Countertenors like Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen are giving new life to centuries-old music.
Photo by Dario Acosta
Across the four-and-a-half octave span of the human voice, the countertenor—a voice part highlighted in our production of Handel’s Saul by Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, who plays David—is the second highest for adult males. Countertenors have a range that sits between the male tenor and the female contralto, sharing some notes with both. They differ from a nearly extinct type of voice, the sopranist: a male capable of singing fully in the female soprano range. Technically, there is no such thing as a “male soprano” any more than there is a “female bass.” The singing voice has no known relationship to sexuality and is physiologically related to gender, but not to gender’s accompanying gamut of identities. The castrati reigned for nearly two centuries at the beginnings of opera and were by far its biggest stars. Scholarly books abound, but one of the greatest readings about the era of the castrati is to be found in fiction, from Anne Rice, in her gorgeous pre-vampire novel, Cry to Heaven.
If one combines all of the repertoire written for sopranist (like Sesto in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito) with that for countertenor, there is a vast amount of music, much of it unknown, and all of it conceived for preadolescent males so gifted at singing that they were castrated to prevent their voices from descending. The range of their voices was higher the younger they underwent the procedure, so the ability to identify the right time for the alteration was considered an art of its own. Castration, considered needlessly barbarous to us now, was in its time thought no more unusual than circumcision, and was similarly sanctioned by religious authorities. Opera audiences in the 18th century did not yell “bravo” to express their pleasure, they screamed, “evviva il cotello!” (“Long live the knife!”).
The last known castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, was born in 1858 and lived until 1922, and thus is the only of his voice type preserved on recording. The great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini’s fascination with the Broadway legend Ethel Merman, who he heard several times in her famous debut musical Girl Crazy, by the Gershwins, was based on what he considered her similarity to Moreschi’s voice. The Merman hallmarks were all qualities of the great countertenors: unique timbre, long phrases, and clear words.
Today’s countertenors reach their success in more organic ways than their physically altered colleagues. They sing in a reinforced falsetto, about an octave higher than their modal speaking voices, which tend to be a natural baritone. Vocal range (how high and how low) and vocal resonance (how loud and how soft) are, like climate and weather, two related issues that are distinctively separate. Countertenors have discovered where their most natural resonance lies, which may or may not be where the natural range of their voice is.
The modern countertenor exists because of the early music movement, a recent phenomenon that would have been unheard of a century ago, when audiences had little interest in music outside their own time. Thanks to the numerous scholarly pioneers of the early music movement, musicians are able to bring very old music to new life on instruments both ancient and modern, and sublime works like Handel’s Saul are being rediscovered. Most thrillingly, great young stars like countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen can give voice to music written for their colleagues centuries ago, but whose voices were silenced by time. They live on.