Tag Archives: Countertenor
Making his company debut this season in the title role of Akhnaten is one of today’s foremost countertenors: Anthony Roth Costanzo. Akhnaten was also the role of his English National Opera debut earlier this year, in the celebrated Phelim McDermott staging that now comes to Los Angeles.
How did you discover that you were a countertenor?
I had been singing on Broadway and in theater for years as a boy soprano, but at 13 I reached a turning point: I was asked to sing Miles in The Turn of the Screw. I was immediately drawn to the depth of expression and the complexity of opera. Some of the opera crowd hanging around the production said, “your speaking voice seems to have changed and you have hair on your arm—maybe you’re a countertenor.” I had no idea what a countertenor was, but I soon found out and I’ve continued singing in the treble clef ever since.
Countertenors seem to spend their careers in two very distinct musical worlds: baroque/early music and contemporary music.
I love occupying these two ends of the spectrum simultaneously. It’s amazing how well the technique and approach required for baroque music serve the contemporary repertoire I’ve done, and similarly the openness, creativity and daring required for contemporary pieces serve the baroque. I do often dream of singing the operatic repertoire of the 19th and early 20th century, and I have found opportunities to explore some of those composers in recital and concert. While I will likely never get to sing Wagner (in public), I can say that Akhnaten is a lot closer to singing Wagner than it is to singing Handel.
One of the hallmarks of the score for Akhnaten—like much of Philip Glass’s music—is a continuous repetition of musical motives and patterns. It’s so beautiful, but it sounds really tough to learn.
The patterns are incredibly difficult to learn because they do not repeat exactly, but rather one phrase will repeat twice, alter slightly, and then repeat three more times, alter slightly again….etc., etc. At first, I thought I would make charts with letters and numbers, and memorize those charts, but the charts looked like advanced calculus, and I soon decided they would be harder to memorize than the music itself.
I finally realized that the only way to keep it all in my head was good old practice. It had to become part of my muscle memory. It took me about four months to internalize the music, but now that I have, it is euphoric to perform—even addictive. I can get into a groove with it that is unlike any other music I have performed. As fun as that groove is, it also requires a tremendous amount of focus. If I let my mind wander for a split second, I could find myself far out of sync.
COUNTERTENOR (13 Scrabble points) – Latin – A countertenor is the highest, adult male voice type in opera. Countertenor parts are common in Baroque opera (watch Anthony Roth Costanzo sing “Stille amare” from George Frideric Handel’s Tolomeo below) but they also gained an increased popularity in the mid to late 20th century with the works of Benjamin Britten and Philip Glass. The title character in Akhnaten, which opens at LA Opera in November as part of the 16/17 season is a countertenor part.
Can’t get enough of the countertenor voice? We’ve collected a few articles and videos below to get you in the countertenor spirit.