What’s the difference between a male soprano and a countertenor? Any?
One of the questions that I hear most frequently, especially after I have sung a concert with some lower repertoire, is: “Why do I call myself a male soprano and not a countertenor? What’s the difference?”
There’s a very big difference between the modern, mostly or all falsetto countertenor, usually a low mezzo soprano, and the historical one. The historical countertenor was, until at least the middle or the late eighteenth century, a chest-voice dominated voice and was usually either a low alto or a high tenor.[i] This changed in the early nineteenth century, in England, to a falsetto-dominated voice that was about a third or a fourth higher and was probably very similar to the voice of Alfred Deller. The most famous nineteenth-century possessor of this voice was probably William Knyvett, a composer and glee-singer.[ii]
The modern concept of a “countertenor” is, in the classical music market, of an all, or almost all-falsetto voice that is usually either a low or a high mezzo. Only a few falsetto countertenors, in my opinion, can sing loudly much below middle C, causing problems especially in operatic performance. I do not consider the male soprano to be a countertenor by this modern definition for a variety of reasons. Primarily, because it is confusing and, secondarily, the countertenor was always a significantly lower voice than soprano. It was as much a voice type and vocal production (though these have changed) as it was a vocal line, lying directly above the tenor. In the broadest sense, the modern male soprano is a countertenor, in that he is also using a primarily falsetto production, whatever he choses to call it (head voice, reinforced head voice, isolated falsetto, M2). But it’s still a falsetto within the eighteenth-century paradigm of only two male vocal registers.[iii]
I don’t call myself a countertenor for a variety of reasons.
A. I use a lot of chest voice, generally up to my natural passaggio between d’ and e’. I’m far more interested in recreating the voice (as far as is possible) of the soprano castrati; all of the major ones in the late 18th and early 19th centuries apparently used extensive chest voices up to a c”.[iv] As I’ve said before, the modern expectation is that a “countertenor” will use very little chest voice, at times pushing his falsetto far below the normal male passaggio of between d’ and f’. I don’t think that this is historically supported and, in any case, is an almost impossible technique to use in male soprano repertoire that regularly extends from g to c””.
B. Modern Countertenors are almost all mezzo sopranos, either high or low. I don’t wish to confuse people or have them expect something other than what I am and what I sing--soprano--though I do occasionally dip into the upper “countertenor” repertoire.
C. Modern operatic countertenors, and even a lot of church or ensemble countertenors, use, in my opinion, a modern, generally lowered/tilted laryngeal position and consequently a fair amount of throat/pharyngeal expansion to create a richer, darker sound. As this is not an eighteenth-century idea—all treatises I know condemn any kind of singing in the throat—I avoid it. This makes my voice much brighter than the typical modern countertenor, and really much brighter than is normal among all modern singers, and I’m perfectly ok with that. What I sacrifice in lushness I believe I gain in many other areas. The modern countertenor, from Alfred Deller to John Bowman to David Daniels to David Hansen, comprises a group of often very fine singers—equal to the best singers of any voice group. But I don’t sing with this method, or with this sound, or in this range. In short, my opinion is that while a male mezzo or contralto is free to call himself a countertenor, there are a number of reasons both historical and practical for a male soprano—though he is in a very broad sense also a countertenor as a primarily falsetto singer—to call himself a male soprano and not try to confuse the issue.
[i] Timothy Morris, "Voice Ranges, Voice Types, and Pitch in Purcell’s Concerted Works," Performing the Music of Henry Purcell ed. Michael Burden, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996): 140. Andrew Parrott, "Performing Purcell," The Purcell Companion ed. Michael Burden (London: Faber & Faber, 1995): 385-444. Donald Burrows, Handel and the English Chapel Royal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005): 141.
[ii] "William Knyvett" The Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review for 1820 (London: Baldwin, Cradock and Joy: 1820):472-476.
[iii] Pier Francesco Tosi, Observations on the Florid Song, or, Sentiments on the Ancient and Modern Singers, trans. and ed. Johann Ernst Galliard (London: J. Wilcox, 1743): 22-24.
[iv] Robert Crowe, "Giambattista Velluti in London (1825-1829): Literary Constructions of the Last Operatic Castrato" (PhD Diss, Boston University, 2017): 193-268