I was just amusing myself by listening on YouTube to a beautiful performance of Monteverdi's great duet, Zefiro, torna, featuring the hot new French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, when my mind turned to a performance I heard of that piece many, many years ago in Harvard's Sanders theater with Russell Oberlin and a second countertenor [the Jaroussky performance has a soprano as second voice.] I sat in the second row, looking up at Oberlin on stage, and it may be the closest I will ever get to heaven, considering my scepticism regarding things religious. Oberlin passed away just five weeks ago, and I neglected to acknowledge the fact at the time. He will be missed.
It was in that very same venue, Sanders Theater, this time sitting near the back, that I first heard a countertenor. That time it was Alfred Deller, the first man with a soprano range voice to perform in America. Deller was not really a true countertenor, but the effect was electric. I recall that he chose to address the audience directly after singing, I suspect to prove that his speaking voice was in the expected male range.
My other favorite countertenor is my son, Tobias Barrington Wolff, who as a young man studied for a while with a famous singer and actually had a solo in the Student Chorus performance of Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms.
Nowadays there are countertenors all over the place, of course, but I can still recall the thrill that went through the audience in Sanders when Deller first began to sing. Those, those were the days.