singer.” Daniels is also an advocate for the voice, seeing few limits to the countertenor’s possibilities, and taking on centuries of repertoire.
I spoke with him recently about his early training, how he became a countertenor, and what to do if you have a memory lapse on stage.
What was your earliest training? My parents were voice teachers and singers, and I studied with my mother as a boy soprano. When my voice changed, I had a pretty good tenor, but that voice never really matured beyond high school, including my years in graduate school at the University of Michigan.
In this program, you’re singing Brahms and Reynaldo Hahn, Romantic composers not usually associated with the countertenor voice. What responsibility do you feel toward broadening the countertenor’s repertoire? My only interest is to be a respectful, thoughtful artist to the music. It’s nuts to think that countertenors should only sing the Baroque repertoire; as long as a musician can bring something unique and interesting, any genre or piece is appropriate.
That said, operatically-except for Britten, who wrote for countertenor-I’ve stayed in the Baroque. I don’t have any interest in taking on Mozart’s trouser roles-he wrote those specifically for a woman dressed as a man, and there’s no one I’d rather hear sing them than a mezzo.
As far as new music, I commissioned Theodore Morrison, my choral conductor at Michigan, to write a song cycle for me, which I toured all over Europe and the U.S. New music is essential for any voice type, but I think especially for the countertenor. A new opera would be my fantasy!
At the time you were getting your university training, countertenors were not yet a regular part of the opera scene. Were you able to find teachers who understood the voice? How did you become a countertenor? I never lost my ability to sing in a high tessitura; it was always my most natural sound. When I sang in the car or around the house, it was always as a falsetto. Eventually, I approached my teacher, George Shirley, at the University of Michigan, and asked him to listen.
The week I spent preparing arias for him was the greatest week of my life-I finally had the freedom and permission to sing the way I knew I should be singing.
What was his response? He leaned back and smiled and said, “Why would you want to sing any other way when you can sing like this?” And that was that; I sang my final graduate recital in September 1992, and in October I was in Los Angeles covering the role of Oberon [in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream].
How did you come together with your collaborator, Martin Katz, and how long have you worked with him? Martin has taught at Michigan for at least twenty years. I sang for him while I was still a student, and he was just unbelievably generous toward me at the beginning of my career. Not only did he help me out through word of mouth, he helped me financially when I took my first audition in Europe. He’s a great collaborator, a partner, aggressive in a way that pushes me-and I push him back.
What would you say to someone coming to hear a countertenor for the first time? How would you describe the voice? A man who sings really high (laughs). I would hope that if someone had never heard the voice type before, they would quickly realize that I’m as serious about song, and communication in recital, as anyone else.
Are you interested in teaching? Definitely; either at the university level, which interests me a great deal, or-even more compelling-I’d like to head a Young Artists program at an opera company. I did a master class at UCSB when I was singing La Coronazione di Poppea at Los Angeles Opera. It was fun, and I loved Santa Barbara-this will be my first time singing there. I’m spending the next month really committing the program to memory.
What happens if you have a memory lapse-can you get through it? At my Carnegie Hall debut, I had a memory lapse. It was the last piece, called “Wandering,” appropriately. I stood there at Carnegie, in front of a sold-out house, as my pianist started playing. I just looked at him and said, “What am I supposed to be singing?” And of course the crowd burst out laughing.
I don’t fake very well, so if something happens on stage, my attitude is, quite simply, we’re all human. It’s live performance.
Do you spend a lot of time on the song repertoire, or on chamber music? I recently recorded Bach arias with Harry Bicket and the English Consort, which was a great experience. As far as song recitals go, this is my first American tour in four years. It’s not a terribly popular format for presenters, which is a shame. For an audience, there’s nothing more intimate, no evening more moving, than a song recital.
David Daniels performs works by Handel, Frescobaldi, Reynaldo Hahn, Peri, and others on Wednesday, January 9, as part of CAMA’s Masterseries, at the Lobero Theatre. For tickets, call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.