How Do You Describe The Countertenor Voice?

22

November
2010

It’s the kind of voice that defies description, a type that lies in a gray area, apparently begging for comparison. The fate of the countertenor voice is to continually succumb to analogy. It can’t just exist on its own, but has to be like something else.

A recent piece in the New York Times by Fernanda Eberstadt captures the two most common clichés (with no modest amount of flowery prose), both essentially casting it in a feminine guise.

First, the little boy analogy.

“…the countertenor — a grown man who sings like a turbo-charged choirboy…”

Then, likening it to something feminine.

“The countertenorial voice — a high girlish tone produced by using the outer edges of the vocal cords…”

Eberstadt’s title drives home the latter point: “Who Can Resist a Man Who Sings Like a Woman?”

Only in classical music do we find descriptions of men who sing in their falsetto, or who sing outside of the expected male vocal range, compared to in this manner. In other genres—American popular or world music—rarely is such similarity drawn with what has become predictable vocabulary.

It’s now the norm, reinforcing the voice type as anything but natural. Yet a well-trained countertenor most certainly produces a beautiful and organic sound.

Is there really no other way to describe the countertenor voice without comparing it to a woman or a choirboy?

(Philippe Jaroussky, one of the most famous of today’s countertenors.)

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