My self-imposed ban on political cable news and internet election commentary has left something of a hole in my day, which I fill with walks and visits to YouTube to watch videos of baroque music. This afternoon I listened to a lovely performance of Monteverdi’s great duet for two countertenors [or, in this instance, a countertenor and a soprano], Zefiro torna. I first heard this piece in Sanders Theater at Harvard, with the great countertenor Russell Oberlin singing the lead voice. This must be fifty-five years ago or thereabouts, when countertenors were just making their way in the American classical music world.
The first countertenor to appear in America [in the 20th century, at any rate] was of course Alfred Deller. I heard him also at Sanders Theater, and his voice range was so unfamiliar to American audiences that Deller made it a point to make a little speech, just so folks could hear that his speaking voice was in a customary male range. Deller was not, in fact, a true countertenor, I believe, and wonderful though he was, the singers who came after him have been markedly better.
One small personal story about countertenors. Back in 1986 or thereabouts, I was driving my son, Tobias, home from high school one day and I asked, as a father will, what he had been doing lately in school. He replied that he had joined a madrigal group there which gave concerts in period costumes and all. I was delighted, and replied that when I was at Harvard as an undergraduate, I had sung madrigals with two of my friends. “What are you singing?” I asked. He replied by opening his mouth to sing a few bars. Out of his mouth came a pure, exquisite countertenor voice. I was so delighted that I said, “Tobias, that is the most wonderful thing any son of mine has ever done!” Inasmuch as Tobias’ older brother had by then earned a reputation as the strongest junior chess player in America, it was not an idle compliment.