The Voice | Male Alto | Contemporary | Classical
English church music readily accommodates the high male alto voice, but only in the last half of the twentieth century was the countertenor (or ‘male alto’) welcomed into the opera house. After hearing the alto Alfred Deller singing in Canterbury Cathedral in 1944, Tippett remarked that the ‘centuries rolled back’. Tippett encouraged Deller to extend his repertory, which coincided with the beginning of the Baroque opera revival. Many roles in that repertory, written for castratos but for many years assigned to mezzo-sopranos, were reclaimed by countertenors.
Deller, and others encouraged by his success, made a new voice-type available to contemporary composers. Among those to benefit was Britten, who wrote the role of Oberon (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1960) for Deller, and had James Bowman (b. 1941) create the part of Apollo in Death in Venice (1973).
Composers usually follow Britten and consign countertenors to roles indicating other-worldliness, as in Lear (1978) by Aribert Reimann (b. 1936), in which Edgar switches into countertenor register when feigning madness. In Akhnaten (1984), Glass gave the title role to a countertenor, acknowledging the hermaphroditism of the historic figure, an Egyptian king of the fourteenth century bc.
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