I’ll Counter That Tenor!

Well, the reveling sibs have clearly given in to the indolence of summer’s furnace. But lo! This morning broke cool, cloudy, and breezy over the nation’s capital and that’s when some of us get to work, like dwarves headin’ to the mines with pickaxes and a pretty girl at home.

Today on WAMU, the fantastic local NPR station whose delightfully NPRish slogan is “The mind is our medium,” there was a piece on Morning Edition about countertenors (Sibley the Younger loves the radio, if you haven’t noticed). The impetus was a new opera opening in Santa Fe called “Oscar.” Unfortunately, it’s not an operatic look at the Tragic Magician, George Oscar Bluth, but the Flamboyant Flâneur, Oscar Wilde. The countertenor in focus is David Daniels. Here is a link to the story, which Morning Edition helpfully kitted out with several examples of Daniels’s work:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/07/25/205148226/The-High-Heavenly-Voice-Of-David-Daniels

I very much like the Schubert piece there, “Nacht und Träume.” But that’s not a surprise.

The piece called to mind an episode in the Sibs’ classical education which took place during the summer of either 1998 or 1999. ‘Twas the former, I believe, but my surety is low. We gaily traipsed one evening, during Mostly Mozart, to Avery Fisher Hall to hear Bach’s incomparable Mass in B Minor. It was the first time I’d ever heard it. And beforehand, there was a lecture on the piece in whatever that penthouse is called across the street. Suffice it to say it’s not the kind that receives letters of a certain nature. All in all a magnificent evening I’ll never forget (some of the pertinent data notwithstanding), in large part because the alto part was sung by a German countertenor by the name of Andreas Scholl.

I had never heard a countertenor before (recall that I’m not the choral nerd in our dynamic duo). Chills ran down my spine when he sang the lento, haunting “Agnus Dei,” as his voice filled the hall and reverberated. It is a wonderful movement because the instrumentation is exceedingly spare, allowing the voice to take and keep center stage. You won’t be sorry for listening to it, nor indeed seeing Andreas Scholl. Danke sehr, Internet, because a recording of him singing the Agnus Dei (qui tollis, as everyone knows, peccata mundi) exists on YouTube. As Uncle Jesse might say, miserere nobis indeed.

I realize I’m glossing over the physiological curio that is the male countertenor. I remember reading an interview with Scholl once, or perhaps it was in liner notes, where he said that he realized he had this capability only incrementally as he went through his singing education and development. I once asked a male opera singer whether he could just sort of “sing along” to recorded music like we plebeians (I was kind of hoping he’d belt out something like “Just What I Needed” in his opera voice). To his credit, he didn’t preface his response with either an eyeroll or a “Duh,” but told me quite simply it was a muscle that could be flexed to varying degrees. In other words, yes, he could blend in with mortals. You’d think I would have known that already, having grown up with a diva sharing a bedroom wall!

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