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Music: He Sings Higher

4 minute read
Terry Teachout

A bearded, sturdily built man strides onto the stage and opens his mouth. Out floats an exquisitely beautiful alto voice–and the crowd starts cheering. Is it a dream? A freak show? No, it’s what happens whenever countertenor David Daniels makes another debut, as he did in April at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, and will be doing in August at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival. Seven short years ago, he was a frustrated tenor whose high notes refused to kick in; now he is racking up reviews that might make even Pavarotti envious.

Not that Daniels, 33, is likely to be cast as Cavaradossi anytime soon. Countertenors are male altos who sing in a highly developed falsetto, though few are fond of the word, which implies that there’s something “false” about a vocal technique used by everyone from baroque-music specialists to Smokey Robinson. “The way I sing is no different from the way the Motown people sing,” Daniels points out with a grin.

Daniels has always been comfortable with falsetto–the son of two South Carolina voice teachers, he warbled soprano arias as a party trick in college–but it was not until his last year at the University of Michigan that it occurred to him to start using it in earnest. After a string of bad performances in 1992 threw him into “a pretty horrible depression,” he told a psychotherapist about what he called his “other voice.” She replied that both voices came from the same person. Within days he realized his true identity as a singer; just five years later, he won the coveted Richard Tucker Award, given to highly promising young opera singers (Renee Fleming is a laureate), and made a spectacular New York City Opera debut in Handel’s Xerxes.

Though Daniels’ vibrant voice has made him the first contemporary countertenor with the potential to become an international operatic superstar, many others have had major careers. In the 18th century, falsettists regularly alternated with castrati on the operatic stage, singing the virtuoso coloratura roles of Handel and Gluck. But once the castration of boys was banned, and unaltered male singers started belting out high notes in the manner of the modern tenor, the demand for countertenors began to decline. By the end of the 19th century the voice type had all but vanished; on the rare occasions when baroque operas were staged, the male alto roles were typically taken over by women in drag.

Enter England’s Alfred Deller, who, starting in the mid-1940s, singlehandedly revived countertenor singing. Deller inspired Benjamin Britten to write the first countertenor role in a 20th century opera, Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Other singers began emulating Deller, and as the revival of interest in baroque opera picked up steam in the ’70s, countertenors became popular once more.

But many countertenors have small voices that are eerily sexless, hardly what Handel had in mind for such heroic roles as Sextus Pompey in Julius Caesar (the vehicle for Daniels’ Met debut), who kills the king of Egypt in revenge for the murder of his father. That’s one reason that Daniels makes so powerful an impression. His full-blooded alto is big enough to bounce off the back wall of the Met, with a cut and thrust that is wholly masculine, yet when he sings softly, you couldn’t ask for a sweeter sound.

The robust quality of his singing is helping lay to rest a silly but persistent cliche: that real men don’t sing alto. For years countertenors were kidded about the presumed implications of their sky-high voices. (Deller is said to have been confronted backstage once by a German fan who asked, “You are eunuch, yes?” to which the singer allegedly replied, “I think perhaps you mean unique, madam.”) And in the ’50s and ’60s, when rumors of homosexuality could still kill a career, many went out of their way to stress their manliness. But times have changed, and Daniels makes no secret of being gay. “It’s no big deal,” he says, pleasantly but firmly. “I’m very comfortable with who I am.”

He is understandably more interested in talking about his first CD, Handel Operatic Arias (Virgin Veritas); or his recent debut at New York City’s Avery Fisher Hall, a four-encore lovefest at which he sang art songs by Britten, Schubert and Ravel so gorgeously that the audience was reduced to frenzied foot-stomping; or the fact that in November he will record Handel’s Rinaldo with Cecilia Bartoli. It is all proof positive that the ex-tenor with the shaky top has definitely found his other voice.

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